Tragic Characters

Eli Grey

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I recently came across a character arc for a minor character. The arc was buried at the bottom of a main character's arc. This minor character I had forgotten completely about but reading his story arc I noticed just how tragic his story is. I didn't intend for it to be this way but I wanted to show the severity of the cult in the southern city. I used this minor character to do that.

I didn't know this guy would develop an addiction and end up in a doomed romance. The relationship wasn't toxic, at least not from his perspective. I think that's what's so sad about this. Looking back, I guess it made sense to have a tragic character here. The doomed romance and the threat of chaos in the city that has been tolerating a cult for so long seem to be reflections of each other.

Though I'm writing high fantasy, the character's name is James. I probably got tired of creating fantastical names when I came up with that. James played a huge part in the childhood of a main character but eventually gained a bad reputation. Reading his arc, I saw him go from promising politician or intellect to a drunken mess. Forget my main characters. James goes through it. He's torn between redeeming himself by teaming up with the church to reclaim the city south of the capitol from a terrifying cult, and his lover who is a prominent member of the cult. The cult's presence in the city has been commonplace for some time now.

While he no longer expresses his fear to his lover or to many others that she may one day "call his name", he questions if that's why he still clings to her; to ensure she does not "call his name". That would be most damning. Or does he really still love her? His alcoholism clouds his mind. And does she still love him? A lot's happened since they fell in love. And their love was real for a time.

He bought into the lie that he was safer in his relationship with his lover than if he tried dissolving it.

When he's away from her he feels relief and has a sense of hope for himself that he can turn his life around. He eventually decides to stand with the church and help save the city. He's sober. When his head was clear, he found happiness redeeming himself in front of the church and others. He knew though that his name would indeed be called once his new role was made known to members of the cult.

A battle for the city ensues and he's leading the charge. And his former lover is revealed to be the new face of the cult in the southern city. His greatest fear came true. She "called his name" and when she did, though he was the leader of the resistance to the cult, he became bound seemingly forever to the cult.

Now he has to live with the secret that he's bound to the cult. To be bound to this type of cult is to have your "essence" held ransom by an otherworldly creature. He's back among friends and no longer drinks but soon struggles to hide his tie to the cult. Will it be until his death that he keeps this secret or will he confess to the church and face death? His "essence" is no longer his own. Will his torment ever end?

Does anyone write tragic characters intentionally? What makes a character tragic to you? That they keep losing in life? Is it the external forces in their life or their poor life choices that make them tragic? Any good examples to share?
 

DLCroix

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Hi!
You can also raise it at a societal level by extrapolating conflicts but, yes, starting from a previously meditated argumentative base with a sufficient length to support questions, coherence problems, etc.
This is the base, the period of time in which one as a writer gathers a series of antecedents, studies them and begins to generate conclusions, creates a theoretical framework that works for his story; especially if it's fantasy or sci-fi.
Then, it is easy to see that it is not that the character is tragic or there is an intention that this is so; the tragic element actually comes from the social environment, a certain country with a certain ideology can end up cutting off the head of itself and therefore its people. Collective tragedy. We have tons of past and recent historical examples. Therefore, a single individual, understood as a character, naturally, regardless of what he believes, if he is immersed in an authoritarian society, is a sure candidate for an individual tragedy. If, in addition, the same character has radical wrong ideas about reality, then the problem is twofold. Suppose a whole generation thinks like this, intervenes in eugenics with the aim of creating perfect beings, they will not even realize it and they will have given rise to a society where old problems of humanity such as intolerance, racism, pride, complacency, laziness, greed, lack of solidarity, etc., will reappear. We all know what happened to the Romans and those who tried to replicate the model of the imperial eagle, right?
 

tinkerdan

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I had a character that was too efficient at his job and he was holding back the MC. I figured the only way around him was to kill him, so I guess that was a bit tragic. Don't you think:devilish:
 

tinkerdan

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It was tragic for him.
Plus his presence was keeping the dogs at bay for the MC and he'd made promises that the dead can not keep. The MC had to live with the realization that she was the cause of his death. Enough other characters also blamed her to the point that much if not all of the work he had done to help her was undone. She was left to start over, by herself.
 

Mouse

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I love tragic characters. Best I can think of off the top of my head (and it's TV, not book) is Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey - all he wants, ultimately, is for people to like/love him. And he screws things up for himself over and over, as well as attempting suicide. He gets his happy end in the film, but throughout the TV series he's ultra tragic and I love him.
 

Thiswriterinme

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I think there are a lot of different ways to define "tragic" characters. Yes, societal factors, environmental factors, experiences, government, etc. can all play a role in creating a tragic character. I do like the description of the twofold tragic character provided by @DLCroix. I don't always think in terms of right or wrong, or good or evil, so I shy away from ideas such as "radical wrong ideas about reality." They seem so one-sided, because who declares what is right or wrong about reality? Anyway, I know I'm sort of a minority on that.

James sounds a bit like the "tragic hero" type, even though he isn't the protagonist. To me, his actions speak of the tragic hero. His flaws, the fact that he is connected to this cult without his consent, but also his willingness to continue to try and fight them, are tragic hero qualities; even the fact that his ties to the cult might lead to an inevitable downfall when the truth is revealed. It is always interesting to me to see character types out of their "normal" role. The tragic hero is commonly the protagonist, but here James is a side character, yet still fits that role. Cudos!

I write a lot of fantasy, but I try to stay away from the definitive good guy/bad guy story model. I don't see anything wrong with that story model, but it isn't conducive to my own perspectives on life, personality, and I guess people in general. I still have characters that would be considered tragic, I'm sure.

One of my current characters is the product of a non-consensual encounter between his mother and a king. When he is in his teens, his entire village gets destroyed, everyone killed, by said king, except for him. His father forces him to fight his half-brother in brutal combat, should either refuse they would both get horrifically beaten. The kings in this book are descended from a long line of dragon-shifters (for lack of a better term), and usually, only one son per generation is born with the ability to shift into a dragon, thus securing them as the heir. In this situation, since there are two potential heirs, they are forced to prove who is stronger by ripping each other apart in dragon form starting from as young as thirteen.

Additionally, the bloodline of the royal family has started to thin. This has resulted in anyone who hosts the dragon going insane (because the dragon power is too strong to be contained), succumbing to tyrannical, bloodthirsty, savage impulses. My character succumbs to this madness faster than most, because of the trauma of losing his entire village and family, as well as being forced to engage in bloody combat repeatedly.

When he isn't chosen as heir, this character leaves the castle, joining with an underground enemy from a neighboring country. They begin working together to usurp the throne. In his madness, he begins to believe that he is the rightful heir and the throne was stolen from him. His situation grows more complicated when another survivor of his village is revealed, his childhood sweetheart, if you will, and she is engaged to his half-brother/the newly crowned king.

That's all I'm willing to give away without delving too deep into the plot and characters, it gets fairly complicated the more I try to explain it. I hope that makes some sense. I apologize for not using character names, I'm still not committed to the ones I've chosen.

I think that this character is currently the most tragic one I am writing. I suppose he could be considered a "bad guy," but I try not to label any of my characters so definitively. Most of my characters do have some kind of trauma in their past because I don't believe anyone lives entirely trauma-free. That trauma then shapes their actions, but I feel like I would be judging someone else's plight too harshly if I branded him a "bad guy." Weird, I know, since I created him!

His tragic past and circumstances were purposeful, as a way to contrast two characters with very similar circumstances. Sort of displaying how two people in a similar situation can turn out completely different. Also, how the one who would be more likely to succeed and remain sane ends up being the one who loses his mind while the other remains intact. The duality of who becomes "tragic" and who is able to help themselves.
 

CTRandall

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I'm currently putting together notes, characters, outlines, etc. for a story with a tragic main character. I've planned it as a Kafkaesque (a la The Trial) bit of scifi. The MC is, in part, manipulated by the antagonists but, if I get the story right, the MC will find small ways to undermine the Antag's efforts (which, admittedly, isn't very Kafkaesque). The story is essentially a "whodunnit", or even "whydunnit". Of course, for that to happen, something has to be "dun" to someone. Hence the tragedy.

Despite that, I also hope to include a good dose of dry, somewhat absurd humour (that will be part of how the MC resists). Voltaire's Candide and Cervante's Don Quixote (not really a tragedy, that one) are melanging in my head in relation to that. Levity can help relieve what could otherwise turn into a very heavy slog.
 

tinkerdan

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Heres a bit to help

This one with a grain of salt--they start with celebrities who are tragic heroes
And I'm not certain I'd call them all heroes.
 
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Steve Harrison

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I deliberately tried to make a couple of the 'villains' in my first novel tragic figures. One was hell-bent on revenge and just couldn't let go of his anger, while the other was desperate for a normal life, but incapable of making it happen. Neither was likeable and both made incredibly bad and often ugly decisions, but their backgrounds and motivations suggested a sad kind of inevitability to their fate, which I hope I conveyed to readers from early in the book.

I felt their tragedy as I wrote, but while the book was well-received I don't know if readers picked up on those intentions amid the mayhem.
 
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