I have a story idea for a science fiction tragedy where the protagonist starts off with a central flaw that he eventually overcomes. However, it ultimately doesn't matter because humanity has the same central flaw, and this only becomes apparent at the very end of the story.

It feels like it will work and result in more of a sting in the tail of the story, but I haven't been able to find any confirmation that this is a viable type of story.

So, can the protagonist in a tragedy have a positive character arc, only to be crushed by the realization that humanity can't change like he has? Or is that too dislocating for the reader?

And if it does seem viable, do you know of any novels of that sort? I'm curious to see how someone else handles such a story type.

  • Is overcoming this flaw part of the protagonist's goal, or a side-effect of their journey? – Chronocidal Jul 8 at 7:49
  • @Chronocidal It's a side effect of their journey. They don't view their flaw as a flaw at the start of the story. – Arbutus Jul 8 at 15:59
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    It is a fairly common theme for a protagonist to see something as a flaw, which eventually would turn out as their defining feature (ex. "Shrek"). – Alexander Jul 8 at 20:11
  • @Alexander Sure, but that's the opposite of what I'm proposing for my protagonist. He starts with a flawed belief that he doesn't think is flawed, then he comes to understand that it is indeed flawed and he stops thinking like that. So, it's a positive arc for him. However, it's a tragedy because humanity has the same flawed belief that he had, writ large, which causes it to make a horrible decision at the end of the story and he has no power to stop it. – Arbutus Jul 8 at 21:21
  • @Arbutus thank you, I was confused about the meaning of "not matter" in this context. In this case I will stand with Chronocidal answer. You will need to show how protagonist's own ark matters, even if he can't change the world. – Alexander Jul 8 at 21:27

Consider for a moment a SciFi/Fantasy story, where our Intrepid Hero must journey across the world/galaxy. Along the way, they discover that aliens/elves/dwarves/goblins aren't as bad as they thought, and overcome a xenophobia/racism that they didn't even realise that they had.

In the end, they return home, only to realise that everyone they used to know is just as xenophobic/racist as they used to be.

There are then two ways that this can be played: either to show that the protagonist is no longer satisfied with their old life, and rides off into the sunset for another adventure, or to show them as a Paragon: they are proof that these people can change, under the right circumstances, but that those circumstances aren't anything they'll ever come across at home. The protagonist can then either leave, heading for More Enlightened ShoresTM, or they can stay - either holding themselves apart from hoi polloi, or trying to encourage them to change (with the option of direct action - campaigning, debate, etcetera - or indirect action, leading by example instead of by preaching)

Take a moment to consider The Hobbit. As much as Bilbo may grumble and complain and object about Gandalf foisting an adventure upon him (his flaw here being complacency - hobbits being perfectly happy to sit around in the Shire all day, repeating the same motions time-after-time), upon his return, he soon starts planning his next adventure - a trait which earns him some disapproval from his neighbours (but only mild and minor, since his adventure has made him remarkably Rich, and so he is merely 'Eccentric' rather than 'Weird')

And, of course, with his steady stream of exotic visitors, and by regaling wide-eyed children with fantastical tales, he slowly starts to corrupt the youths with the idea that one day, just perhaps, they might have an adventure of their own...

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  • Your example story is in the ball park, as the central flaw of both the protagonist and humanity (in this story, anyway) is xenophobia. But the ways you've suggested such a story could play out don't strike me as particularly tragic. Maybe mildly so. And while I get what you're saying about Bilbo, The Hobbit is no tragedy. My story idea has the protagonist overcoming their xenophobia and pessimism and finally obtaining hope for the future of humanity, only for that hope to be crushed by what the world's leaders decide at the end. – Arbutus Jul 8 at 16:32

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