When it comes to studying tragedy, there’s no better place to go than the theater. The Greeks started performing tragedies in the 6th century, and people haven’t stopped since. With a tragic play for every era in human history, theater holds a boundless amount of knowledge for us to tap into.
Here’s a list of plays to watch (or read) to teach you the ins and outs of tragedy.
Stranger Things Spoilers (specifically character deaths)
It’s generally known that character deaths in any form of media can elicit passionate emotional responses from fans. Whether it's sadness (the death of a beloved side character), joy (the defeat of the villain), plain confusion, fear, or anger, simply offing one of your characters is a great way to get your readers riled up - especially when said character’s death is tragic. That’s how you can really break your reader’s heart. Whether it be tragic circumstances, tragic endings, or tragic deaths - empathetic readers will always mourn what could’ve been a happier ending. But what happens when all your strategic planning and plotting, results in your readers feeling disappointed? What happens after you burn down the village and nothing happens? What happens when your tragedy is pointless?
Unearned tragedy is no stranger to the world of books and film. All the time, we’ll see kingdoms and innocent people suffer from dictators, or evil monsters and the like. Tragedy can be unfair and unjustified - and sometimes characters can die just because of someone’s spite or greed. However, there should always be a reason for these deaths. For example, when Max ‘dies’ in Stranger Things, it’s not because the writers wanted to scare the audience; it’s because Eleven failed to save her. It shows the true threat of Vecna and the danger the group is currently facing, that Eleven is not strong enough to defeat him and (most importantly) the dire consequences of them losing. Even though she is brought back to life later, her death stills serves as a somber reminder that there is a powerful evil out there that they couldn’t defeat.
Looking at the great tragedies of literature, from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo to The Oresteia by Aeschylus, the characters suffer through seemingly endless turmoil. People starve in the streets, family members run each other through with knives, and everyone wails and laments at some point or another. Tragedies are about the (often extreme) hardships we face in life, and the strive to overcome them – even if we are destined to fail.
So, is there a line? Is there a point in a tragedy where it gets to be too much? How tragic is the writer allowed to make the story? If there’s nothing but bad things happening over and over, at times it can make the story feel muddled and congested. The reader might not know what to care about, or if any of the tragic events should matter more to the story.
Here’s a few things to consider when crafting your own tragedy.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was one of the first science fiction novels that also serves as a perfect example of a self-fulfilled tragedy. It is also one of my favorite books of all time. It is a perfectly set up tragedy that involves the fatal flaw, the stakes, the setup, and the eventual tragic payoff.
The Fatal Flaw
Every classic tragedy involves the fatal flaw being present in the main character. Traditionally referred to as the Hamartia, the fatal flaw is the trait that brings tragedy upon the main character. The tragedy is usually rooted in some innate trait that the main character has, so they end up bringing all the pain and misery down upon themselves.
Famous for poems including The Raven, The Bells, and Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe remains a staple among poetry and literature classes. In the same vein, Emily Dickinson’s poems such as Hope is the Thing with Feathers and I Heard a Fly Buzz - When I Died hold just as much relevance and prestige. Both poets boast a lengthy collection of poems, and often these pieces reflect on personal tragedies.
Poe experienced a good deal of loss in his life. He lost his birth mother, his adoptive mother, and his wife over the course of his lifetime, many of them succumbing to tuberculosis. As a result, a lot of his poems grapple with life after losing a loved one. His most famous poem, The Raven, personifies death as a raven that only speaks the word “Nevermore”, reiterating to the grieving narrator that he will never see his lost love again.
There’s two main schools of thought when it comes to what drives a story. The philosopher Aristotle believed that plot came first, determining the narrative’s path. American playwright Arthur Miller claimed characters laid the foundation, since a character’s choices can change the story’s trajectory. Writing tragedy from a plot can be a little self-explanatory: something catastrophic happens, then bad things follow.
With character, typically the protagonist or antagonist longs for something to the point of destruction. Obstacles, of course, complicate things and push the character even further down their tragic path, but at the heart of it all is this desire to achieve a goal. You can think of these desires and character traits as a “fatal flaw” that inevitably leads to a downfall.
Here’s some character traits and desires that can push a character to tragedy.
As mentioned in my previous article, The Bronte Sisters and the Sad Girl Trend, art careers are one of the only careers that are based heavily on the monetization of your own experiences, your own emotions and struggles. Audiences clamour for authors who are “authentic”. We want to hear about people’s issues, out of a twisted bit of nosiness, but also because we want so badly to know that we aren’t alone in our experiences.
But where does the artist fit in here? Authenticity is all well and good, but when do we cross the line and become a spectacle? When every experience is on sale, where does that leave life?
TW: Mentions of gore and suicide.
Read the first part of this series here.
Mistakes. There is no plot without them, right? When writing, I used to think it was a simple cause and consequence process, but the Ancient Greeks seem to differ. Once again, they explained literature through a three-part sequence full of elegant words that sound more complex than they are. In contrast to the Mirroring Process, the Mistake Process does not happen to the reader. Instead, it shapes the character, and it is important to consider it when writing character arcs. Take any hero in literature, and they likely went through it too.
Continued from the previous article.
In this second-to-last line, the narrator recalls burying a handmade Batman costume in his backyard, then not being able to find it again years later. They end this stanza with the famous lines “How can something be there, and then not be there? How do we forgive ourselves for all the things we did not become?” The narrator wishes for parts of their childhood that they can no longer find; a Batman costume can represent so many things — the dreams that became overshadowed by reality, the heroes they can’t look up to anymore, the battles to protect what they loved, the exciting uncertainty of i-could-be-anything, etc.. As time passed, the protection of the costume — the ideas of innocence, of dreams, of heroes and idols, has disappeared. The other detail here is that the costume was put together with a bundle of unmatching clothings by the narrator. This disorganization could either indicate the carefreeness of childhood, or it could be that the narrator’s upbringing had been skewed in some way, so that even in their youth it took efforts to pretend to be Batman.
Continued from last week’s article. If you don’t feel like scrolling back, just see this as a “pick a quote and get a tragedy” game. Or free therapy. Or the opposite of that.