What is a Tragic Hero? Definition, Examples, And Ways to Use

Hannah Lee Kidder
January 22, 2024 | 9 mins

Throughout all of literature, few characters leave as lasting an impression as the tragic hero. Tragic heroes are memorable because they’re, well, tragic. Crafting a compelling, tragic hero is an art that has been honed in literature for centuries, from ancient Greek dramas to modern novels.

In this post, we will dive into what makes this type of character so distinct and memorable – and share some tips for authors who want to write their own tragic hero.


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What is a tragic hero?

The concept of the tragic hero dates back to ancient Greek drama and has since become a significant archetype in literature.

They are usually the central character in a literary work. One who possesses admirable qualities but also has a fatal flaw or makes a critical error in judgment. This flaw ultimately leads to their downfall.

A tragic hero is an extremely dynamic character in a novel or any literary work. They typically serve as the protagonist and undergo a dramatic transformation throughout the story. The reader witnesses the character's rise to greatness or a position of high standing, only to witness their very dramatic fall due to their inherent flaw or misjudgment.

The tragic hero's journey is emotionally powerful, evoking feelings of sympathy and catharsis in the audience as they grapple with the consequences of their actions and the complexities of human nature.

Is a tragic hero good or bad?

A follow-up question after asking, “What is a tragic hero?” is often whether this character is good or bad. You might even think that they are a villain based on the name. But that's not the case.

In classical literature, tragic heroes are not defined as purely good or bad. The focus (and true tragedy) of this character is on their own actions and inevitable fall from grace rather than what they do to others.

In almost all examples of tragic heroes, you can find evidence of good and bad character traits. This makes them polarizing. Ultimately, assigning a “good” or “bad” label is extremely subjective, contextual, and often up to the readers themselves.

What is a tragic hero according to Shakespeare?

One last tragic hero definition before we move on: Shakespeare's.

In Shakespearean literature, a tragic hero is a character of noble stature and virtue who is flawed in such a way that their demise is inevitable. It's important to note that Shakespeare's tragic hero definition describes a character that possesses admirable qualities such as bravery, loyalty, and a sense of justice. They have positive character traits.

These are, however, in stark contrast to – you guessed it – their tragic flaw, or hamartia.

Shakespeare's plays, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, feature notable tragic heroes who embody these characteristics. The concept of the tragic hero is a central element in the structure and themes of Shakespearean tragedies.

We'll continue to answer the question, “What is a tragic hero and what are their characteristics?” in the following sections.

Other types of heroes in literature

Other types of literary heroes as contrasts to the tragic hero include:

Epic Hero: An epic hero is a larger-than-life character who embarks on heroic quests and faces formidable challenges. They often possess extraordinary strength, courage, and virtue, and they are celebrated for their heroic deeds. Unlike the tragic hero, the epic hero's journey usually ends with triumph and success.

Romantic Hero: A romantic hero is a character who embodies passion, emotional intensity, and a rebellious spirit. They often reject societal norms and conventions and may engage in acts of defiance. Unlike the tragic hero, the romantic hero's story may not necessarily end in tragedy. But part of successfully writing a romance novel is making sure the hero's struggles and pursuits are marked by emotional intensity.

Antihero: Unlike a traditional hero or a tragic hero, an antihero lacks conventional heroic qualities, such as moral integrity or bravery. They may be selfish, flawed, or even engage in morally questionable behavior. Despite their shortcomings, antiheroes are often compelling and relatable due to their human-like imperfections.

A tragic hero is a complex character whose rise to greatness is overshadowed by a fatal flaw or tragic mistake, leading to their downfall.

Core characteristics of a tragic hero

There are multiple different ways to identify, define, and write this archetype in literature. Here are some of the most common characteristics, following Shakespeare's tragic hero definition:

Nobility or high standing

Tragic heroes typically begin their journey from a position of nobility, greatness, or high social standing. They might be kings, queens, warriors, or influential figures in their community. This elevated status sets the stage for their eventual fall from grace, making their tragic downfall or any dramatic inciting incidents all the more impactful.

Tragic flaw (hamartia)

The tragic flaw, also known as “hamartia,” is the central characteristic that leads to the hero's downfall. It is a fundamental flaw, weakness, or error in judgment inherent to the character's personality or actions. This character flaw often results in decisions that have severe consequences, contributing to the hero's tragic trajectory.

Hubris or excessive pride

A common tragic flaw seen in many tragic heroes is hubris or excessive pride. The hero's arrogance and overestimation of their abilities or beliefs blind them to the potential consequences of their actions. This prideful behavior drives them to make choices that lead to their undoing.

Reversal of fortune (peripeteia)

The tragic hero experiences a reversal of fortune, also known as “peripeteia.” This turning point occurs when the hero's circumstances take a dramatic downturn, often as a direct consequence of their tragic flaw. The reversal of fortune significantly alters the hero's life and sets them on a path toward their tragic end.

Recognition or anagnorisis

The moment of recognition, or “anagnorisis,” is a pivotal scene where the tragic hero gains insight into their true situation. They come to realize the consequences of their actions and the role their tragic flaw played in their downfall.

This moment of self-awareness is emotionally powerful and often serves as a climax in the hero's journey.

Catharsis

The concept of catharsis is crucial to understanding the purpose of a tragic hero in literature. As the audience witnesses the hero's suffering and downfall, they experience a purging or emotional release known as catharsis. This emotional cleansing allows the audience to reflect on their own lives and the complexities of human nature.

Pathos and sympathy

Tragic heroes evoke pathos, which is a feeling of pity or sorrow and sympathy from the audience. Despite their flaws and mistakes, the hero's relatable qualities and humanity make them deserving of empathy. The audience emotionally invests in the hero's journey, creating a deep connection between the reader and the character.

Downfall and nemesis

Ultimately, the tragic hero meets their downfall or nemesis, which may involve their death or the figurative destruction of their spirit or reputation. The hero's fate is the consequence of their tragic flaw and their choices throughout the story.

These core characteristics and parts of their story arc collectively shape the essence of a tragic hero.

7 Tips for developing a tragic hero

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Developing a compelling tragic hero requires careful planning and a deep understanding of their character arc. Here are some tips to help you create a well-rounded character and emotionally resonant tragic hero in your story:

1. Establish a noble background

Introduce the tragic hero as a character of high standing or nobility. They could be a respected leader, a beloved figure in their community, or someone with great potential. This elevated status will make their eventual fall from grace more impactful.

2. Give them a tragic flaw

Identify a fatal flaw or hamartia that will lead to the hero's downfall. The flaw should be an inherent part of their personality and have a significant influence on their decision-making. Common tragic flaws include pride, ambition, jealousy, or a lack of self-awareness. Ensure the flaw is believable and consistent with the character's motivations and actions throughout the story.

3. Create sympathetic qualities

Make the tragic hero relatable and likable to the audience. Give them positive traits and humanizing qualities that make readers emotionally invest in their journey. The more sympathetic the hero, the more powerful the emotional impact of their tragic arc.

4. Foreshadow the tragic downfall

Foreshadow the hero's tragic downfall through subtle hints and events early in the story. Plant seeds of the eventual tragedy to come, building anticipation and tension in the narrative.

5. Develop a powerful reversal of fortune

Craft a dramatic and impactful reversal of fortune where the hero's circumstances take a significant downturn. This turning point should be a direct result of the tragic flaw and mark a shift in the hero's journey toward their tragic end.

6. Create an emotional moment of recognition

Build up to a moment of recognition or anagnorisis, where the tragic hero becomes aware of the consequences of their actions and the role their flaw played in their downfall. This revelation should be emotionally powerful and serve as a turning point in the hero's emotional and psychological state.

7. Ensure a meaningful resolution

Conclude the tragic hero's story with a meaningful resolution. The hero's fate should be the natural consequence of their actions and flaws. Their tragic end should provide closure and allow readers to reflect on the complexities of human nature and the consequences of our choices.

By carefully crafting these elements, you can create a compelling and unforgettable tragic hero whose journey resonates deeply with your readers and leaves a lasting impact.

Famous tragic hero examples in literature

Tragic heroes are prevalent in literature, and many classic works feature characters who embody the characteristics of this archetype. Here are some examples of tragic heroes in literature:

Oedipus from Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus, the King of Thebes, is a noble and respected ruler. However, his tragic flaw is his stubbornness and refusal to accept the truth. He unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, leading to his downfall and eventual blindness.

Hamlet from Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Prince Hamlet is a noble and thoughtful young man, but his tragic flaw is his indecisiveness and constant self-doubt. He is haunted by the ghost of his father and seeks revenge, but his internal conflicts lead to a tragic chain of events.

Bella Swan from Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (hear me out)

Bella Swan might not seem like a particularly elevated, important, or noble character in the beginning of the series, but when considering the target demographic (teenage girls in the early aughts), Bella Swan is the top of the top. She’s humble and cool, pretty but down-to-earth, and everyone in her new school is obsessed with her (including the hot vampire). Her tragic flaw is her blind belief in the Cullens, which leads to her death. She believes turning into a vampire will save her family from the Volturi, so she acts in total belief that she is doing the right thing, ending her existence.

Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley:

Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant scientist who creates a monster through his experiments. His tragic flaw is his arrogance and reckless pursuit of knowledge. His creation becomes a source of misery and destruction, ultimately leading to his own downfall.

These tragic heroes from different literary works exemplify the complexities of human nature and the consequences of fatal flaws. Their stories evoke powerful emotions and leave a lasting impact on readers, making them iconic examples of the tragic hero archetype in literature.


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