A character that the audience/listeners can relate to. Something tragic happens to this character. the audience should wish it not to, despite how many times hearing/seeing the story. The character is considered a hero because they stand for a trait we all wish to have or believe in. Things like: the American Dream, the idea that if Americans work hard they will succeed in life, is a common ideal for the tragic hero to have.

It is important that the tragic hero is sympathetic. This way the listeners will be able to completely relate to the character. If there is no sympathy between a tragic hero and the listeners than the character becomes pathetic. When this happens a tragic hero is no longer tragic, just some person that had bad luck for no real reason.

The reason to have a tragic hero is to give a story purpose. A tragedy by nature isn't an uplifting story. But with a tragic hero you can learn from a tragedy. Tragic heros make tragedies worth participating in.

Some of the more interesting literary debates have been whether a particular character is indeed tragic.
Example of tragic heroes are:
Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Hamlet in Hamlet by William Shakespeare
I would even say that Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy is a tragic hero.
    "Fortunate Sophocles who after a long life
    died, a happy and a gifted man
    after writing many fine tragedies
    he made a good end, having endured no evil."
    -Phrynicus (a comic poet)
The beginnings of thespian writing originated during the 6th century BC in ancient Greece, and the earliest existing section of critical essays on the genesis of theatre is Aristotle’s Poetics (c 330 BC). Greek tragedy, Aristotle wrote, “developed from dithyrambs—choral hymns in honor of the god Dionysus—which not only praised the god, but often told a story.” Legends passed through the ages tell that Thepis was a choral leader that lived around the same period of history and is credited with creating a form of tragedy by assuming the part if the star in a dithyrambic story. When he spoke his part a chorus would respond and from this it was a short leap to adding other actors as well as characters. This is the basic way drama emerged as an independent form, according to Aristotle. Nevertheless, the apparently unprompted expansion of decidedly refined theater with almost no precedents is hard to explain.

During this time a tragedy was not a play with an unhappy ending rather it meant that a noble hero encountered obstacles to what the audience would think of as happiness. These hindrances could be based on personal overindulgences; like pride or a divergence between one set of laws and another. Morality and necessity limit all of mankind but even more so, tragic heroes.

    "Tragedy deals with the pain and suffering caused when an individual, obstinately defying the dictates of divine will or temporal authority, or refusing to yield to destiny and circumstance, instead obeys some inner compulsion that leads to agonizing revelation...."
The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were performed yearly at the spring celebration of Dionysus, god of wine, and inspiration. One of the greatest writers of these dramas was Euripides (484-406). Only sixteen of his original 92 plays exist today. Aristotle called him the most tragic of the poets for the reason that his plays were the most moving. Coming from him, that was high praise. Because it was Aristotle who set forth the fundamentals for literary criticism of a Greek tragedy in his work Poetics there are three essential effects Aristotle's listed: First, the spectators develop an emotional attachment to the tragic hero; second, the spectators worries what may befall the hero; and finally; after calamity strikes, the spectators pities the afflicted hero. It was his well-known association between "pity and fear" and "catharsis" that led to the development of some of Western greatest philosophies. Aristotle defined the tragic hero as:
  1. A man who is characterized by good and evil; a mixture of both good and bad characteristics. “ He is not an ordinary man but a man with outstanding quality and greatness about him"”
  2. "The tragic hero is good, though not perfect" Typically he has a tragic flaw, or harmatia, some excess or mistake in behavior, that is the reason for his downfall.
  3. He has hubris- pride and arrogance- nearby, a person or thing that sets the stage for his descent, including all of the circumstances that will cause his to fall.
  4. He nearly always goes on an expedition or journey.
  5. "Nevertheless, the hero's misfortune is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime. We do not come away from the tragedy with the feeling that 'He got what he had coming to him' but rather with the sad sense of a waste of human potential" People can relate to him by putting themselves in his place and realizing that if it were them they would in all probability do the same things that the hero does.
  6. "Yet the tragic fall is not pure loss. Though it may result in the protagonist's death, it involves, before his death, some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge" The tragic hero is not ideal or god-like in status, but human. One with problems, and he goes through life with the same obstacles most others encounter.
  7. "The hero's downfall, therefore, is his own fault, the result of his own free choice--not the result of pure accident or villainy or some overriding malignant fate" His dreadful flaw always causes the him to fall in the end. There is misfortune and heartbreak for himself and for those around him.
Some vital terms critical to defining a composite recognition of tragic heroes:
  • Anagnorisis -"tragic recognition or insight": according to Aristotle, a moment of clairvoyant insight or understanding in the mind of the tragic hero as he suddenly comprehends the web of fate that he has entangled himself in.
  • Hamartia "-tragic error": a fatal error or simple mistake on the part of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe. A metaphor from archery, hamartia literally refers to a shot that misses the bull’s-eye. Hence it need not be an egregious "fatal flaw"; as the term hamartia has traditionally been glossed . Instead, it can be something as basic and inescapable as a simple miscalculation or slip-up.
  • Hubris -"violent transgression": the sin par excellence of the tragic or over-aspiring hero. Though it is usually translated as pride, hubris is probably better understood as a sort of insolent daring, a haughty overstepping of cultural codes or ethical boundaries.
  • Nemesis -"retribution": the inevitable punishment or cosmic payback for acts of hubris.
  • Peripateia -"plot reversal": a pivotal or crucial action on the part of the protagonist that changes his situation from seemingly secure to vulnerable.

Pop Quiz!

Now that we have the basics lets see how some readers can do at identifying one. This is for those Babylon5 fans out there. It might surprise some to learn that the science fiction saga has a lot of really intelligent writing supporting it. Did you know that one of the characters is written to fit the definition of a true tragic hero? How about trying to figure out which one? Think about which character you would consider to be the tragic hero. It might surprise many to learn who he or she is.

Oh! Oh! John Sheridan ...Captain John Sheridan!

No wait! I want to give some examples first....
It’s not Sheridan. Although there is a bearing of greatness about him Sheridan rarely crosses ethical boundaries.

One of the most ancient stories about a tragic hero is the tale of Oedipus. The myth commences with Laius, King of Thebes, learning from the oracle that his son will kill him and marry his wife Jocasta. When the king’s first child is born, the infant’s feet are pierced and he is abandoned, on a mountaintop.

A shepherd saves the child, Oedipus (meaning swollen feet), and presents him to his king, Polybus, King of Corinth. When Oedipus grows up he finds out from an oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. Unaware that he was an orphan Oedipus banishes himself leaving for Thebes for fear that he will kill Polybus. Along his journey he runs into Laius and his followers, mistaking them for a band of robbers he unwittingly kills Laius fulfilling the prophecy.

Homeless and alone Oedipus arrives in Thebes where he finds the town besieged by the Sphinx, a dreadful monster. Oedipus successfully passes the riddle of the Sphinx who kills herself setting the community free. The grateful citizens thinking that their King Laius was murdered by unknown robbers, reward Oedipus by making him king and giving him Queen Jocasta to marry. Together they have four children: Eteocles, Polynice, Antigone, and Ismene.

Twenty-five years later a terrible plague descends upon Thebes and Oedipus consults the oracle that proclaims that the murderer of Laius must be banished or killed. Oedipus resolves to find and punish the murderer.

When Oedipus discovers that Laius had a son whose feet were pierced things start to come apart. Finally the Corinthian shepherd who "rescued" Oedipus the baby comes forward, and all the horrifying reality is exposed. Filled with grief over her incestuous life Jocasta kills herself. His wife is dead and children accursed Oedipus puts blinds himself, resigns from the throne and wanders for many years until his death in Colonus near Athens.

Could it be Ambassador Delenn?

No-- it’s not Delenn. Even though she comes from nobility and is self sacrificing. After leaving public office, Delenn went into seclusion on Minbari and died.
shhh k?

Over time a tragic hero came to be measured as a "noble person with a fatal flaw" or "an opponent of society who is willing to take action that 'sensible people' might applaud but never perform themselves".

What about Michael Garibaldi or Stephen Franklin?

Well Garibaldi certainly overstepped a lot of cultural codes but he was too much of a bad boy and his eventual death was, in Mr. Straczynski's words, "a much quieter passing than he would have imagined waiting for him". As for Franklin; he had some of the most human faults of the entire crew. Still he didn’t exactly die a hero’s death. According to Straczynski, Franklin met his final fate on a distant, unexplored planet.
hush now.... I’ll tell who it is at the end of this write up.

When William Shakespeare created Macbeth, he incorporated in the title character all of the key elements of a tragic hero. Macbeth has a decline from his good standing, reaches a low point and turns himself around, the epiphany, and finally rises in his morals and standing; however it is too late and his death is apparent.

Could it be Susan Ivonova or Marcus Cole?

Good try but Ivanova went back to Earth and Marcus (he was such a cutie; it WAS a tragedy when JMS killed him off!) but he was not a member of any class of nobility; neither was Lennier for the same reason.

Another character created by Shakespeare is Othello, a primary illustration of a smartly crafted tragedy. Othello himself has all the elements of a tragic hero: the personal grievance involving a friend and loved one, the tragic flaw –gullibility, the forfeit of life; suicide. And it is King Lear's hubris at the end of the day that strips him of his power.

Aha! I know it's Ambassador G'Kar!

No although G'Kar began as a villain with a touch of humor he evolved into a wise religious figure, a hero, but not tragic. Keep thinking...you're close!
Someone’s a little excited.

Modern classics that have readily identifiable elements of heroes from tragedy; one such example would be Moby Dick. On board the Pequod, Ahab as the ship's captain and his would-be greatness lies in his potential of slaying the great white whale. Ahab’s flaw is an unwavering conviction leading him into a situation he can’t win. Deluded by the prophecies of Fedallah, the captain comes to view himself as immortal, able to overcome anything. Blinded by arrogance he can see no alternative path of action or significance for the events that occur other than the one he decides to fit with his monomaniacal hunt of Moby Dick. Doomed by pride he makes a serious error in judgment, Moby Dick is Ahab's nemesis. Realizing he has made an irreversible mistake Ahab faces and accepts death with honor:

    "All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life" (Melville 545).
With these words, Ahab's fate is coupled with the common fate of humanity. Through this universal link, Ahab's struggle becomes that of everyone everywhere. Seeking within his own sphere of knowledge and experience the ship’s captain overcomes what he perceives as a major evil force. At last, Ahab gives his life in the quest for the betterment for everyone.


Yay! You get a Gold Star! Londo as a tragic hero went through more twists than a bag of pretzels. Born into a noble family Mollari had a good heart, but he was condemned at every turn by his own bad choices. His ascension to the throne as Emperor was bittersweet and in the end he surrendered himself to his greatest fear, death at the hands of a Narn.

There you go. Now you've learned a few things about what make heroes tragic! It’s been defined; several examples from the past, present, and future have been given, why there was even a little exam to check for understanding! Now go out there write great story for E2!


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Drama and Dramatic Arts," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Comedy and Tragedy:

The Heroic in Moby-Dick: www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/5804/mobydick.htm

Perrine, Laurence, and Thomas R. Arp. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 6th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publications, 1991.

The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5:

www.greekciv.pdx.edu/ arts/drama/ sophocles/mon.htm,

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.