How Not to Write Character Tragedy

How Not to Write Character Tragedy

Nov 24, 2016, 7:05:10 PM Creative

When you're a writer, one of the things you want to do is capture the human experience and a part of that is tragedy. Having characters with their own personal problems and tragic defining moments can be a great way to flesh them out and make them more compelling. However, there are ways to do it well and ways where it just doesn't work. Today, let's look at some of the major ways that writers screw up when trying to write tragic characters. 

1. The angst-driven character

We've all seen some variation of this before. The character who's constantly brooding about how bad their life is. This is the type of character who can be surrounded by friends and have nothing bad happening, but still be mopey. The trouble with writing characters like this is that the audience quickly stops caring. We accept that the character has a mopey, angsty schtick and we just learn to ignore them. As a consequence, when events happen where their attitude is actually warranted, the effect is greatly weakened since they act the same way under everyday circumstances.

to give a coherent example, let's look at Zidane Tribal from Final Fantasy IX. He's a character with a bright, cheerful demeanor in general. So, when tragedy strikes him and you can see how unraveled and upset he gets, it has a lot of meaning. We want to see his situation improve and the smile return to his face. In contrast, when something bad happens to a character like Saya from Blood+ who's always moping there's not much difference in the way she acts then versus how she always acts. As a result, we see very  little difference and won't really be able to tell when she gets over that particular tragedy anyway and we have a lot less investment in the situation.

2. The Disproportionate Response

We've all seen characters like this as well. The ones who would have a nervous breakdown if they poured themselves a bowl of cereal and then learned that they had no milk. These characters are difficult to take seriously just because their responses are so absurdly over-dramatic. Silver Age Tony Stark was like that. Here we had a massively wealthy dude who  was constantly whining because he had to wear a bit of protective armor on his chest and keep it charged. Yes, it would be tragic to have your life rely on something like that, but for most readers, that didn't seem nearly as bad as he made it out to be. In fact, most of us would have gladly traded having to wear a piece of chest armor and keep it charged for his riches and cool technology. An even more egregious example is Asuna from Sword Art Online. Here we have a wealthy girl who goes on about how she'd rather be trapped in an online game where she's  risking her life than deal with her family. And why? Because her mum is a bit overbearing and a snob. That's seriously the reason. Her family isn't abusive in any way. They aren't cruel or nasty. Her mum is just a slightly overbearing snob who wants what's best for her. 

Another problem with characters like this is just that we quickly lose any empathy we might have for them and just get annoyed by them. Just because their actual complaints come across as really petty compared to everything they have in their favor. If a good portion of your audience has worse problems than your protagonist, then maybe your protagonist shouldn't be really fixated on their relatively minor problems. 

3.  The Character who never catches a break.

The final character type I'm going to talk about is the character who's in a constant state of turmoil, not because they're just angsty, but because everything is constantly going awry for them. They're constantly caught up in some form of tragedy.  The trouble with this, in terms of writing a relatable character, is that the perpetual cycle of tragedy is just ridiculous. There are plenty of people who go through difficult times where everything seems to be going wrong. We can feel sorry for a character going through that. But when that's every moment of a character's existence ever, it gets so absurd that it calls to mind the comic relief sufferer character. We might feel sorry for them at first, but it quickly becomes a joke. 

So, if you want to write a tragic character who the audience can relate to, here are some pieces of advice:

1. Flesh out their personality. A fleshed out character, even if they aren't a cheerful type of person, has more modes than "angsty and mopey." There should be some moments of happiness, sadness and so on.

2. Make sure their responses match the tragedy. You don't want to have them be unaffected but, at the same time, you don't want a character who comes across as whining about something relatively petty. 

3. Show us the character when times are good. It gives  us something to contrast the tragedy against and it'll leave more of an impact. 

Published by Mischa A

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