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Tragic characters


Disciplines > Storytelling > Characters > Tragic characters

The tragic character | Types of tragic character | See also


The tragic character

Stories often have characters that are doomed or flawed in some way that means that they are going to lose out and not achieve their goals.

Tragic characters also help to make throw a contrasting light on the hero, showing how close the hero could come to tragedy and hence how heroic they are.

Tragic characters invoke sympathy and pity in the audience. They also lead to relief as we realize that our own lives could be tragic, and so we feel better for the little that we do have.


Types of tragic character

The Tragic Hero

The Tragic Hero is the main protagonist in the story but they will not achieve their ends will very likely die in the trying.

Having been attached to the hero beforehand, when they suffer their fate we feel a deeper shock and sympathy for them (and, by association, our selves).

Aristotle described the tragic hero as trying to do the right thing in a situation where the right thing cannot be done.

The Fatally Flawed

Most characters have flaws of some kind as this gives them a 'three dimensional' quality. The fatally flawed character goes beyond this to having flaws so deep and so formed that they are doomed to failure.

In moral tales, having a fatal flaw means that the character is ultimately doomed. Thus the bad guys in Dickens' stories always get their comeuppance.

Heroes can be fatally flawed, turning them into tragic heroes. They still have heroic qualities, but these are not enough to compensate for the flaws.

The Fallen Hero

The Fallen Hero is one who succumbs to the temptations placed before them, perhaps converting to the 'dark side' or to vices such as greed.

We may have mixed feelings about the fallen hero, as we have previously admired them, yet now detest what they do. We may also still feel for them as .we spot weaknesses in them that we recognize in ourselves.

The Doomed Warrior

The Doomed Warrior is one who will die in battle. Perhaps they lack the strength or skill, or perhaps they lack the wisdom to know when to retreat, but the outcome is the same. The doomed warrior can thus be a variant of the tragic hero.

Whilst we admire the Warrior's determination and courage, in the end we are reminded that battle and war lead to death, even of the 'good guys'.

The Wilting Flower

The Wilting Flower is a weak character, often a young woman, who lacks the fortitude to get what she wants, such as the affections of a man or the approval of her father. Men also can be wilting flowers, as the defining quality is a timidity and lack of determination.

Whilst the character may be sympathetic and we will them on, they also irritate us (perhaps in reflection of our own weaknesses). 

The Doomed Innocent

The classic Innocent is a child or naive person who symbolizes lack of understanding. In their innocence they may stray into the line of fire or otherwise suffer unexpectedly.

Bystanders are effectively innocents and may be shot, blown up or otherwise massacred by the needs of the plotline to create realism and sympathy.

Their being harmless, we easily like the innocent, although we may despair at their naivety. When they are harmed, we rail at the unfairness of it all (and the reflection how unfair the real world is).

The Madman

The Madman, like the innocent, does not understand what is really happening and so is likely to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They may also just exist in a tragic place, locked inside their own psychic prison.

We feel less sympathy for the mad person as this is tempered by the threat that they pose to us. They also remind us of our own secret insanities.

The Lost Soul

The Lost Soul has perhaps already suffered some personal tragedy and in their seeking for repair suffer further bad experiences.

We feel for the lost soul and want them to find some haven, yet they may frustrate us as their introspective stance prevents them from seeing possible rescue.

The Victim

Victims are innocent bystanders who get caught up in the action and suffer as a result. They are typically the direct target of the antagonist and may be kidnapped, seduced or otherwise harmed.

There is much debate about victims as, although they gain our sympathy, they may have a mental condition whereby they deliberately put themselves into the victim's shoes in order to feel hope and the satisfaction of rescue. In this way, they are tragic characters in the repeated patterns of victimhood.

The Foolish

The Foolish person is not the same as the fool, at least not the classic Shakespearean fool who is actually wise. The foolish person is the opposite of wise, making foolish decisions and doing foolish things. As such they may get themselves into all kinds of scrapes and tragic circumstances.

As an audience we cast our eyes skywards at the actions of foolish people and are grateful that we are wise at least to some extent.

See also

Heroic characters, Star-crossed Lovers

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