What Is a Tragic Hero, and How Do You Write About One?

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “hero”?

Do you think first responders rushing to the scene of a tragedy to help victims? Maybe you’re reading this before lunch, and the first thing you think of is a hero sandwich.

While both of these are legitimate types of heroes, they aren’t today’s focus. This article focuses on tragic heroes.

Specifically, we’re going to look at the difference between your average, run-of-the-mill hero and a tragic hero. And because you’re probably here because you need to write an essay about a tragic hero, we’re going to cover that too.

Without further ado, here’s (almost) everything you need to know about tragic heroes.

neon sign that says 'we can be heroes just for one day'

What Is a Tragic Hero?

Of course, in order to be a tragic hero, one must first be a hero.

A hero is generally a courageous warrior type who is admired by many and who is ready to rush into harm’s way to save individuals (or the entire planet).

So what makes a tragic hero tragic?

The one-sentence definition: Tragic heroes are literary characters (often the protagonist) who make a crucial judgment error that ultimately leads to their downfall.

Of course, there’s more to a tragic hero than a hero who makes a mistake.

Tragic heroes generally possess the following characteristics:

  • Tragic heroes are imperfect. The audience sees the character as flawed, and they can relate to and empathize with the hero.
  • Tragic heroes are prideful and often suffer more than necessary.
  • Tragic heroes are generally someone of high status who experiences a drastic change in fortune (from good to bad).
  • The downfall of a tragic hero is evident from the start, but the hero can do nothing to stop it.
  • Tragic heroes discover their impending fate and accept it.
  • Tragic heroes are harmed (emotionally and/or physically) throughout their lives.
  • While tragic heroes learn from their mistakes, they are powerless to control their ultimate fate.
  • Tragic heroes must face an important decision. It is often an error in judgment regarding the decision that causes their downfall.

NOTE: While the classic tragic hero was a male from a wealthy and/or powerful family, modern tragic heroes may be any gender and from any background.

How to Write About a Tragic Hero

ornate page from the tragedy of macbeth

Writing about a tragic hero is like writing about any other topic in the sense that there are a ton of ways to approach the subject. But unless your assignment specifically states that your essay should list and/or describe a handful of tragic heroes in literature, your essay should do more than merely list examples.

You need to find a focus, and you need to analyze.

Before you do anything, though, you need to decide who you want to write about.

Choose your hero

One of the first steps in writing about a tragic hero is to consider which hero (or heroes) you’ll focus on. This may already be dictated by your assignment, but if you have a choice, consider which heroes speak to you.

Do you want to write about classic Shakespearean tragic heroes like Hamlet or Romeo (from Romeo and Juliet), or will you focus on a more modern tragic hero like Severus Snape from Harry Potter?

If you’re still not sure which hero to select, check out 6 Tragic Hero Examples for a Heroic Essay for inspiration.

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Decide your approach

Once you’ve selected your hero(es), decide what type of essay you’ll write.

Not sure how to approach your essay? Here are three ideas.

Character analysis essay

You may choose to develop a character analysis within another type of essay, or you may want to write an entire essay that analyzes your hero’s character.

In this case, the focus of the literary analysis is often to explain how and why your hero fits the definition of a tragic hero.

For instance, let’s say you’re writing about Batman.

batman standing in industrial building

Batman fits the classic definition of a tragic hero for the reasons below:

  • He’s an educated, intelligent man who comes from a wealthy, powerful family.
  • He suffers because his parents were tragically murdered.
  • His life becomes more difficult after the death of his parents as he chooses to avenge their deaths and fight crime.
  • He is a (relatively) normal person who the audience can relate to and empathize with.
  • He possesses a character flaw in that he vows not to kill others. While some may, of course, not see this as an actual flaw, it is what causes Batman to experience more hardships as he does not kill villains when given the chance (which leads to even more crime, hardship, and destruction).

Once you’ve hit the key points to highlight how and why the character fits the definition of a tragic hero, use specific examples from the story to fill in the details and support your claims.

Check out how one student handled a character analysis in Macbeth: A Nihilistic, Self-Loathing Tragic Hero.

Alternatively, your character analysis might conclude that a character is not a tragic hero. To see an example of this strategy in action, read Why Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart Is Not a Tragic Hero.

Compare and contrast essay

If you’re comparing and contrasting two (or more) tragic heroes, don’t simply write a list of similarities and differences. While creating this type of list is a great prewriting strategy, your compare and contrast essay needs to do more than simply identify character traits.

The essay needs a focus. Think about the point you’re trying to make by comparing and contrasting the tragic heroes.

Here’s what I mean.

Imagine you’re writing a compare and contrast essay about the tragic heroes of Shakespeare.

Your paper wouldn’t simply list tragic heroes and identify character traits that are the same or different.

Instead, you would need to develop a clear thesis to let your readers know what exactly you’ll be discussing about Shakespeare’s tragic heroes.

For example, when developing your thesis, you might consider the following questions:

  • Does Shakespeare use the same types of tragic heroes in a number of plays? Do Romeo, Hamlet, and Macbeth share more than the basic elements that define a traditional tragic hero?
  • Or does Shakespeare mix it up and develop unique characters that portray a tragic hero differently in each play?

Another approach is to compare and contrast two tragic heroes who, on the surface, don’t seem to have much in common but who are ultimately more alike than many would imagine.

Take, for example, Macbeth and Willy Loman (from Death of a Salesman). On the surface, Loman, a salesman trying to provide for his family, and Macbeth, a general who wants nothing more than to be king, seem to have little in common.

Both, however, share a common fatal flaw: ambition. Both men want more out of life and want to move beyond their current stations in life.

young king facing away

Want more ideas of tragic heroes to compare? Check out these essay examples for inspiration:

Persuasive essay

The goal of a persuasive essay is to convince your audience. One common tragic hero essay assignment is to convince your reader that the real tragic hero in a work is someone aside from the obvious choice.

Here are a few examples

If your professor allows you to be a little more creative in your approach, you might try to convince your readers why you should be considered a tragic hero.

Remember, modern tragic heroes don’t need to be nobility or male, so consider how you might fit the definition of a tragic hero (aside from that whole part about your tragic flaw leading to your demise, of course).

Perhaps your character flaw is lack of self-control, pride, or ambition. Perhaps you’ve suffered in some way because of this flaw, and it has caused hardships in your life.

You might even include some elements of comparison and contrast to illustrate how you compare to a tragic hero on film or in classic literature.

Ready to Write?

writing desk with computer and mouse

Now that you have a better understanding of tragic heroes and are ready to begin writing, take a look at these resources to help you get started:

Not sure your paper is the best it can be? Don’t let a poorly written essay be your tragic flaw. Let the editors at Kibin help you improve your writing.

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