Tragic Hero Definition
A tragic hero (TRAA-jik HE-row) is a protagonist whose traits or choices cause their downfall. These characters embody heroic traits like courage, compassion, and integrity, but they fail to successfully confront their main conflict due to a fatal flaw, poor judgment, or a combination of both.
Tragic heroes appear in ancient, classic, and modern literature worldwide. However, the archetype was a staple of classical Greek tragedies in particular; Aristotle used his observations of Greek tragic heroes to identify and define their characteristics in his Poetics. Even today, characters like Oedipus, Antigone, and Achilles remain some of literature’s most recognizable tragic heroes, and modern tragic heroes still draw inspiration from their character traits and story arcs.
How Tragic Heroes Are Created
Balance is essential to the characterization of a tragic hero. As Aristotle observed, these protagonists’ traits must be proportionate, exhibiting admirable qualities as well as realistic flaws—especially a capacity for human error. This balance stokes the audience’s empathy, allowing them to pity and fear for the hero once the crucial mistake that catalyzes their downfall occurs. This is essential to a tragedy’s success. After all, audiences are unlikely to lament the misfortune of a truly evil character.
Traits of Tragic Heroes
After studying classic Greek tragedies, like those written by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, Aristotle codified the essential traits of tragic heroes in Poetics. Six of these traits include:
- Anagnorisis: The realization that the hero’s own actions caused their downfall
- Catharsis: The pity or fear the audience feels in response to the hero’s ruin, which stems from the sense that the punishment is disproportionate to the crime
- Hamartia: A mistake or fatal flaw in personality or judgment
- Hubris: Excessive pride
- Nemesis: The inevitable punishment caused by the hero’s actions
- Peripeteia: A poor decision that reverses the hero’s fortune from good to bad
In addition to these traits, the Aristotelian tragic hero was typically aristocratic and male. He was competent, powerful, and embodied classical ideals of virtue and honor. His story was most tragic if his downfall was wrought by his own flaws and if this reckoning was more cruel than his actions warranted. Classic Greek tragedies often featured dramatic irony, in which the audience is privy to vital information that the protagonist is not, which heightens the audience’s emotional response to the story.
The Modern Tragic Hero
Aristotle’s prescription for tragic heroes was quite specific, but these rules have eased over time. The only remaining requirements of a tragic hero is that they elicit sympathy from the audience and cause their own ruin despite their best intentions.
Beyond that, modern tragic heroes can be of any gender and come from any socioeconomic background. They can be inherently heroic, but they can also be decidedly less noble. For example, many modern villains have origins as tragic heroes. A prominent example of a modern tragic hero is Jay Gatsby.
Tragic Hero vs. Anti-Hero
The tragic hero and the anti-hero both have imperfections that appeal to readers. However, there are key differences between these types of protagonists. Despite their poor choices or fatal flaw, the tragic hero still possess traditionally heroic traits. The anti-hero is much less honorable, often exhibiting ignoble traits like cowardice, selfishness, or making good choices for bad reasons. Rather than making the anti-hero contemptible, these flaws tend to resonate with audiences because such imperfects are very human. Han Solo from the Star Wars universe is an example of an anti-hero, as the good things he does are usually motivated by selfishness.
Another key distinction relates to narrative arc. The tragic hero’s story is inherently heartbreaking; they are destined for a mighty downfall, whether death or other destruction. That’s not necessarily true for anti-heroes. They can be tragic heroes whose flaws lead them to a cruel end, but they can also skate by unscathed or even emerge from conflict as a better person.
Why Writers Use Tragic Heroes
These protagonists are what gives tragedies their emotional punch, as they are carefully developed to be both admirable and relatable. Flaws make characters seem more human and more engaging. Because life is rarely black and white, readers are drawn to characters who reflect that ambiguity.
An emotional connection is forged when readers recognize themselves in a character and see their own virtues and flaws reflected back at them. This connection between reader and character helps writers invoke reactions like pity, fear, and grief, which gives the narrative more emotional depth, complexity, and authenticity.
Finally, tragic heroes also serve as cautionary tales because their stories prove a point about morality, integrity, and making good choices.
Tragic Heroes in Pop Culture
Wherever there are protagonists, there are tragic heroes. This includes characters like Ned Stark from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first installment in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Ned is a fair and honorable men, but his naive belief in the honor of others gets him killed because he places his trust in people who betray him.
Tragic anti-heroes are common in today’s media; Dr. Gregory House from House MD is a classic example. He’s jaded, arrogant, and pessimistic, and he views his patients as puzzles rather than people. His fatal flaws are his drug addiction and refusal to address his issues—two traits that threaten his relationships as well as his career. Still, audiences are endeared by his flashes of compassion and keen wit.
You’ll also find tragic heroes in video games, like the Red Dead Redemption series. Dutch van der Linde is a recurring character who becomes an outlaw to pursue freedom and liberty. He leads a gang of likeminded rogues whom he treats as family. Throughout the games, Dutch’s altruism is consumed by his ego, his pursuit of freedom is corrupted by his greed, and his family is destroyed by his impossible standard of loyalty. He dies a maniac, murdered by a man he once viewed as a son.
Tragic heroes are especially common in comics, in which heroes like Marvel Comics’ Hank Pym are repeatedly set back by flaws and bad choices. Pym is a genius scientist who discovers and harnesses Pym Particles to become Ant-Man. Though he’s a founding member of the Avengers, he’s plagued by feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. In a desire to prove himself, he creates Ultron, an evil sentient robot that becomes one of the Avengers’ greatest foes. Recent story arcs have even seen Pym fused with Ultron, a clear example of a character’s bad choices leading to ruin.
Several comic villains, semi-villains, and anti-heroes have origins as well-intentioned idealists whose misguided choices led them down a path toward villainy. The depiction of Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 is a prime example. He begins the film dedicated to improving the world, but an ill-advised experiment kills his wife and leaves him fused with his technology. This corrupts his morality, enticing him to become a supervillain.
Examples of Tragic Heroes in Literature
1. Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
Oedipus is the classic tragic hero. He begins the play as a mighty and gracious king. He prizes the welfare of his subjects and is respected for his noble personality and strong moral fiber. Born in Thebes but abandoned because of a prophecy that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother, Oedipus was raised by the king and queen of Corinth. Oedipus doesn’t know the truth of his origins, so after hearing the prophecy he flees to Thebes, confident in his ability to outrun fate. Along his journey, he kills an old man who nearly runs him over at a crossroads and solves the riddle of a Sphynx, earning the throne of Thebes and the hand of its queen in marriage.
Despite his strength and intelligence, Oedipus is excessively proud. Hubris is the mistake that leads to his undoing. He is overly confident in his perception of the world and his ability to control fate, which leads him to fulfill the prophecy he is trying to avoid—the man he murdered is his biological father, and the queen he marries is his biological mother. After realizing the truth of his actions, this once great and noble king is left sightless, having blinded himself for his foolishness, and begging for exile.
2. Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
This children’s book depicts the relationship between a boy and a tree. The boy loves the tree, climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches, and sleeping in her shade. The tree loves the boy in turn, acceding to all his wishes and requests. As the boy ages, his requests grow bigger and bigger. When the boy wants money, the tree provides apples for him to sell. When he wants a house, she offers her branches for wood. Finally, when he wants a boat, the tree gifts her trunk for lumber. The tree gives everything until she is nothing but a stump.
The book’s ultimate message is the subject of much debate. The predominate interpretation is that the book is a loving story about a parent’s selfless devotion to their child. But there is another interpretation that sees this relationship as destructive. In this view, the tree is a tragic hero: selfless to a fault, she gives without any expectation of reciprocation until she has nothing left.
3. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Harry Potter series is an iconic example of modern children’s literature, yet Sirius Black is a surprisingly classic representation of a tragic hero. Like the doomed protagonists of classic Greek theater, Sirius is born into a noble and influential family. He rebels against them, remaining loyal to his friends and his ideals rather than joining sides with the antagonist Voldemort. However, Sirius’s fierce loyalty often manifests as impetuousness, which is his undoing not once but twice.
When his best friends Lily and James Potter are betrayed and murdered, he rushes to avenge them rather than call for support or plan a calculated response. Due to his rash actions, he ends up framed and imprisoned for their murder. After 12 years, he escapes prison and reunites with Harry, but their time together is cut short when Harry finds himself in trouble and Sirius once again rushes to defend a loved one. This time, his recklessness results in death.
4. Gregory Maguire, Wicked
Wicked reimagines L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz by recounting the life of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Elphaba is marked as different from birth, born with green skin and unusually pointy teeth. As she ages, she comes to embrace this difference. Strong-willed and idealistic, she wants to change the world. She can’t stand injustice, and she won’t support a status quo that perpetuates it. Since there’s nothing left about her for people to scrutinize, she leans in to her reputation to advocate for minority rights and challenge the oppressive government.
But Elphaba’s crusade has tragic consequences. Her lover dies for her dream of revolution, leaving her grief-stricken and riddled with remorse. Elphaba abandons her crusade and flees to a convent, where she lives as a nun for years. Even once she rejoins society, her life is fraught with conflict and tragedy until her death. Although Elphaba’s defiance is not the catalyst that directly causes her death, it starts the chain of events that leads to her demise, as her defiance is misunderstood as wickedness. She dies an unacknowledged martyr rather than the idealistic hero she aspired to be.
Further Resources on Tragic Heroes
This video lesson from PBS’s Crash Course Theater examines Aristotle’s view of tragic heroes and ancient Greek tragedies.
Get a better understanding of the archetypal tragic hero by reading Oedipus Rex, made available for free by Project Gutenberg.
This article examines the fatal flaws that afflict the protagonists in each of Shakespeare’s 10 tragedies.