I've already warned you that this is long. Turn back if you want to survive.
When people use the word tragedy they often mean very different things than what is meant by the 'tragedy' in 'Classical Tragedy'. It is often used to refer to narratives with bad endings, with protagonists dying, or high on misery or blood. To be clear, classical tragedy (hereafter refered to as 'tragedy') often includes these things. However, more specifically, tragedy is about the protagonist experiencing a specific kind of failure. So how do we know whether a narrative is tragedy, and what different types are there?
To answer this question we have to first set out a framework for analysing characters. You could write whole essays on this, but lets skip that and use this formulation.
Every character can be split into 4 different sections. The sections are as follows:
- This is the character's reason for doing what they do in a story. A characters motivation is generally formulated similarly to a goal. For example... a character could have a motivation something along the lines of 'I want to be rich' or 'I want to save the world'. This is why it could also be called a 'dream' or 'wish'.
- Do not confuse this with motivation they are different things. Keep this in mind, as we'll come back to it later. The goal is an explicit end-state that the character decides can fulfil the requirements of their motivation. In the previous examples, the goals might be 'Win the lottery' and 'Defeat the villian' respectively.
- This one doesn't require much explanation. It is simply 'how' the character tries to achieve their goal. The character who buys a lot of lottery tickets is quite different to the character who tries to cheat the lottery system.
- How does your character evaluate their progress? A character who takes the most logical course of action and abandons any paths shown to be ineffective is much different from a stubborn character set in their ways. Whether, Why and How, this evaluation happens (and whether it changes any of the above sections) is an important part of a character.
Using these four properties we should be able to define and differentiate any character.
Now that we know about the character, what is the specific kind of failure that defines tragedy? It is that the character is 'mistaken' in some aspect and this mistake brings their downfall. The failure results in the motivation not being realised or possibly the exact opposite being realised.
In this context, the mistake exists at one of levels listed above. But what type of mistakes can be made, and how do they work in the context of a tragedy narrative?
Tragedy Type 1: Equivocation
For this type we'll consider both Motivation and Goal. I won't talk about Evaluation here, because tragic characters almost never evaluate. Or if they ever do evaluate, it obviously doesn't prevent the tragedy. This type of tragedy occurs when the character mistakes their motivation and goal as being the same thing. But the mistake can be on the motivation side, or on the goal side. Lets see some examples.
Motivation: To be happy
Goal: To get a lover
Method: Will do anything to get someone she loves to love her back.
This is an example of the paradox of hedonism, and an example of tragedy from a mistaken goal. The problem here is that Alice has made the mistake of equivocation. Goal is not the same as Motivation. This is a type of tragedy that occurs every day. People want to be happy, and assume that simlpy reaching their goals makes them happy.
There isn't anything wrong with her method. The problem is that having a lover doesn't automatically make you happy. You could replace 'To get a lover' with 'To get a job' or 'To get rich' or 'To own a house'. These are all quite common goals people set themselves, thinking that it will lead to happiness.
Alice's story is doomed to fail from the start, and she will never be truly happy. Worse yet, because she is so obsessed with achieving her goal, she may have hurt herself or others in various ways. At the least, she put a lot of time and effort into it.
In her mind, those sacrifices would be worth it at long as she ended up being happy. Tragedy isn't that those sacrifices ended up adding to nothing. It is that those sacrifices never could have worked to begin with. It was that right from the start she was doomed.
If Alice wasn't mistaken, but rather some freak accident happened right at the end of the story. Her efforts would have indeed been in vain. But it would not be tragedy, just a downer ending.
It has to have always been in vain. There has to be this realisation that they themselves were mistaken.
You could apply Evaluation in this case. A person who reaches their goal and still isn't happy generally sets a new goal, thinking that will make them happen. This is Paradox of Hedonism.
Motivation: To bring peace, fairness, freedom and quality of life to everyone in her Empire.
Goal: To become empress.
Method: Follow a political career path, doing anything to climb the ladder to ruler.
If anyone was in a position to achieve that Motivation it would be the ruler, right? There isn't any problem with the Goal here and the method is certainly the quickest way to become a ruler. So what is the problem? Again, it is equivocation. But this time the Motivation is the mistake.
If ever there was an example of the Goal not being the same as the Motivation, this is it. When the motivation itself is mistaken... the Goal is possible, but the Motivation is impossible. That is the issue here.
When Beatrice makes it to be Empress she simply cannot achieve her motivation. Despite her goal being completely appropriate, she cannot realise her motivation. It dawns on her that it simply isn't possible, there is too many conflicting needs.
Beatrice's story is doomed to fail from the start, true peace will never be achieved. Worse yet, she might have done horrible things that she didn't want to do which she justified as being worth it, as long as she can make a Utopia later on. She may have suffered horrible things herself but persevered because it would be worth it.
Yet in reality those things never brought her closer to her dream and could never have done, because that dream is an impossibility.
If Beatrice wasn't mistaken, if there really could be utopia, but some diabolos ex machina came in right at the end to prevent her from being Empress... then it wouldn't be a tragedy, just a downer ending.
Tragedy Type 2: Mistaken Method.
It is here we consider when the method is mistaken. As in the case above, we won't consider Evaluation. It is especially true in the case of Mistaken Method, that tragic characters generally don't evaluate. Tragic characters are stubborn when it comes to the mistaken they've made.
Motivation: To be liked, loved, and have people to hang out with.
Goal: Get some friends.
Method: Be passive-aggressive, sabotage herself and push others away.
As we can see, the goal and motivation are in line. Getting friends will almost certainly realise her motivation. But very clearly there is an issue with her method.
What causes a character to take such blatantly contrary methods would certainly be the focus of such a narrative, but lets take it at face value for now.
Much like in the above examples, this character is doomed from the start. There isn't any crazy occurance that poisons her relationships and makes her efforts in vain. It is that everything she has done never brought her closer to her goal or her motivation.
That being said this exact example probably isn't very common in tragedy. More often than not this character would have a character growth arc where she learns how to build relationships properly. But this is an easy way to understand how a Mistaken Method can form the basis of a tragic character.
Motivation: To save the world
Goal: Defeat the Villian
Method: Gather the 5 special artifacts to make the ultimate weapon!
In this example, unbeknownst to Diana, the special artifacts' only usage is to empower the Villian to destroy the world. Her method is mistaken. Because of this, at no point is Diana ever taking steps towards her goal or motivation. Right from the start she is doomed to failure.
It is important that this isn't a case of some bad wizard coming and screwing things up for her. It's that the artifacts never had a good use.
If the villian swoops in, steals the artifacts, and cackles whilst mocking the protagonist, then that isn't tragedy. It has to be the case that her method wasn't viable from the start. That everything she's suffered has been in vain. Worse, that she has actually empowered a force to realise the opposite of her motivation.
Motivation: To save as many people as possible from harm
Goal: Stop anyone they see willing to hurt people.
Method: Sacrifice the few for the many.
At first glance, there is no issue with her method. It is spot on. If you're choosing to save the larger amount of people in any particular conflict, then you'll save 'as many as possible' right?
But remember that first conflict she had? Where she had to kill someone to stop them hurting a lot more people. Well during the climax it was revealed that, in actuality, that persons death is what triggers the inevitability of a greater cataclysm.
In this case, unlike the other Mistaken Methods, the method isn't mistaken in the general case. This mistake was made in a very specific case.
In fact the method makes complete sense. You couldn't blame anyone for taking this route, and it is unreasonable to expect the protagonist to have known about the mistake.
It would be hard to say "If only they thought about it more!" or "If only they realised that their goal won't allow them to reach their motivation". Sometimes in these situations, it might even be difficult to say in retrospect that the choice was incorrect.
Tragedy Type 3: Failure to Evaluate.
I consider this a sort of special type of tragic character. Most tragic characters commit a failure to evaluate at some level. Either they don't evaluate at all, or their evaluation doesn't have enough information to stray them from their tragic path. The equivocating tragic character might evaluate, but they'd never evaluate that their goal doesn't match their motivation. The mistaken method character might evaluate, but they'd never evaluate that their method won't work.
But this particular special kind of character's tragic mistake lies only in evaluation. How can that be so?
This is only the case when a character is actually successful. They've actually achieved their motivation. Regardless of their method or goal, they've actually realised their dream. But they don't know it. For whatever reason they're too blind to see it.
This only really works for personal motivations. If the character is trying to save the world and does... then it isn't particularly tragic that the character doesn't realise the world is saved.
But consider the following character:
Motivation: To be liked, loved, and have people to hang out with.
Goal: Get some friends.
Method: Act overly proud. Brag. Lie to play herself up.
You might think that this should fall into the category of a Mistaken Method. This character might even work for that, though that is doubtful... the mistake isn't strong enough.
But lets consider the case that she actually does have friends in spite of her shoddy method. She has friends and they like her. Hell, her friends even know the bragging and playing herself up is an act. They realise she is insecure in herself but they love her nonetheless.
However, Francesca, for what ever reason, cannot truly understand her friends feelings. She fails to evaluate that, actually, she is liked and loved. Because of this, she persists in the feeling that she is alone and disliked. It is a blindness that makes the character feel as though their motivation has not been realised, even while it is realised.
Much like in the case of Colette, this type of character is more often only a tragic character for a while. They usually go through some character growth where they realised that actually they've 'had it all along'. Perhaps through some kind of 'you don't know what you have until you lose it' type story arc.
This is a lesser kind of tragedy than the others. Which brings me to the quantification of tragedy.
It is worth pointing out that this has no bearing on how 'good' a story is. This is simply a way measure of 'how' tragic the character or tragic narrative is.
The more of the following qualities the tragic narrative has, the 'greater' the tragedy:
- The tragic nature of the narrative/protagonist is unknown until a reveal at the climax of the narrative.
- The tragic narrative takes place at an epic scale. Concerning many people and places.
- The method is disagreeable to the tragic protagonist, but justified under the condition that their motivation is realised.
- The sacrifices made are high.
- The mistake of the method is only single irreversible flaw early in the narrative.
- The potagonist can't be blamed for failing. As in it would be completely unreasonable for them to have known about their mistake, even hypothetically.
The more of the following qualities the tragic narrative has, the 'lesser' the tragedy:
- The tragedy affects only the protagonist.
- The mistake is known to the audience from the start.
- The tragedy is ongoing in a way that it could potentially be averted in the future.
If we look at a character like Francesca, we see that she ticks all the 'lesser' tragedy boxes. She is only hurting herself it would be very clear from the start that she is making a mistake, and she could rectify her mistake in the future. This doesn't make her any less deserving of our empathy or the narrative any 'worse'. However we can recognise this as being a 'lesser' tragedy than the case of thousands dying because of a reveal at the climax that reverses the meaning of the great sacrifices made by the protagonist.
Like in the case of Eunice, for example. It wasn't a mistake she could have avoided or really be blamed for. Her failure affects many people. You only find out about the mistake in a reveal at the climax. The sacrifices she made were high (all the people she killed under her justification). The method is disagreeable to her (she ideally wouldn't need to kill anyone to save others). The mistake in her method was singular, not general.
Using this system of categorisation, we should be able to analyse any tragic narrative or tragic character. If you have any questions or comments, criticisms then feel free to voice them. I'm interested to hear about narratives and characters that you can fit into this schema. I'm also interested if you think there are tragic narrative that don't fit.
Unlike with most other genres of narrative, simply labeling something as a tragedy is a spoiler, as it precludes certain types of endings. If you want to talk about any characters or narratives in the context of tragedy then you should spoiler box what you say without any kind of title.
Even noting that the spoiler box is for a particular story may be a spoiler in and of itself. So venture into spoiler boxes only if you don't care about being spoiled by anything.