Fatally Flawed: How to Write Tragic Heroes
Tragic and trapped, compassionate and ironically self-centered, tragic heroes make fantastic complicated heroes--and terrible boyfriends. Despite being nearly the definition of tall, dark, and handsome.
Tragic heroes are just like us, only better. They are who we wish we were. Attractive, well-off, intelligent, respected, socially fluent... but not too perfect, either. Maybe they have a bit too-wide a smile and laugh a little too loud. Maybe they're just a little too curious and eavesdrop when they should politely announce their presence, or maybe they really want others to like them and will do almost anything to achieve that. And because of their perfect imperfection, we identify with them--and so when that all-too-relatable flaw is their downfall, we feel it so much sharper than we would if they were simply sinful or saintly.
Tragic heroes are defined by their flaws, as are the stories you'll tell with them, so you'll want to pick your flaw carefully. A tragic hero's flaw is almost always a "sexy" flaw--a flaw we can identify with, and don't see as being all that bad. After all, being human and imperfect, chances are we share that flaw, and we're not all that bad. It's practically a virtue. It's the hero's "edge," and it's their downfall.
Of course, like shoes, the sexiness of flaws goes in and out of fashion with the seasons. Yesterday's hot hero is today's old fashioned fogie. Medea's passion. Oedipus's pride. Brutus's naiveté. Hamlet's indecision. Othello's insecurity. Too often today, they're seen as yesterday's heroes--how many modern heroes of this type can you name?--but I don't think their types are gone. I think they've just changed with the times. Shed their togas for polo shirts and taken on new flaws, and so, new stories. I also think that, unlike their forebearers, they tend not to die right away as a result of their flaws--that due to the serial nature of fiction these days, while their flaw tends to be the impetus for most of the trouble they get into, it is not always immediately fatal.
A Modern Tragic Hero
One of my favorite kinds of tragic heroes, which appears to be en vogue, is the savior. Prometheus is one of the first and strongest examples of the savior. His flaw is his sense of compassion and fairness, causing him to steal fire from the gods for man--and his punishment is to be ripped apart daily for it.
The savior stems from the wish that the world were fair, that problems were black and white, and that if you did everything right, someday you'd be rewarded. Like Sirius Black, they are a little too eager to do what's right. A return to the "good old days" brought on by today's complicated, shades-of-gray, progressive times. The savior wishes the world ran on the same simple logic that computers and games and math quizzes do. That they could study for life, and work hard, and be rewarded. That they could have some semblance of control.
Despite their control issues--or rather, because of them--saviors will help you need it most. When you're down and out, invisible to the world, they will help you up. When enforcers of the status quo see you as disrupting the field of white picket fences, they will stand by your side. What the rest of the world sees as a problem of containment, they see as an injustice worth fighting for. And when you think the savior must be crazy for helping you, the savior couldn't care less.
It’s such an old and fascinating concept: the man who will give his life for you, but doesn’t actually care about you at all. A young woman who is outraged when events do not conform to her expectations and will take the whole world on, but who can't seem to do right no matter what she does. A man alone and overmatched who can’t help but step in even when he knows he’ll lose. Fighting, even when it doesn’t make a difference to anyone but themselves. It is the story of a person who serves a higher purpose–her own ideals.
The savior has a tense, if linear, emotional thread, and the savior is easily provoked, which makes him a lot of fun to play with. This can even turn them into villains, like with the fall of Anakin Skywalker. All you have to do to make her shine is push one of her boundaries, or play with one of her triggers. She can also be a very confusing character for your other characters to deal with, as she’s half operating out of the world in her own head–rather than the world everyone else sees. A world she prefers to reality.
Clearly, the savior has some control issues--it's her "fatal flaw" that qualifies her to be a tragic hero, after all. And just as clearly, she has been hurt deeply at some point in the past, in a situation over which she had no control--something many people can identify with for sure. Now, whenever something triggers the part of her hurt that day, she steps in to make sure the story has a happy ending, rather than the mess of an ending she received. But no matter how many times she fixes it in the present, she cannot change the past. And eventually, the past catches up with her.
Flash Fiction Practice
A savior is defined by her ideals. In figuring out a savior’s ideals, you can figure out the savior as well as his role in your story. Create a savior hero, and consider for them the following questions:
1. What are her ideals?
2. Where experience turned him into a savior hero?
3. How far would she go to defend her ideals?
4. What would make him give up being a savior?
5. If she gave up being a savior, what would bring her back?
6. What is the current victim’s relationship to the savior (enemy, child, lover, stranger, etc.)?
7. What is the triggering incident with the current victim?
8. What does the savior do when he sees something that makes him think that his ideals might not be right after all?
9. What is the worst thing you could do to your savior?
10. What is your savior’s ultimate path?