Jul 07 2008

Cliche Superhero Characters: National Paragons (“Captain Ethnic”)

One common superhero archetype is the national paragon, a hero designed to represent a country, ethnic group or other group of people.  The most obvious example is Captain America, but the list is long.  For example, Hadji from Johnny Quest exists only to charm snakes and hack computers.  (Also, have I mentioned that “haji” is an ethnic slur?)

Here is a list of potential problems with using national paragons…

1. It usually suggests that the author doesn’t understand other cultures well. For example, one common problem is that the author assumes that other countries are pretty much mirror images of his own. For example, “Captain Germany” might wear a flag-themed suit like Captain America’s. That strongly suggests that the author doesn’t know a thing about German culture or its aversion to anything remotely nationalistic. Captain America’s costume is almost always a poor choice of costume inspiration for most national paragons because it hailed from a time that was nationalistic even by American standards.

2. When authors write national paragons, they usually rely on tired cultural tropes. For example, Japan’s hero will almost always be a samurai or ninja. An African hero will probably resemble Black Panther, a romanticized pre-modernite. His superpowers probably involve some primitive weapon like a spear, his ancestors or his close connection to animals. Even though the author may not intend a noble tribal warrior to come across as a slap at Africa, it’s virtually impossible to avoid that.

3. If you want to draw all the characters from the racial and ethnic majorities of their countries, please include an in-story explanation. Why does an American or French paragon have to be white? For example, the UN bureaucrats selecting the team members want the Japanese member of the team to look “like Japan,” not like one of those damn Ainu or whatever. Perhaps the team’s organizer thinks that a white American is more likely to generate public and media interest than a black.  Or China would flip if its representative were selected from outside the Han majority.   There’s great potential for comedy here, especially if you want the organizers of the team to come off as calculating and callous.

4. If you have to use non-English words to name the characters, please avoid politically tainted words (Blitzkrieg, Kamikaze, Ubermensch, etc). If you think a mainstream German character might call himself Blitzkrieg or Ubermensch, you have no business writing a German character. If you plan to violate this rule, please provide an in-story explanation. For example, perhaps the team’s organizer names the German “Ubermensch” because it seems to have a heroic connotation a la Superman.  Wrong!   (Also.  Please don’t name third-worlders anything with an animal– thanks).

5. National paragons usually come across as representatives of a group rather than individuals. It’s very hard to fix this. If you’re writing your characters to be “typical” representatives of a group of people, they can’t be individuals. You may be able to overcome this problem by giving the character some traits or mannerisms that aren’t typical for his nation or ethnic group. (If you find yourself saying that “No, I can’t have him do that, because a [member of nation X] wouldn’t,” you’re probably sticking too closely to the idea that he’s just a representative of that nation). Be flexible! Readers will appreciate it.

6. If you give specific national origins to the Asian and European members of the team, please do the same for the South Americans and Africans. If you don’t, please provide an in-story explanation.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Cliche Superhero Characters: National Paragons (“Captain Ethnic”)”

  1. Tyon 15 Oct 2008 at 5:24 pm

    I was looking at my list the other day, I have 60% males versus 40% female, which I think is fair. But I’ve got all whites. I feel I got to write what I know, and as a white (Canadian) male it’s hard for me to write stories based around anyone else. I have lots of female friends, dated a few (mostly all white too) so I have some understanding of how to write a character like them. I said to myself a while ago ‘I need a black character’ and then I said ‘why?’ I feel like if I were to include a black, Asian, or even a European person I would simply be doing so to ‘pander’ to that particular group. ‘Oh why did you make this character Asian?’ ‘Because there weren’t any Asians.’ That seems like bad writing to me.

    I actually am going to include a lightly tanned skinned woman (Italian or Portugese) But other than that, I can’t see a way to include any other groups.

  2. B. Macon 15 Oct 2008 at 5:58 pm

    As an American that’s only been to Canada a few times, I’m not that familiar with Canadian demographics. However, I’m dimly aware that Quebec has many Francophones and that Canada has a large proportion of foreign-born residents (as many as 20% by 2017?)

    Please don’t feel obliged to use either a Francophone or a foreign-born Canadian, but I think it may be worthwhile to briefly mention in-story why the group doesn’t have any, if that is the case. You could treat it light-heartedly (when they were putting together the team, they were more concerned about criteria like how many bullets the applicant could survive than his ethnicity). Alternatively, you could make it a little darker– will a Francophone be able to understand a teammate that’s screaming in a combat environment? Either way, I think that it will help you remind readers of other ethnicities that you haven’t forgotten that they exist, even though the team doesn’t have anyone that looks like them.

  3. Tyon 18 Oct 2008 at 3:21 am

    Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t even think of that. They chose people not based on their skin color but based on their powers. DUHH lol I feel embarrassed that I was focusing on the color (I usually try not to do that, but apparently I did it in this). I feel like chef in the episode ‘Chef goes NAnners’ from South Park.

    And it does leave open a few other story lines, they get accused of racism, they hire a foreign hero who speaks no English and they don’t know what he’s talking about. There is also some resentment between Quebec and the rest of Canada that I could touch upon. So once again, thank you B. Mac!

  4. krrackknuton 31 Mar 2009 at 10:48 pm

    It’s actually very simple. Follow all these rules, and then partner the Captain Ethnic/National Paragon with another character of no obvious nationality. For instance, Commander France and Blaster, the dynamic Duo of Paris!

    Or the other thing you can do is have the NP not know why he chose such a silly and strange persona. Maybe he was roaring drunk at the time. Maybe he was just plain stupid. But whatever reason, he regrets it now.

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