Character Work / NaNoWriMo / Novelcraft / Writing

The Tragic Flaws of Tragic Heroes

This is totally unrelated to the rest of this post, but I wanted to start off by informing you that I’ll be trying to post (or re-post, as the case may be) something daily for the rest of October, to help all you inkslingers out there gear up for the pandemonium that will be November 1st. So check back often, or sign up to follow at the bottom of the page.

I’ll still be posting in November, mind you – and there’ll be some fun stuff for you guys to contribute so it’s not just me rambling all the time. That’s all I’ll say for now.

So! Getting down to the actual tragic topic of today’s  tragic post: tragic heroes.

You might be familiar with the term, especially if you ever took a high school English class in which you were required to read Oedipus Rex or The Odyssey. 

For those of you who weren’t so lucky, here’s the definition:

tragic hero (n.): a great or virtuous character in a dramatic tragedy who is destined for downfall, suffering, or defeat

Sounds like barrels of fun, doesn’t it?

Now, most tragic heroes are also equipped with what’s called a ‘tragic flaw.’ The proverbial Achilles heel, if you will. Again, if you never had to read any old Greek tragedy in school, here’s another definition to help you out:

tragic flaw (n.): the character defect that causes the downfall of the protagonist of a tragedy

Apparently this is also called ‘hamartia,’ So, uh, we all learned something new today.

There’s obviously some enormous appeal to writing a tragic hero – some of the most famous literary characters of all time fall into this category – Othello, Jay Gatsby, even Harvey Dent if you want. There’s something tremendously engaging about reading the story of a generally good person who you know is destined for catastrophe. It’s kind of like watching a car crash happen. You can’t not look.

However, there are also a lot of challenges to trying to write this kind of character.

Let’s backpedal a bit and talk about where this post came from. Why today?

After last week’s epic marathon of writing like 35,000 words in ten days, I’m enjoying some well-earned time off. I’m still working, don’t get me wrong – this November I will have the most painfully thorough outline of all time – but I’ve also been indulging myself a little bit. At some point I’ll do a post about why that’s important.

This is a roundabout way of admitting that I gave up two hours of valuable ink-bleeding time to watch a movie last night. Gasp. I know. Shameful hedonism.

At any rate, I watched 50/50, partly because it’s a spectacular movie and partly because I needed my fortnightly dose of Joseph Gordeon-Levitt. And it made me realize something about my upcoming NaNovel (See? When you’re a writer, even time off isn’t time off).

Brief digression: Despite the fact that the realization was slightly troubling, it did get me zeroed in on my project again, just like what happened a little while ago when I was watching Good Cop. So, take note – movies and other forms of media can be a way to beat writer’s block, not just a distraction that keeps you from writing. But we wary – sometimes the line is fuzzy.

Okay, back to the action.

Here’s what I realized: my MC is a deeply unhappy human being. He’s sad. Some terrible stuff has happened in his life, and he is, understandably, a bit beaten down by it.


That was the sound of two hundred tons of emotional baggage landing on me like a piano dropped from a third-story window. My MC just turned to me and said, “Yep. You get it now, huh? You created me this way. Sucks, doesn’t it?’

You sneaky little bastard.

This is a weird realization to suddenly have when you thought you were writing a ridiculous, irreverent, rollicking adventure story. Everything I thought this project was just came to a huge, shuddering halt.

You might be thinking, “So he’s a bit bummed out. That doesn’t change anything.”

Well, it does and it doesn’t. Nothing about my point-to-point plot has actually changed. However, I’m now almost uncomfortably aware of what an unfair situation I’ve put Ian in, and how he’s struggling to keep his brave face on throughout the entire story. It’s a delicate balance. He’s fighting just to stay afloat. He’s a fragile character. He could shatter at any minute.

Ironically, this is still going to be the most humorous thing I’ve ever written. And that, to be perfectly honest, may be what saves it.

A tragic hero in a modern novel has a whole new set of tragic flaws that present an enormous challenge to the writer.

So here’s the question: If you find yourself writing a character like this, how do you keep your story from wallowing in self-pity? Because that right there is enough to make any reader chuck your book across the room.

Ergo, this is important to remember: A tragic character does not a tragic hero make.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to write a character with a tragic story, a tragic past, what have you – but if he doesn’t give the reader any reason to root for him, IT WILL NEVER WORK.

Writing a tragic character is dangerous. Truth be told, writing a character with any emotional baggage is dangerous, but it would also be really boring if all of our characters were blissful and happy-go-lucky all the time. So, how do you go about creating a tragic hero instead of just a tragedy?

It’s time for a list. You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Really, when was the last time I wrote a post that didn’t have a list somewhere? Anyway.

How to Craft a Tragic Hero

  1. Avoid self-pity. TRAGIC WRITER FLAW. YOU DO THIS AND YOU ARE DESTINED FOR CATASTROPHE. And not in a romantic way. Nobody wants to be stuck with two hundred pages of woe is me. If you’ve got a character who’s had it pretty rough, don’t let him sit around and ruminate on it. If he pities himself, the reader doesn’t need to pity him. It’s possible to be sad without self-pity. In fact, self-pity is one of the most disgusting things there is. Do you actually want to be happy? Because it sort of seems like you’d rather sit around and mope about how tragic your life is. Whining about your situation is a good way to guarantee that nobody will feel sorry for you. You feel plenty sorry for yourself.
  2. Avoid inertia. If your character is sad but doing nothing to rectify the situation, he’s got nobody to blame but himself, and your reader will be frustrated with him. He doesn’t necessarily have to be trying to fix whatever went wrong – there are some things, after all, that you just can’t fix. Like a loved one dying or losing your job. However, if your MC isn’t doing anything proactive to improve his situation – even if it just means getting a puppy to make himself feel better – the reader’s going to lose patience with his inertia pretty quickly. If your character is hitting stumbling block after stumbling block despite his best efforts to pull himself up by his bootstraps, then we’re going to cheer him on.
  3. Avoid melodrama. Be aware of what warrants real sadness and what doesn’t. A character struggling with the departure of a significant other or the loss of a loved one is completely understandable. A character sinking into a deep depression because he cracked his favorite coffee mug? Not so much. Know what’s trivial and what isn’t. When a character (or a real human being, for that matter) treats every tiny setback as if it’s the end of the world, it’s exhausting. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It will sap the drama from the things that deserve it, and leave your character crying ‘wolf’ when something truly tragic does occur.
  4. Let the light in. Human beings crave happiness. Even people stuck in a state of perpetual sadness. So don’t be afraid to inject humor into your story. Just because a man wakes up to find his wife left him doesn’t mean he can’t laugh at something he sees on the next page. Find the light in the midst of the darkness. I am a person who generally writes things that could be called ‘dark.’ I think I killed eight people in one of my more recent novels – and one of the beta readers said to me that her favorite thing about it was that the story and the characters didn’t lose their sense of humor, even in the direst of circumstances. It can’t be all doom and gloom. You don’t want your reader to hate you.
  5. Deserve sympathy. You can’t have a tragic hero without a single admirable quality. If Adolf Hitler’s life sucks, nobody feels bad. Because he was a mass-murdering jackass. If you don’t love your character, your reader sure won’t. So be sure that there’s something about him – or, better yet, several things about him – that make him a worthwhile human being. We don’t feel sorry for scumbags. Can your tragic hero have his own laundry list of tragic flaws? Absolutely. But there has to be something there for us to care about – or nobody will bat an eyelash when he steps in front of a bus.

This is another one of those things that’s much easier said than done.

But, this November, it’s what I’ll be trying to do.

Ian’s story is a weird one. He’s struggling to come to terms with childhood trauma and the sudden crashing and burning of his only significant relationship at the same time. Then, to top it all off, he gets to top the suspect list for a series of crimes that have nothing to do with him. The opportunities for him to slide into a despicable state of depression are endless. But he doesn’t. He slogs on, through knee-deep emotional sewage, clinging to the idea that he can find some kind of semi-happy ending.

Does that make him a hero? I don’t know. Interestingly, the first line of this novel is ‘”Unlikely hero” is a criminal overstatement,’ which I wrote long before this post was even in a gleam in anybody’s eye. So at the very least, he doesn’t consider himself a hero, which probably puts him that much closer to becoming one.

Truth is, I don’t need anyone to see him as a hero. I just want people to feel the same way about him that I do. He might be a sad boy, but he’s sad in a way that makes me want to swaddle him in a Snuggie and spoon-feed him hot chocolate, not in a way that make me want to punch him in the face. Hopefully I’ll be able to make that peculiar sentiment come across somewhere. The list above is just a place to start. Because any character is more complex than bullet points.

Here’s to hoping this post helps you flesh yours out. The time is nigh. Autumn advances. Gather that sad, wounded MC into your arms and love him. Love him as much as you can. Because as soon as November hits, you have to throw him to the wolves.

6 thoughts on “The Tragic Flaws of Tragic Heroes

  1. Pingback: Find the Perfect Place to Write Your Novel « Ink Out Loud

  2. Pingback: 2 Days to NaNo: Are Your Characters Worth Spending A Story With? « Ink Out Loud

  3. An outstanding post. Thank you for so generously sharing much worthy material. Lots of ideas to be considered. i don’t do Nano but much of what you’ve written has given me pause about my characters. Going to read this again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s