Friday, November 15, 2019

5 Tips for Writing a Compelling Paragon Character

What's a paragon character? you may ask. There are a lot of fancy definition, but we all know I don't go for fancy things. Put simply, a paragon character is Captain America.

A paragon is a character who is a champion of a specific (or multiple specific) admirable trait(s). They are good characters, through and through. Maybe they stand for freedom and right-doing (Captain America) or justice (Black Panther) or kindness (Beth March). These character often, though not always, come with a special skill, such as Super Strength to go with their Super Heart (Superman).

They are fascinating characters that tend to be favorites of mine, though they are sadly lacking in speculative fiction. This lack of paragon character types is, in part, due to the fact that writers are afraid that such a character will be boring.

But guys. They do not have to be boring. They can be AMAZING. Take it from two authors who know: Beth Wangler and D.J. Edwardson, both masters of the paragon character type. 

5 Tips for Writing a Compelling Paragon Character

D.J. Edwardson

Today, we’re going to look at two types of paragon characters and how to write them well.

#1. The Superman: These are the characters who can do almost everything. They’re strong, courageous, they try to do the right thing. They don’t have any real weaknesses and, frankly, they’re a little harder to pull off.

To begin with, you’ll need to establish just how powerful they are. Have them save the day, and then save it again and again, each time in a bigger way.

Then comes The Problem, capital P, where you throw the cosmic sink at them. Give them problems so big, even they can’t solve them. This is where the character uncovers that extra wrinkle we didn’t know they had. They can still solve it (or a specialist character can—see below), but we have to believe, at least for a time, that they can’t. We’ll love them all the more when they do or, alternatively, when they learn that even they need help once in a while.

Bonus tip: Give ‘em a weakness. Without some kind of Kryptonite, it makes it hard to put your paragon in a tough situation.

#2. The Specialist: This character is really good at one thing. I’m talking extra-special-crazy good. Atticus Finch can’t run a four-minute mile, but you won’t find a more upstanding fellow in the courtroom. He’s a legend when it comes to setting a good example. The phrase “paragon of virtue” had to come from somewhere. Let it be your character.

Most paragons fall into this camp. To make these characters sing, do the opposite of tip #1. Give them chances for their unique trait to shine. Let them be the best at that over and over again. You could have them fail (or nearly fail), but there are plenty of other things for them to fail at (things they’re not good at). Let them fail at those. Try building them up in the reader’s mind to be the single best (fill in the blank) and see if they don’t end up finding a place in readers’ hearts because of it.

Bonus tip: Give ‘em a surprise second (or third) skill at some point. Make it unexpected. “What? You’re a master fencer and you’ve built up an immunity to iocane powder? Amazing!”

Gif of Vizzini from A Princess Bride saying "Inconceivable."

Beth Wangler

1. Who do you want to be? The reason I, and I think many others, love paragon characters is not just because they are nice: It’s because they inspire us. They show us what it could look like to live the way we want to live but aren’t able to yet. They light a fire in us and give us a goal to aim for.

With that in mind, there are two equally worthwhile ways to approach paragons. You can start with a good thing you wish you were better at, like loving your friends, following the rules, etc. Or you can start with whatever you view as your deepest failing—the thing you wish most in the world that you could change about yourself but can’t seem to change—and build a character out of that. Both characters may end up looking the same on the surface, but the way you approach writing them will be vastly different.

2. Give them personality. It’s always tempting to create a character around one central trait, and nowhere is this more tempting than with paragon characters. You’ll have a list of morals or virtues in mind, you’ll plop a face on top of that list—but your work is far from done. Take extra time building full personalities for your paragon characters. What are their quirks? Their regrets? What is their backstory? What are their pet peeves, and why?

3. Paragons aren’t perfect. Most of the time, your paragon character will still be human. That means that, however much they strive for goodness, justice, etc., they will still fall short. They will have blind spots where they don’t realize they aren’t living up to their ideals. They will have pitfalls that will get them again and again. Sometimes, their dedication to what’s “right” may even lead them to make the WRONG decision. Vices are often out-of-balance virtues.

If your paragon character is, say, a holy, perfect god, that still doesn’t give you an excuse for laziness. Perfection often might look very different from what your characters and readers would expect. You can play with this to create a truly powerful commentary. That will also keep your readers engaged and make them love your character even more. The unexpected “Hail Hydra” moment in End Game got one of the biggest reactions in the theater, after all.

Who are some of your favorite paragon characters? Have you ever written one before? Tell us all about them!

Related articles:
9 Ways to Keep Your Character From Being Boring
5 Tips for Creating Complex Characters

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