Tragedy is one of the oldest and most fundamental forms of story-telling. It’s a mode that focuses on suffering, that connects its central character to the wider world, and that is deliberately designed to make audiences consider the fragility of their own lives. It can be a powerful tool for writers in any genre.
In this article, we’ll be looking at what tragedy is, what defines its protagonist, and how to make use of it in your writing.
Tragedy as we now know it emerged from Greek plays around 2500 years ago. It reached its classical golden age in 5th century Athens, but our understanding of its form is most shaped by a book from a century later. In his Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle explained the origins of the form, as he understood it, and its defining features. The points he singled out shaped tragedy from then on, as it was kept alive by the Romans, revived in the Renaissance, and used and adapted by authors, poets, and playwrights ever since.
Tragedy is built around a downward arc. The protagonist experiences an unhappy transformation, ending in death or at the very least disaster. This is how many people identify a tragedy.
But there’s more to a traditional tragedy than this.
For the reader, a tragedy should be an unsettling experience. The story highlights the uncertainties of the world by showing that even the most powerful can fall due to events outside their control. In classical theatre, those events were usually driven by supernatural forces. In modern writing, they are more likely to be about the structures and injustices built into our society.
At its best, tragedy draws a mixture of emotions from the reader. There’s pity for the character experiencing the downfall, but there’s also fear. This fear is partly for the protagonist, but it’s often also fear of them. The rage of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge creates a mixture of emotions, as the audience is torn between empathizing with the character and worrying for the people they harm. It’s a deliberately unsettling experience.
The arc of the story should also evoke mixed emotions. It should feel both unavoidable and unacceptable. This undermines the audience’s sense of the world as a just place.
The character’s fall connects in with a wider sense of destruction. Hamlet’s tragedy is also that of the Kingdom of Denmark, as the royal house and by extension the nation goes into decline.
The face of tragedy has changed in recent centuries. Some of the features that Aristotle considered essential are no longer evoked, and the focus has moved away from supernatural interventions in human lives. But the core of tragedy remains the same – evoking emotions through injustice and the suffering of a central character.
The Tragic Character
If you want to write a tragedy then, as with so much of fiction, you need to start with the central character.
The tragic protagonist is normally a noble figure, one who clearly has good intentions, at least at the start. Walter White from Breaking Bad is a great modern example. He just wants to look after his family and his own medical bills. It’s the path he follows to do this that leads to somewhere far less virtuous.
Even if they aren’t noble, the central character needs to be sympathetic. For the tragedy to work, the audience has to care about your character and want them to avoid their approaching doom. They have to keep caring about them, on some level keep liking them, even as they do terrible things. If we didn’t like Hamlet, then we would stop caring for him as he kills Polonius and drives Ophelia mad.
This draws attention to another important feature of a tragic character – the fatal flaw.
All characters should have some flaws and failings to make them relatable. But for the protagonist of a tragedy, a powerful, fundamental flaw is vital. This is the characteristic that motivates much of their actions and that eventually leads them to disaster.
For Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this flaw is unchecked ambition. He is willing to do anything to achieve power. This leads him to destroy his support base by betraying those closest to him, to offend people more powerful than himself, and to behave so badly that he loses all hope of redemption. The fatal flaw drives his downfall.
It’s the fatal flaw that binds together character and plot in a tragedy, preventing the story from being something that just happens to the character.
The character arc that emerges from a fatal flaw can’t just be that the character ends up dying. In the right circumstances, a character’s death can be noble and heroic, which would rob a tragedy of its unsettling negative emotions. Most tragic characters die, but this isn’t the sum total of their downfall.
In a tragic arc, the character suffers, both physically and emotionally, through the course of their downfall. They lose the things that are important to them, most critically their sense of identity. Hamlet loses his mind, his family, even his reputation. Macbeth descends from national hero to hounded villain. Michael Henchard loses his hard-won position as mayor of Casterbridge and the respect of family and friends. Only when you’ve robbed the tragic protagonist of everything that made them who they were, when you’ve flattened all their achievements and left them in despair, does the time come to kill them off.
To give your character’s arc real tragedy, it should feel inevitable. The way that their fatal flaw interacts with the world means that they cannot avoid disaster. Hamlet’s inaction prevents him from fixing the problems at court but won’t let him step away. Henchard’s pride drives him to success but also to disaster, as he cannot compromise to the needs of others in his life.
But while the character’s downfall should feel inevitable, it should also feel unacceptable. However much we might hate Macbeth, we have followed him for so long, come to feel his fears so much, that we still feel a pang of remorse at his death. When Hamlet falls, we aren’t left feeling that justice is served, but that a greater injustice has been done.
When preparing to write a tragedy, much of your attention should be on the tragic protagonist. But what else can you do to evoke the tropes and tone of tragedy?
Strange as it might sound in a story where defeat is inevitable, uncertainty should also be a feature. Tragedy whips the rug out from under the feet of both the protagonist and the reader. If the world worked the way the protagonist believed then they would be able to thrive despite their tragic flaw. If it was as just and reasonable as readers expect, then tragedy would not unfold.
Uncertainty can also be achieved through varying the outcome of individual situations. Small, unexpected successes create hope rather than a slow grind towards disaster. They help to keep the outcome uncertain, and so increase the impact as disaster looms. A character’s occasional wins make their losses more distressing by contrast.
It’s in the tension between uncertainty and inevitability that tragedies achieve their unsettling effect.
Try to tie the character’s downfall into a broader sense of destruction and despair. If your setting is the modern world, you might set their story against a backdrop of inequality or government failings. In an epic fantasy, it might be the collapse of an empire.
It’s vital to engage readers’ emotions. They need to feel the loss and despair of the character on their way down, as well as the sense of injustice overwhelming them. Think about how you can show this through he protagonist’s actions, through the view from inside their head, and through the way you describe the world around them. At the start, you need to engage the audience’s sympathy. After that, it’s their sense of despair.
This can lead to some unfortunate clichés and toxic tropes. It’s particularly important to avoid falling into these traps. Killing of the female love interest of a male protagonist can increase the sense of disaster around him, but it also perpetuates a world view in which women are robbed of agency and our stories are all about men. Could you find a way to ruin that relationship that is still heart breaking but shows the woman making her own choices? Can you make the people around the protagonist more than just props in his disaster? Showing their lives, feelings, and decisions will make it all he more tragic when the world falls down for them as well.
Tragedy is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. It can be used in any genre or setting. Its structures help you to create a compelling character and a story that will hit readers hard. If you can start from a fatally flawed character, build a wider disaster around them, and avoid tired old clichés, then it can be your path to something compelling.
Just ask Aristotle.