Fantasy is rife with tragedy. Side characters we love die, there are orphans, lawlessness, big battles, etc.
Especially if you’re writing dark fantasy you’re going to be writing tragic things.
Let’s talk about tragedy.
English 101 and “Personal Tragedy”
Let’s take it back to high school English class for a second. Remember all those units you had on Shakespeare? I think there’s a good reason for this as Shakespeare, to my mind, is the king of writing tragedy (and perhaps writing in general).
One of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths was that it wasn’t just about “everyone dies at the end”. There are more complex, deeper, and personal tragedies to the characters themselves. These personal tragedies whether they be character flaws, relationships, or prior events, lend themselves to the work as a whole.
In Romeo and Juliet, we have two lovers. Romeo from the beginning of the play is a sensitive guy who wants to solve all his conflicts and problems with love. He tries that with Juliet too and we all know how that ends. His friend Mercutio is a fun guy who (almost literally) caught in the crossfire between the two families. The deaths of Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, Tybalt, and so on were all preventable.
Therein lives tragedies. Tragedy is wrought from who the characters are and the decisions they make. This is what happens in Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet.
Tragedy is deeper than making bad things happen to your characters. It’s highly personal to them. It’s them trying with everything they are to do what’s right and failing. It’s them being forced to play a role they don’t want to play. It’s loss that is at least in some part connected to them or their fault.
Think of your characters’ personal tragedies. Apply them.
Tragedy at the Beginning
Your beginnings will be strongest (most likely) when they introduce a/the conflict (see my post on beginnings for more on that.), but having a big tragic event at the beginning can be hit or miss.
For one thing, it’s powerful. Something is happening, there’s action, emotions, etc and can really engage the reader.
On the other hand, tragedy has a lot of power, but you don’t get the full impact of that at the beginning far too often. Remember, it’s chapter one. The reader doesn’t care about the lover dying in the protagonist’s arms, or the protagonist’s village burning down. They want to care, they just don’t yet. It might be more advantageous to have that later on in order to reap the full emotional impact of that scene.
The second issue the reader has no clue why this is happening. Why kill the protagonist’s lover? Why is someone burning down some random village in FantasyLand that I know nothing about? If the reader doesn’t know why these things are happening, your beautiful and powerful scene runs the risk of falling flat in the first chapter.
Maybe your story absolutely needs to have this happen in the beginning, which is fine, but you’ll have to show the reader why this happened and make them care very shortly after or during, or what have you. Otherwise, they won’t care.
It’s all about execution. If you can pull this off you’re all the better for it, but consider where/when in your story tragedy is going to have the greatest impact.
Tragedy is Built
Remember Hamlet? It’s a loooooooong play. Like really long. It’s over 4 hours if performed without cuts. The ending where Hamlet dies and Norway invades is culmination of all these events that came before. Everything the characters do lead to that end and it is built up line by line, and scene by scene.
Take Ophelia in Hamlet. She’s warned about Hamlet, Hamlet starts acting “crazy”, she’s upset and confused, Hamlet accidentally kills her father, she goes mad (debatable), she dies (suicide or accident is still debated). The tragedy is that Hamlet and Ophelia loved each other (Yes, I believe this). He pushed her away to protect her and she only died once Hamlet was gone. Hamlet jumps into her grave and screams about how much he loved her.
Ophelia’s tragedy didn’t happen in Act I, Scene I. It didn’t happen until a bunch of other things inevitably led to that end.
My point, you can’t just throw tragedy in there. You have to build it. You have to plant clues for it. You have to foreshadow. A good tragic event will have the reader going back and saying “Oh, that’s where Protagonist McGee screwed up.” or “This is a hint that ShadySideCharacter was going to betray Protagonist McGee.”
Suspense and subtly are your friends. The tragic event itself should be as subtle as a sledgehammer but the events, conversations, or actions leading up that should be little whispers sprinkled throughout. It should feel sudden when the reader gets to that point, but reveal it to not actually be sudden, just overlooked or unforeseen by the characters until it was too late.
Death isn’t Always the Ultimate Tragedy
Death is powerful for lots of reasons that you don’t me to tell you about. However, it may not be the ultimate tragedy your characters need for your story.
Take Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire. He’s one of the best swordsmen in the land, maybe one of the best that ever lived. He’s cocky and proud of it. He’s not good at much else. He’s not good with books and learning as his brother is. He’s not a particularly crafty schemer like his father. In the course of the story, he gets his right hand cut off.
That was his sword hand. That hand, and the ability to hold and use a sword in it, was his entire identity.
Now these sorts of things can be overcome depending on your characters and story, unlike death. But that doesn’t make them less tragic or powerful.
What do your characters value most? Their pride, their looks, their identity, their wealth, their ability to do something (read, play music, speak, fight, ride a horse, etc.) and so on. How is that taken away from them?
A character who does everything he/she can to impress their parents and inherit the throne, but makes a mistake and is banished for it. A character who makes their trade singing, but loses that ability somehow. A character that has finally found someone they truly love, but is ultimately betrayed by them.
Consider your tragedies carefully. Make them personal.
Turn Good Traits Tragic
This is one of my favorite things to read. A character is loyal, trying to do the right thing, is super generous. Then it gets turned around and hell rains down on them.
I’m not talking noble sacrifice. What if you had a character who is loyal to their faction, but their factions starts doing shady stuff. Their loyalty makes them just as bad as the faction itself. Eventually the faction does something truly horrible that our loyal friend cannot reconcile and is forced into the position of a traitor, which being so loyal, is the type of person they detest the most. Make it more complicated by having the faction have a somewhat reasonable or sympathetic cause.
Maybe you have a character who is kind of a jerk, but does one selfless, nice thing once and somehow that leads to an entire village burning down.
Don’t rely on flaws to make your characters tragic. Turn the good thing into a flaw and show the impact of it. Show the aftermath. Show the struggle to make a choice. Show the pain.
Choose Words Carefully
This will all depend on what you are trying to accomplish with your tragic event.
If for example you want to make a point that tragedy in your world is nonsensical, can happen to good people, and there is nothing to be done: “LoveInterest struggled for breath with panicked eyes and died in the darkness alone and afraid.”
If you want something more emotional: “Protagonist McGee screamed curses into the sky. Howling like a beast, he/she felt pain and rage that ran deeper than any wound he/she could have ever suffered. LoveInterest was sprawled motionless on the side of the road like a slain animal. His/her clothes were red as wine and there was no more beauty, for Protagonist McGee had also died on the side of the road with LoveInterest.”
Neither of those were particularly “good” examples (sorry), but the point is that you need to focus on what your tragic event is. If it is action, clear, simple and concise words are the stronger choice. If it hinges on emotion, more symbolism, metaphors, smilies, and what not you use to illustrate what’s happening.
Of course, you can blend the two, but as always, use the words that need to be there. Otherwise you risk melodrama and making it read like a literary soap opera.
No Observers of Tragedy
What I mean is choose the POV character for the tragic event that is directly involved and even better, the one that this event is going to have the most emotional impact on. Don’t jump into a minor character’s POV or some random observer and have them watch what’s happening.
The reader wants to feel with the characters, so don’t take that away from them. If you’re only sticking to one viewpoint, this is obviously not applicable, but all the same the point stands.
Balance is everything. Tragedy needs to be balanced with humor. If you are writing dark fantasy where tragedy goes wild, you’re going to need to give your characters a win.
This is where catharsis comes in. If you did your job right, your readers are going to be rooting for your characters to win in some way. Your reader is pissed off at the villain, their anguished over the death of character’s loved ones, they’re sad for your character.
Give the reader a catharsis and give your characters one too. Balance the tragedy with a win or a triumph in some way.
Protagonist McGee’s childhood home may be in rubble, but they win back their land from EvilLord and take their rightful place and start to rebuild after slaying EvilLord, for (a poor) example.
Don’t Be Afraid to Hurt Characters
If you’re going to use tragedy, go big or go home. Don’t reserve it for side characters. Don’t be afraid to hurt the characters you love.
For a creator, that can feel bad. You’ve poured so much work into a character and care for them in some way. All the same, if something tragic needs to happen to them, let it happen.
Too often writers skimp out on this. The city is attacked but Protagonist and Pals make it out unscathed. A side character’s love interest dies, but the protagonists friends and family make it to the end alive and well.
Tragedy is powerful for the reader because it happens to characters we, the readers, care about. If anything the reader will root harder for your character, be more on their side, and be more happy when/if they triumph.
Random of External Tragedy
In the real world, bad things do happen for no reason to good people. But we aren’t writing the real world, we’re writing a story (no matter the genre).
Can you have senseless or random tragedy happen? Yes, absolutely. I’ve seen it done beautifully.
But remember it may not be the strongest choice. Of course this will highly depend on what you are writing and who you are, but still. What’s the stronger choice: Having the love interest randomly die of a plague while the hero was away? Or having the love interest die because the hero was careless, and accidentally revealed the location of the love interest to the enemy?
The other problem with random tragedy is that it keeps characters too innocent. The “good” guys are at no fault for anything that happens to others/them in any way. It’s all just random. To be blunt, if I wanted a story like that I’d go pick up a newspaper (forgive the cynicism.)
Your characters are not just being pushed around from tragic event to tragic event by fate. They are doing things in the story. They are taking action and making choices. They are not innocent bystanders in their own story. If your characters aren’t doing anything, you should probably figure out what the hell you’re writing.
You can tackle questions of fate, but like I said, but remember tragedy is suffering. Make the stronger choice, whatever that is.
I tend to prefer keeping the tragedy internal and not 100% dependent on coincidences and outside circumstances. I think is has not only a stronger impact on the reader, but the characters too.
Keep the Angst Down to Minimum
We all get angsty once in a while. If we were like that all the time, we would be entirely insufferable people. Same goes for characters.
There’s a difference between legitimate suffering and mental/emotional pain in the wake of a tragic event versus angsting about something for 400 pages.
Angsting is where the character mopes around going “woe is me” for a long time and doesn’t do anything. Tragedy is action. Tragedy is real loss, suffering. It cannot be changed or refuted. Bambi’s mom died and cannot be brought back to life. There is no magic fix that will erase it or return things to how they were.
If you have an angsty character and are doing it on purpose, that’s one thing. But don’t put angst in there for readers or other characters to feel sorry for that character. Most of the time, prolonged angst is annoying and insufferable. It halts the action and the character broods on it for a long time.
Angst means that things happened to your character, but your character doesn’t do anything. It might even mean that your character has never done any wrong and they just brood about all the wrong done to them.
Let your characters do wrong. Even if its unintentional, even if they felt they had no other choice, even if it’s a mistake. Don’t remove their agency and replace it with angst.
Tragedy Breeds Change
Remember when I said tragedy cannot be erased?
A huge tragic event is going to change things. Whether it be the direction of the plot or even shaking the characters to their core. The villain doesn’t get to kill Protagonist McGee’s best friend and have Protagonist McGee feel a bit better a few chapters later.
There needs to be real, fundamental change. The game needs to be shaken. Real tragedy is where the foundation of everything these characters new is twisted and flipped around. There is a loss they will never be able to fix. Even if they do manage to deal with it in a healthy way and move, the reality of what happened is still going to be there.
My point is your characters don’t just get to move on to how things were. Whether the tragedy makes them change course, have new perspective, crave revenge, or whatever is totally up to you. Just make sure this big thing you created has a purpose and actually changes the game.
This is at the end for a good reason. It’s tired, often overused, or incorrectly used.
It’s very obvious to the reader when the character’s tragic backstory is just thrown in the mix to make the character look sympathetic. What happens is that the character might reveal a bit about it at some point to another character (usually the love interest), the other character soothes them, and then the pals move along, never to be mentioned again. Either that or the character angsts about it for a long time and it contributes nothing to the story.
I’ve written more on this so I’ll try to keep it brief. You can absolutely have a tragic backstory. The problem is when it contributes nothing to the story proper. Maybe the character grew up as an orphan. Depending how much time has gone by, they probably found a way to cope with it (healthy or not) and have other things going on other than thinking about their dead parents. Even Harry Potter didn’t think about his dead parents constantly.
Again, this is going to be specific to the character and the nature of tragic event/trauma, but hear me out. Too many times have I seen “Abused Character with a Heart of Gold”. Really? Have they actually coped healthily?
If the tragic backstory is a deep part of what makes up this character, you need to show that in how the character takes action and makes choices. Jon Snow in A Song of Ice and Fire is a bastard who wants to have his “father’s” family name more than anything. He’s jealous of his half-siblings, he’s treated poorly by his step-mother. He desperately wants to prove himself and all this is shown in his actions as he proceeds and learns to live with the shame of being a bastard in a world that frowns upon him. He’s also deeply troubled not knowing the identity of his mother.
It makes sense. This is how he would presumably act with his background and personality. Would a character who has been abused by men her whole life easily trust men in the story proper? Would a character from a dysfunctional family really not be jealous or resentful of more stable family situations?
Maybe the answer is yes. If so, give the reader a good reason why or it might come off as contrived or trying to buy sympathy for a character.
Show the tragedy’s influence on their life if their is any. Show it in their fears and relationship. Show it in their wants and goals.
That was a doozy. Thanks for sticking around so far. Tragedy is such a powerful and sublime tool, use it well. Use it carefully. Use it wisely.
Write a tragic scene for a new work or a work in progress of yours. It can be part of the story proper or it can be part of the backstory. Have the tragedy happen to the POV character. Go big!
- What is the character losing in this tragedy that cannot be replaced?
- What is important to this character?
- How would this tragedy stay with them down the line?
- How would this tragedy change the plot/characters involved?
- Who is this character? Why does this tragedy happen to them?
- How is this character involved? Was this something they could have feasibly prevented?