Being a Better Writer: Tragedy and Hubris

“All the honors go to the tragedian for chewing up the scenery, while the comedian, who has to be much more subtle to be funny, is just loudly criticized when he doesn’t come through.”
Attributed to Edmund Gwenn

Welcome back, readers! It’s Monday here, which means that it’s time for another Being a Better Writer post! Even better, today’s topic, Tragedy and Hubris, is the last topic on Topic List IX! Which means we’ll be moving to list X next week! New topics, new things to discuss …

Anyway, that’s for next week. But while we’re on the topic of not being quite on topic yet, don’t forget that the Rolling Sale is still going strong with Colony up for grabs at 63% off. As long as you’re reading this article in the week it released, that is. If you’re not well … check the book out anyway. Check the books tab!

Okay, so that out of the way, let’s get into today’s topic: Tragedy and hubris. Some of you might be wondering why I started a discussion on the topic of tragedy with a long-form version of the famous saying “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” since such a quote is usually used to discuss comedy (and in fact, I have listed it before as a reason for not yet being comfortable discussing comedy). And yes, while is is often associated with comedy for what it says, I think there’s some value in looking at what the original attribution says about tragedy as well, even if in jest.

Yes, make no mistakes, while it roundly mocks tragedy … it does make a good point about a popular perception of tragedy anyone who wants to write tragedy should consider: That it’s easy. Which, in turn, is why you see tragedy being an extremely common theme among young writers. Especially in fanfiction. Oh man, go to any fanfiction site that uses tags as a way of sorting/categorizing stories and select their “tragedy” tag and you will be flooded with stories bearing the mark. Enough to drown yourself in a sea of salty, melodramatic tears.

Now, those of you who are familiar with some of my prior postings may have noticed a “red flag” in that last sentence that may have brought pause: Melodramatic. Yes, that term that describes overblown, overdone, over-emphasized sadness and suffering that’s just so sad you really should be sad and why aren’t you sad yet! Yes, I use that term, and I use it here with purposeful intent, because quite honestly, 99% of those tragedies you find by using a tag search like that aren’t tragedies. They come back to this misconception that “tragedy is easy.” A new writer wants to write something “good,” and whether acting consciously or not, decides to write a “tragedy” because it’s easy.

And in a way, they’re not wrong, and even as I write that I can hear a bunch of you winding up mentally with ‘Wait, but you just said …?’ Bear with me for a moment.

See, in actual truth, I do believe that there’s merit to the original, humorous quote. After all, it is easier to make someone cry and feel bad than it is to make them laugh. Far easier. To make someone laugh, you must understand first why they laugh, what the individual finds funny, etc. You have to recognize that what makes one person laugh may fall flat for another. It’s a psychological challenge of knowing your audience’s expectations, working with them, and then pulling the rug out from under them to … to … And dang-it, I’ve just explained why I need to write a BaBW on comedy. Added to list X!

Anyway, point is that getting someone to laugh is actually pretty hard, while making someone cry? Not hard at all. Just insult them enough and you’re bound to strike a nerve. Make broad, sweeping generalized arguments about their character (like 95% of posters on reddit—and yes, I am aware that this statement is a self-referencing example). Likewise, with writing, making a reader sad isn’t exactly … well, hard.

However, a story that is sad is not automatically a tragedy. Which comes back to that popular perception bit I mentioned earlier. Tragedy tags are a penny a dozen because many people don’t actually understand what tragedy is. They think of the term “tragedy” and think of the definition of the word as used in the English lexicon, an event of great suffering, anguish, etc, instead of the definition of the word used in storytelling, which is a story dealing with tragic events and an unhappy ending brought about by the actions of the protagonist.

See the difference? Any story can be sad. I can write a story right now that is about a child coming home from school to find that their dog is dead. Bam, sadness. But that doesn’t make it a tragedy, just a sad story, even if one that a lot of people can relate to (dead pets do that). But a tragedy wouldn’t just be the child coming home to find that their pet is dead, it would be them coming home to find that their dog is dead because despite the warnings of their parents, they continued to feed the dog chocolate. See the difference? One is simply something bad happening, the other is something bad happening because the protagonist didn’t heed warnings and caused it themselves.

So, jumping back to this idea that comedy is hard, whilst tragedy is easy, while it does hold some truth (good comedy really is just that hard), tragedy is often mistaken as being easier than it really is by many not knowing what tragedy is and substituting the wrong definition in tragedy’s place. And once you combine that with the concept that it’s easier to make someone sad than a lot of other emotions, new writers wanting to write something that isn’t too difficult, and then the internet’s general love of “cheap feelz,” you end up with an absolute deluge of melodramatic fiction that’s about as plentiful as salt water on Earth and almost as good for you to partake of. Yes, that was a dig at melodrama and cheap, popcorn “sadz” stories. As well the constant swapping of ‘s’ for ‘z’ for that realistic “edgy” flavor.

So, sad is not tragic. Which then begs the question from those who truly do want to write tragedies, who came to this post curious about just that: What is a tragedy, then? And what does it have to do with hubris? And what’s hubris?

Let’s answer those questions! Because both are intertwined. As I mentioned before, a tragedy is a story that has tragic events and an unhappy ending … because of the actions of the protagonist. So the story is full of sad happenings and bad things … but these bad things and sad happenings don’t occur because of anything an antagonist or external force brought to bear. They happen because of the protagonist’s own actions and choices.

This is where hubris comes in. Hubris is an old Greek term (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong there) for an individual having excessive pride, self-confidence, or belief in their own abilities, ideologies, etc. Excessively prideful, to simplify things. But knowing that, I’ll bet you can see why these go hand in hand. Because there’s one more aspect of the tragedy worth bringing up here that’s very key, and now that we have hubris, we can address it: The actions of the character that bring about the bad things? They’re not accidents. For example, a story in which the protagonist tries to stop the villain and fails simply because of other external elements or bad luck isn’t a tragedy—it’s just bad luck and part of the try/fail cycle.

But a story where the protagonist gets the wrong idea in their head about how to save the day, is warned by everyone that it’s the wrong idea, goes for it anyway, and fails or makes everything worse? That’s a tragedy. Their own pride wouldn’t let them see that they were wrong, and may not even let them see that they are wrong after things happen, so they may continue to go about making things worse and worse for everyone. That is a tragedy.

Take, as an example, the first and second campaigns of Warcraft III, a game that is often lauded for its portrayal of a tragic hero and use of a tragedy in the first two plot-arcs of the story (which stretches four). The first arc opens with the player following the journey of one Arthas, son of the king and knight paladin, as he investigates a plague besetting the northern reaches of his kingdom. Arthas is headstrong—prideful, but he firmly believes he’s doing the right thing. He investigates the plague, tracks down the cult responsible, then pronounces judgement upon them without trial, something that his friends, teacher, and advisers do not approve of, citing his rank as prince-regent. Then, when he finds that the so far incurable plague has infected a city, which will kill everyone in a few days and cause them to rise as undead in the service of the cult, rather than cut the city off, he pronounces that the citizens are as good as dead anyway and orders them killed and the city burned. His friends and mentor advise him otherwise, but he pushes them away, citing his need to prove to the kingdom that he can make hard decisions in acting for the greater good.

Eventually his mentor leaves, returning to the capital in disgust over the prince’s refusal to listen to anyone else. The prince, determined to stop the plague now and convinced that those around him just don’t see how big a threat it is and how he must fix it, travels further northward in search of a way to stop the cult’s leader. In the end, his attempts to stop the cult’s leader not only fail … they cost him his own humanity, losing everything that made him what he was, and becoming so disillusioned with his own beliefs that he takes the reins of the cult himself and returns to slay his own father and burn his whole kingdom to ashes. He ends up becoming the very “pathogen” he was so dedicated to destroying because his pride wouldn’t let him see that every step of the way he was becoming less and less of who he was and more and more a blind force of destruction.

That’s tragedy. And an awesome one. But we’re not done yet. We still need to talk about something specific: Implementation and catharsis.

Okay, let’s tackle the latter term first and then see about wrapping everything up with a nice, neat bow: Catharsis. Catharsis is, essentially, one of the main reasons people like dark, sad, upsetting stories from time to time. Effectively we read/experience them in order to build up and then release emotions sort of in the way you might let a boiling pot let off a little steam. We read something sad, empathize with it, feel sad, and sort of hopefully quantify a bit of our own sadness or work to understand/deal with it a bit better, or at least help get those emotions out of our system. Basically, we watch something that kind of breaks us down a bit in order to build us up later. Got it? Good.

So, now let’s talk about implementation. Part of the appeal of the tragedy as a story type is this catharsis that readers get from it. They want to feel involved in the events, sucked into them so that they get this connected feeling.

But … you can’t do that simply by making things a straight case of “1+1=2.” While tragedy may be mocked as easy, it’s not quite as simple as making sure that someone causes bad things to happen by their own hubris. I mean, simplified as a concept, sure, but in practice? You’ve got to do a bit more building with your work before letting it out into the wild. Don’t just settle for “Character was prideful, bad things happened.” Complicate it! Dress it up a little. All that other stuff we talk about here on the site—subplots, character development, everything? Use it! Tragedy is, like many other story elements, a part of a story. The more direct and straightforward it is, the more “hammer-like” it can become. Don’t hammer the tragedy of your story into your reader, but rather let it develop.

One other note here, too. The more intertwined the protagonist is with their ultimate failing, the better. A personal tragedy, one that directly relates to pride, like an arrogant runner destroying their own legs through prideful actions, is a tragedy that works (and has been repeated time and time again in sports films). Keep your tragedy related to the characters pride, or in other words, the downfall should be something vital and important to the character.

Keep in mind that a tragedy also doesn’t mean that your character has to fail again and again either, as long as by the end they’ve failed by their own means. For example, a story about a knight who attempts to save a kingdom and sees some success only to fail at the end because of their own foolish pride is still a tragedy even if they’d had successes along the way. This applies to whether or not they eventually recognize their failings as well. A story in which the protagonist’s pride leads to their downfall and failing stays a tragedy even if they don’t recognize it—and some stories take this route, the protagonist failing to realize that they’ve failed for their own issues while the audience can see it plainly.

What this means is that when you sit down to write a tragedy, in addition to deciding things like “what bad events will my protagonist’s prideful flaws cause,” you need to determine how you’re going to approach the acknowledgement of these events in-story. Will your protagonist recognize their failings and end the story in sorrowful remorse? Or will they never accept them and insist over and over that they did nothing wrong, leaving it to the audience to say “Wait a minute …?”

Make these decisions now … though that’s more for general sake of story consistency than anything specific to writing a tragedy. Always get your overarching details figured out for stories that need them.

Right, so … think that about wraps it up. There are more detailed facets of tragedy and hubris, but for now, this suffices, and a quick Google can get you into the fine details of whether or not you’re writing a Greecian or Roman tragedy.

That said, in summary just because comedy is hard doesn’t mean that tragedy is quite as easy as everyone likes to pretend it is. A real tragedy is more than just a sad story where bad things happen, it’s a story where bad things are caused by the destructive hubris of the protagonist. Carefully played out as to instill a sense of catharsis in the reader and perhaps deliver a cautionary tale concerning pride along the way.

But remember, if the hubris of your character does not in some way bear responsibility for the tragedies inflicted upon them, then you’re not really writing a tragedy. A story protagonist that gets into a car wreck and loses a leg is sad. A story where the protagonist who is a runner arrogantly believes that they can drive while drunk, wrecks, and then loses their leg is a tragedy (also, prideful stupidity; don’t drink and drive).

Good luck. Now go get writing!

 

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