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.
Keep it Intentional
Ideally, every tragic thing that happens should happen for a reason. Maybe an obstacle will motivate or stall a character, or present a new challenge. In Les Miserables, when Fantine dies, she affects Jean Valjean emotionally while also charging him with the task of watching over her daughter, Cosette. She isn’t killed off randomly; her death brings purpose to the protagonist. Thus, what you throw at your character should impact them in some way.
Throwing gratuitous amounts of tragic happenings at your character will lessen the blows of the emotional beats. Sure, have them struggle, but maybe avoid lopping off one of their limbs, then watching their pet die, then getting divorced and so on back to back to back. Stack the tragedies, but keep it plausible and digestible.
Stakes play a pivotal role in tragedies. Each character hurdles towards their own goal, and failure can mean shame, dishonor, injury, or even death. When throwing an obstacle at a character, it should affect the stakes somehow. Perhaps it delays the hero from achieving a goal; for example, a car crash prevents the protagonist from alerting someone of a tornado. As a result, people don’t get warned of an impending natural disaster, and casualties ensue.
Without the stakes, the tragedy would lack in impact. Bad things would keep hurting people and nothing would progress. Stakes are part of what makes a tragedy a tragedy, especially when the characters fail to meet the stakes.
Despite everything the characters go through, some of them should still want to succeed. There should be a goal that pushes them onwards and maintains the stakes of the story. Once all hope is gone, the story should be wrapping up soon. In Romeo & Juliet, Romeo’s hope of being together with Juliet falters completely once he sees her “dead” body, with Juliet experiencing the same thing.
When piling on the tragedy, keep in mind the limit of the protagonist’s hope. Would there be a point where the character becomes too exhausted or overwhelmed? Would they give up? And if so, what needs to be reigned in to preserve their sense of hope and keep them on the path moving forward?
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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