Do you ever get so connected to a character that it almost physically hurts when the character gets killed off? For me, it happens all the time when I watch Game of Thrones.
You don’t have to watch an HBO series to get this reaction—characters in books can lead to the same feelings. Whether on screen or in text, many of these characters are what’s known as tragic heroes.
Tragic heroes are the types of characters you really bond with and that you see making mistakes that lead to their death, loneliness, despair, or some other kind of undoing.
Don’t worry if it isn’t all completely clear right now … I’ll explain in more detail what makes a character “tragic” and give you some tragic hero examples you can use as inspiration in your own essay.
What Is a Tragic Hero?
Okay, so you might be wondering what a tragic hero is exactly. The name is a pretty good clue—a hero or protagonist that is, in some way, tragic. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
A tragic hero is a character, usually the main character, who makes a mistake in judgment that ultimately leads to his or her undoing.
Aristotle had a lot to say on the subject of tragic heroes, including certain characteristics their stories possess. Some of these characteristics include some scary-looking Greek words (thanks, Aristotle), but here’s a basic breakdown of what they mean.
- Hamartia: The tragic flaw that leads to the hero’s demise or downfall.
- Hubris: When the hero disrespects the natural order because of his or her own pride.
- Peripeteia: When the hero experiences a reversal of fate.
- Anagnorisis: When the hero makes an important discovery.
- Nemesis: An unavoidable situation the hero is in, typically related to hubris.
- Catharsis: The pity, sadness, or fear the audience feels toward the hero after his or her downfall.
The main two qualities about tragic heroes, though, is that they are just like you and me and that they suffer more than they deserve to.
This is critical to the response writers want to evoke from readers. By making tragic heroes generally neutral on the moral scale, it makes them more relatable, which makes readers upset when they finally die or suffer some other tragic fate.
Furthermore, they must suffer more than they should. This really gets the pity party going in the audience.
Lastly, tragic heroes are undone by their own actions or flaws. They understand this by the end of the play or novel. What’s more, they couldn’t have helped what had happened because their flaw—pride, love, etc.—isn’t something they could control.
How to Choose Your Own Tragic Hero Examples
Now that you’re feeling a little more sure about what a tragic hero is, it’s time to start looking for tragic heroes in the literature you’re reading.
Probably the easiest place you’re going to find a tragic hero (but maybe not the easiest to read about) are from William Shakespeare. He’s kind of the king of tragic heroes.
Pretty much any tragedy he wrote has one, and the tragic hero is typically a title character—Romeo, King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth … the list goes on. (I’ll give more details about a couple of these later.)
But Shakespeare wasn’t the first, last, or only author to use this type of character in literature. So how do you find tragic hero examples of your own?
First, pick a tragedy. Now, it doesn’t necessarily have to be labeled as a tragedy. You can choose from epic poems, young adult novels, and even children’s books. The point is that something tragic happens to one of the characters. They don’t have to die—they just have to suffer.
Secondly, as you are reading, pay attention to your connection to the character.
- Can you relate to him or her?
- Does he or she have human flaws?
- Do you feel bad about his or her downfall?
Answering yes to all of these questions is a pretty clear sign you have a tragic hero on your hands.
Lastly, think about the reason for the character’s downfall. Even if it’s technically by the hand of someone else, if it can be traced back to the flaw of the hero, it makes the situation tragic.
- Uncle Ben from Spiderman, for example, is not a tragic hero. He died in a random act of violence, not because of any flaw he possessed.
- Cinna from The Hunger Games, on the other hand, was killed by the Capitol, but because of his own pride and rebellious nature. And all the readers felt awful about it. He’s not a main character, but I’d argue that he’s a tragic hero.
6 Tragic Hero Examples for a Heroic Essay
Want a little bit of help getting started? Here are a few tragic hero examples I was able to find. First, let’s address two from the king of tragic heroes himself—Mister Bill Shakespeare.
1. Hamlet from Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his indecisiveness and obsession. He’s a smart guy, but he gets stuck in his head a lot. How does his indecisiveness and obsession lead to his downfall?
Well … he has to avenge the death of his father but doesn’t act quickly. Instead, he remains indecisive about whether his uncle, Claudius, was the murderer.
Even after he discovers his uncle killed his father, he can’t decide on how to enact his revenge and obsesses over it. Because he wastes all of his time trying to decide what to do, his uncle is able to poison Hamlet’s drink.
Hamlet’s mother drinks it by mistake and dies, after which Hamlet overcomes his flaw, kills Claudius, and promptly dies.
2. Romeo from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Romeo’s obsessive love is what causes him to kill himself at the thought of Juliet being dead (if he had held out another hour or two, he would’ve been fine). And inadvertently, it’s Romeo’s suicide that causes Juliet’s death.
I could write a whole post about Shakespearean tragic heroes, but how about tragic hero examples from some different authors?
3. Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Unlike Romeo, Gatsby is completely idealistic in his love for Daisy—he’ll do anything for her, but she wouldn’t do the same for him. It’s not her fault, though. Gatsby is so busy reaching for an ideal that he’s never satisfied.
He surrounds himself with money and parties even though he doesn’t take any real pleasure from them. In fact, he says it’s all for Daisy.
When he finally gets the girl, he still isn’t satisfied. But he takes the blame for Daisy hitting Myrtle with a car and gets shot because of it.
4. Severus Snape from the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Severus Snape, I have to admit, is a tragic hero according to many readers, but others might not think so. That’s the point of your essay though, right? To prove a character is a tragic hero.
So it doesn’t matter if some people say Snape isn’t, as long as you can back your writing up with evidence that he is.
Spoiler alert: If you aren’t up to speed on this series, you might want to skip the next paragraph.
Snape’s flaw is his undying love for Lily—even after she’s long gone. He watches after Harry even though he really doesn’t like him and serves as a double agent for Dumbledore against Voldemort (who killed Lily).
It’s this last relationship that is his undoing. He dies trying to protect Lily’s only son while working against her murderer.
5. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Peter Pan as a Disney character is a happy-go-lucky kind of kid. But literarily speaking, he’s a tragic hero. His flaw is his fear of growing up or getting old.
It’s because of this flaw that he ends up alone—everyone grew up and moved on except for him. He forgets everything within a very short time, which, honestly, makes the whole story even sadder.
6. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The Giving Tree is maybe the first tragic hero example many of us ever read. The Tree’s flaw is that it loves the boy more than itself. It gives and gives and gives different parts of itself over the years until there’s nothing left but a stump in the ground.
The Tree’s love and giving nature literally whittles it down to almost nothing.
Need some more inspiration, check out these tragic hero essay examples:
- Willy Loman as the Tragic Hero in the Play, Death of a Salesman
- Describing the Tragic Hero in the Epic Poem, Paradise Lost
- The Tragic Hero of Dick Diver in the Novel Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Different Approaches You Can Take With Your Essay
There are lots of ways you can approach your essay, but before you get too creative, check out the assignment instructions first. If your instructor wants you to write a five-paragraph essay, that’s what you need to do.
However, if you have more creative leeway, try thinking outside the box a little bit. You could write an alternate history. Think and write about what would have happened if the character had overcome a tragic flaw sooner.
Another option is writing your essay like a mock interview with the character explaining his or her actions, the reason for taking those actions, whether he or she would’ve done anything differently.
There are a number of different angles you could take with your essay, so use your imagination. If you’re having second thoughts about your approach, you can have the Kibin editors look it over. They’ll make sure your essay doesn’t end up as a tragedy.