Not every good guy gets a happy ending. Sometimes the best outcome some characters can hope to gain is bitter-sweet. In a lot of cases, the tragic hero seems pre-destined from the beginning to meet a tragic end. While certainly not as common, and potentially a lot riskier to try to pull off in writing, a tragic hero well-written can still be memorable and certainly more interesting than a lot of other character types. So, what makes a tragic hero, and how can we pull off making one that will leave our audiences remembering these characters fondly long after they’re gone?
Traditional Definition of a Tragic Hero
So you’ve decided you want to write a tragic hero. The first question you must ask yourself is: why do I want to make people cry? Think about that one for a good minute, you heartless monster. Now that you’ve had time to come to terms with yourself and have realized you may be a sadist, it’s time for you to either seek help from a trained professional or ignore all of that and go full steam ahead into your merciless destruction of a good character’s life and happiness. But, if you’re going to do it, at least understand how to do it right. And that starts with understanding what makes a hero tragic, and then taking a look back at the classics which mastered the type.
A tragic hero is defined as a character whose story is tragic (duh), and is traditionally the main character of that story. Today, you can have a tragic character in a story that is not tragic in and of itself, but the tragic character’s arc must typically end in the traditionally defined way. A tragic hero usually endears himself or herself to the audience with heroic or other positive traits or actions, but they also typically have flaws in their character that normally play into their downfall.
A classic example is Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The same reckless passion in love that endears the audience to Romeo also directly results in his tragic end.
Tragic heroes were defined long ago by Aristotle in the philosopher’s study of Greek drama. He believed that a well-told tragedy must bring about the feelings of fear and pity in the audience, as he believed those two feelings were fundamental for the audience to experience catharsis, the healthy release of strong emotions, at the end of a sad story.
Along with that, he further states that tragic heroes must be virtuous, flawed and also suffer a reversal of fortune. In other words, the character must be good at heart, completely unable to defeat his or her worse flaws, and they must have something really bad happen to them – usually their death, or another horrible thing that they really don’t deserve and we may cry about it when we experience them going through it.
Modern Tragic Heroes
The only thing that really has changed from Aristotle’s original definition of the tragic hero is who can be them. Back in Aristotle’s time, being virtuous normally meant that the character was a noble, male, and they should be strong in a general sense. These are no longer requirements for characters to still be considered good examples of tragic heroes.
Along with who, in a general sense, can be a tragic hero, the modern story does not require that the character is the main character in the story. Especially in a long-form narrative like a book series or a television show, there can be many tragic heroes who otherwise fit the definition, but are not considered the main character.
So that means that instead of having to be some rich, strong, capable, influential man, a modern tragic hero can be of any social class, any gender, any ethnicity and can even be a completely uncapable person. Simon Birch, the dwarf child in Simon Birch (1998) is an example of this.
Regardless of the changes that are allowed to be deviated from the classical description of a tragic hero, the modern tragic hero must still be gain the sympathy of the audience and they must still have something terrible happen to them that stems directly from their flaws.
Tragic Hero vs. Anti-Hero
An anti-hero (read more here) can easily be mistaken for a modern tragic hero. What makes this more confusing is that anti-heroes can also be tragic heroes at the same time. The most important thing to understand here is that anti-heroes are not tragic heroes if they are not part of a tragedy or at least part of a tragic story arc.
One more thing to consider is that tragic heroes typically get way worse than they really deserve in the end. An anti-hero can totally still die or have something terrible happen to them, but if they really kind of deserved it, then maybe they aren’t strong examples of tragic heroes after all.
Examples of Traditional Tragic Heroes
- Maximus in Gladiator (2000)
- Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Ep. 1-3
- Oedipus Rex in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
- Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones
- Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight (2008)
Examples of Modern Tragic Heroes
- Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption (1994)
- Don Draper in Mad Men
- Captain Ahab in Moby Dick
- Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein
- Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men (2007)