The Tragedy of Tragedies

With the rise of the Game of Thrones series, more and more stories I stumble across seem to be ending unhappily.

It’s always been a bit of an issue. For some reason I think that the one thing an author hates more than anything else is being predictable. I’ve seen stories shifted entirely because an audience happened to guess the twist just a little in advance, veering into complete nonsense rather than fulfill what they had set up. A lot of perfectly fine stories get mangled because the author doesn’t want a predictable, happy ending.

This would be fine, but there’s a difference between a good tragedy and a bad one. Let’s say we have Luke Skywalker choke on a space-fish bone some day while eating during Return of the Jedi. He dies and the story is over. This is a tragedy and an unexpected one. But is this a good ending?

Of course not. The event has nothing to do with the character’s story-relevant choices. It’s as meaningful as having the villains accidentally destroy their own Deathstar.

Most authors don’t go this far, but they might as well. If you look at the great tragedies that endure the centuries, and even the truly great deaths of Game of Thrones, they follow a simple rule.

The destruction of the hero is a triumph for that character.

Romeo and Juliet is all about love defying an escalating series of obstacles. Ultimately the characters kill themselves to be together, defying death. If they loved each other less passionately, they would have probably found their way to a happy ending.

Not a fan of R & J? Try Cyrano. This extraordinary play (find the Kevin Klein version if you can) gives the protagonist everything he needs to be rich, powerful and with the woman he loves. However he refuses to play political games or grovel to the power structures, prizing freedom and individuality above all. When being with the woman he would die for gladly would dishonor a friend’s memory, he keeps his distance from her. His death is a triumph for everything he stood for, and we walked into the inevitability of it with head held high.

Ned Stark could have had power and station if he had only played with the political fiction of the child king’s bloodline. His honor couldn’t abide this. He knew the danger of the path he chose and only compromised at all for the sake of his family in the end, not the sake of his own life. It’s a powerful death.

Great tragedies are triumphs for the character, not defeats. Cyrano dies undefeated, because his honor and freedom were never lost. Romeo and Juliet end the feud of their families and are together in death. Ned Stark dies uncorrupted and uncompromised.

The heroes may not always achieve their goals, but their deaths are the triumph of their characters when they are tested. This is what makes a great tragedy.

I’d like to read more of these. More stories when a character could avoid death and chooses not to intentionally, because that is not who they are. Fewer stories where the character just happens to trip and fail to block the villain’s sword. Those ruin the whole rest of the book, game or movie for me.

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