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On Tragedy

Lately I've been thinking about Arthurian legends and stories, particularly T. H. White's masterpiece The Once and Future King. That, in turn, has me thinking about tragedy, and tragic heroes (or heroines). White's novel is based on Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur). Despite the title, these books chronicle Arthur's entire life. His actual death is only a brief scene at the end of either book, yet Mallory titled his whole work that way. Why?

The answer gets at the nature of tragedy. Ask many people what does "tragedy" mean, and they'll answer "a sad story" or "a story with an unhappy ending." Both of those are generally true observations about tragedies (though tragedies may also be uplifting and even comic through much of the story), but they miss the mark as a definition. In a tragedy, the protagonist (central character) is doomed to fail because of inevitable forces beyond their control. They may be fine, upstanding, decent characters (as King Arthur is), but that is not enough to save them. In fact, they really must be basically good characters. If a story is about an evil protagonist getting their comeuppance, it may be interesting, but it's not a tragedy. The tragic hero is someone the reader relates to and wants to see overcome their inevitable obstacles. The connection the reader feels with the tragic hero, and the resulting catharsis, is what defines a true tragedy.

Many of my favorite stories are tragedies. Besides The Once and Future King, there is Cervantes' Don Quixote (though it is often seen as a comedy), and Shute's On The Beach. Even Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings has elements of tragedy in the loss of self suffered by the main character (Frodo). While the forces of good are victorious, they are not for the hero to experience. (Tolkein himself saw Sam as the hero for this reason.) I am particularly drawn to the tragic hero.

Oddly, despite this fascination with tragedy, I've never written one. My stories are generally left somewhat open-ended, but optimistic. This year's NaNoWriMo novel will be no exception, I think. At least at this point, it is not a tragic story, though that could yet change.

I'm not certain why I haven't written a tragedy, but I think it has to do with my character-driven approach to writing. Rather than having an idea of the plot and fitting my characters to that story, I instead know my characters, start them off in some extraordinary circumstance, and see where they take it. (There's more than that to it, of course, but that's the general idea.) But remember that the key to a true tragedy is that the protagonist fails due to inevitable forces beyond their control, not the simple actions of an antagonist. That requires a sense of plot in the initial conception, and that is something I've not yet learned to do well.

Does that mean I'll never write a tragedy? No. It means I have to learn to add that to my toolbox. And NaNoWriMo is the perfect vehicle for that. It is the practice ground on which I learn my craft; my sketchbook filled mainly with false starts. Perhaps not this year, but at some point I'm sure I will attempt a tragedy. Whether or not I can pull it off remains to be seen. I want to trust that, if I fail, it won't be tragic. I'd hate to think it was inevitable. I have no desire to be a tragic hero, despite my namesake.

Of course, neither did Arthur.