Cw: mentions of death
It’s no secret that tragedy sells. Audiences love tragic backstories and authors love putting their characters through the most horrific incidents, all in the name of character development… supposedly. The simple truth is, character development does not have to stem from broken homes and trauma, but for some reason it's seen as the best way to become a truly realized person. Not growing emotionally, not building relationships, not overcoming a personal challenge, but instead being crushed and pushed to your absolute limit until you have been hardened into a shell of a person, who broods around, trusts no one and has a mysterious aura. Fun right?
There could be several reasons for why humanity has become fond of tragedy. From the outside, it seems like something no one would want a part of. Heartbreak, death, sickness and pain, among several others. Why would anyone seek entertainment drenched in negativity? What could possibly be the appeal? Well surprisingly, a lot of things. From getting a taste of grief, to relatable characters, and just general masochism, here are some of my hypothesized reasons for why humanity loves this genre:
N.b. For the purposes of this article, I will mainly be referring to tragedy as death and loss, but please note that tragic things don’t always revolve around death and despair.
1. To Prepare for the Inevitable
From a simple nihilistic standpoint, all things come to an end. Everything dies at some point and nothing can truly live forever… well except lobsters maybe. Avoiding that however, it is virtually impossible for someone to never experience permanent loss. Even if you isolated yourself and formed no connections with any other people, there would still be the death of the people around you, your pets, maybe a bird falling out of its nest too early, or the rose bush you’ve spent all summer growing. The point is, you’d have to be putting out an extraordinary effort to avoid all forms of tragedy, and even the most privileged people will eventually have to face it in one way or another. However, this is where fictional tragedies can help us.
Essentially, fictional tragedy is a small taste of real tragedy. We can use it to experience loss without ever really losing anything. It keeps us from being truly hurt and teaches us to process these losses. Without tragedy, we wouldn’t have a first response to these real life traumas. It’s easier to know what to do and to have an idea of how tragedy would feel, rather than being thrust into the world’s cold hands and hoping to figure it out. I’m not saying that reading Romeo & Juliet will make you invincible to the grief of the world, but it can help, just a little bit. Tragedy can transform grief into a familiar feeling, instead of cruel, unending pain. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, is up to you to decide.
2. The Most Relatable Characters are the Broken Ones
I’m talking about the heroes who were orphaned, the protagonists seeking revenge for the death of their loved ones and the villains who had the weight of the world on their shoulders since birth. These characters who have trauma upon trauma upon trauma stacked on top of them have often proved to be the ones that audiences latch on to. Perhaps it's the desire to fix something that is broken, or maybe it is something else.
Audiences love these types of characters because they are easily able to garner sympathy. It’s hard to get your audiences to like your character sometimes, and an easy cheat code is to make them sympathetic. Doesn’t your heart just drop when you hear about someone’s losses? The pain and suffering they’ve been through? It makes you want to root for them, to finally see them gain the happiness and joy they deserve. It makes it easier for you to like them.
Besides, maybe there’s something in their brokenness that you see in yourself. Maybe, in some way, you can relate to their trauma, whether it’s an exaggeration of something you have faced, or a taste of something you thought you were alone in feeling. You can see how you would act or what would become of you in the same situation, and before you know it, a bond has been created. That character represents you, and of course, you would want to see yourself make it to the end of the story.
3. To Be Powerful
Who is more powerful, the man who climbs the mountain, or the man who climbs the mountain with a boulder on his shoulders? The answer is simple. The more trauma and hindrances you give to a character, the more rewarding it is to see them succeed. It’s a sick sense of curiosity, but it’s intriguing to see how much someone can take before they break. And even more intriguing is seeing what becomes of them if they do make it. There’s nothing nicer than seeing the entire world go up against a character and them still somehow making it out on top. So there you have it, tragedy can also build interest. It’s the perfect foil to show readers how resilient a character is in the face of mental, physical and emotional despair.
Society’s strange relationship with tragedy can’t really be defined or pinpointed. It has always accompanied our media. Books with sad endings, movies where everyone dies, stuff that makes you cry: people actively seek this. There are several lists and compilations online of ‘books that will break you’ or ‘movies that made us cry’ which just goes to show you that this isn’t some niche genre that you have to dig into some internet wormhole to find. People love tragedy, and to be perfectly honest, I love tragedy as much as any other. While not everyone looks for tragic media, a significant amount of people do, enough to make it its own genre. From an outsider's point of view, it may seem strange, but this is far from the case. To put it simply, tragedy does have its reasons for being. It’s not all about emotional masochists looking for the thrill of sadness, in fact, it’s much deeper than that. Whatever you want to think of tragedy, it does have its appeal, and to large audiences at that. After all, happy endings are overrated. A sad ending can stick with you forever.
And so, I leave you with this question. What draws you to tragedy?
is a Canadian-Jamaican student, slowly making her way through the writing world. She aims to not only write, but be impactful and play her part in making the world a less judgemental and more accepting place for people everywhere.