Jul 07 2008
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.