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I've been told that a tragic hero is a protagonist with a tragic flaw or a character defect that ultimately leads to their downfall and that the audience should sympathize with the character, even as they recognize their flaws.

I am wondering if it's ok if the audience doesn't sympathize with the character. I have a character who is extremely evil and unlikeable, an anti-hero type, so I am wondering if that's ok. I've seen a lot of people experimenting with genre and archetypes, and I was wondering if it's possible to write an effective tragedy with an unlikeable tragic hero who people can't sympathize with.

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    If we can't sympathise with them, why would we find their downfall tragic?
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 16:14
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    An antihero's downfall can be tragic. A villain protagonist's downfall can really only feel deserved. While it's implied that he was corrupted by power to an extent, and it does nothing to stop the audience from enjoying his exploits, Light falls squarely into the latter category. Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 0:21
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    In "Paradise Lost" we cannot allow ourselves to sympathize with Lucifer -- he's the ultimate bad guy -- but we do.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 14:47
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    The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant kind of does this - quite possibly the most loathsome protagonist I've ever encountered.
    – SeanR
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 15:08
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    @F1Krazy I don't sympathise with the government, and yet when the government do things that are stupid and predictable, I always find it tragic.
    – Stef
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 15:47

8 Answers 8

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I have a character who is extremely evil and unlikeable, ...

How did he get that way? I doubt that he was born evil and unlikable: the tragedy could be the way that someone who is initially OK gradually becomes warped. Macbeth is a brave, successful general, but, by the end of Act 1 he has been persuaded to murder his patron and frame two innocent servants. If Shakespeare had skipped the material from Act 1 we'd just have the evil and unlikable protagonist you describe. I suggest that you focus on how to warp his character.

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    Great example is Walter White. He is definitely not the "hero" of the story, but you see him go from Mr. Chips to Scarface in a logical progression of events, and though his arc ends with him still being bad, he does maybe one good thing. (Although even some have had said that was open to interpretation) Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 2:31
  • Here is another thought: have you read much of Borges? I suggest that you compare Streetcorner Man with the later Rosendo's tale. The same incident, and the same central character, but two totally different points of view: hero or cockroach? Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 19:45
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I really doubt that is possible.

Readers (because we are somewhat egotistical) tend to identify with the protagonist, or at least with one of the "main crew."

Even with a tragic flaw, I don't think we will identify with an evil character. Hero or not.

We can identify with a flawed hero, like a drug addict, or an autistic and emotionally distant hero (as in "The Accountant"), but in the end the autistic Accountant, despite working for mobsters and criminals, is still the Good bad guy, risking his life to save the innocent girl that he worked beside; with no romantic interest in her whatsoever.

We see the same thing in Léon: The Professional. The hero is a professional hit man, extremely good at his job; we see him working. But he chooses to protect a young innocent girl, saving her, with strictly a fatherly vibe, no sexual interest. (If you've heard there is, you've been lied to.)

You can have ruthless, violent, murderous heroes with flaws, but they have to be clearly doing something altruistically good as the plot of the story. Protecting somebody, setting something right, killing the corrupt, and taking risks they are not at all forced to take.

For me in writing, that is the definition of a hero: They are in the fight to do something altruistically good for others, or for everybody. And they could quit, when they get knocked down or beat up or set back or injured. They are given chances when it would be sensible to quit. But they don't. They get up and go on, despite their losses, even if they think they are likely to fail, because they'd rather die than fail.

Your hero must be doing something the audience can recognize as altruistically good.

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    The Professional is a nice example of a "good" bad guy because they show us 1) his code is "no women, no kids" and 2) in action he kills better armed evil bodyguards but spares the unarmed boss (of course The Professional isn't even close to a tragedy) Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 0:03
  • @OwenReynolds True, not a tragedy. I was using it as an example of a very bad, very flawed hero that is, nonetheless, doing something clearly altruistic by adopting and protecting this child, that is not his own, and that he hardly knows.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 11:39
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    Counter-argument: look at how many people identify with and approve of characters like Walter White, or Tony Soprano, or to a lesser degree of awful Don Draper. There's tons of people who identify with immoral characters. Often with justifications for their actions, but sometimes without even that.
    – Idran
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 18:07
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    @JustinHilyard True, but Walter White at least began as a sympathetic character, a terminally ill man doing bad things to provide for his family. I know some people that stopped watching Breaking Bad when that motivation disappeared. Can't speak to Tony Soprano or Don Draper, I didn't bother watching them. But I'd wager there is some reason people watched them. Even Saul Goodman began as a sympathetic character, they made sure he got screwed, and was a Robin Hood cheating on behalf of people being wronged, at least in the early seasons.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 20:29
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There is a difference between a hero and a protagonist. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. There is a difference between relating to a character and connecting with them. From common thieves, mob bosses, assassins, serial killers and myriad monsters and demons, literature is rife with antiheroes and villainous main characters.

The reader need not approve of the character. The character need not have any redeemable qualities whatsoever. You will need to find other tactics to grab your reader's attention.

Morbid curiosity/Macabre - This is partly why the Sharon Tate murders are still talked about more than fifty years later.

Psychological fascination - Why Hannibal Lecter is so iconic. The character is thoroughly deplorable, and yet still the anchor of the series.

Plot/Arc - Though individual characters may have had some redeeming qualities, The Lannisters were deliciously despicable, as were the Corleones and Tattaglias. Fans loved watching the characters lie, swindle and kill each other.

Negative Illustration - You can make a statement about good (or broader social statement) through depicting evil, viz Alex DeLarge. (Admittedly, this narrative makes use of pretty much all the aforementioned devices, and is a master class of dystopian/antihero theme, but for sake of just a character study is befitting.)

Character Concept - Here again, using any/all the above techniques, you devise a character with an interesting concept that titillates your readers, makes them want to explore what makes the character tick, or indulge in their darkness from the safety of the fourth wall, and this list is nearly endless: Count Dracula, Travis Bickle, Char Aznable, Tyler Durden, ad nauseum (quite literally).

So no, the reader doesn't have to approve of the main character at all. There is a reason Jack the Ripper and Mike Meyers capture fans. There is a difference between an ethically good character and a conceptually good character.

And never underestimate the importance of just good writing.

Btw, the tragedy element is pretty basic IMO: it is what could-have-been. Flashes or hints of virtue appear from beneath the mire, never to be realized or allowed to shine. A character who could be likable, or lovable, or admirable, but through flaw (character-driven) or circumstance (plot-driven), never attains redemption, or love or what-have-you.

I would recommend reading up on some psychology; I personally don't believe in such a thing as pure evil or pure good; we are all faceted. So understanding your character's thinking and motivations (not to mention the psychology/desires of your audience) may help you delve into the mind and nature of your character, and breathe a fuller life into your concept.

Then all you gotta do is write the devil out of it. 3:)

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  • Jack the Ripper isn't a fictional character. He's a serial killer who was never caught. Most of the literature surrounding him has to do with the mystery of who he was and what his motives are.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 19:03
  • Sharon Tate was not fictional either. Point remains; they are captivating.
    – kmunky
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 19:06
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    The Corleones were bad, but the hero was Michael, and when he began, he was clearly trying to distance himself from his criminal family. It is a tragic story because he felt forced into the life of crime by his criminal family circumstances, he could not walk away and abandon them in their time of need. He loved them despite their criminality. In a way, Michael was exacting Justice for the criminal actions taken against his family, and tragically ended up just like them.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 19:24
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    "When writing a tragic HERO for a category [...] I've been told that a tragic hero is a protagonist [...] and that the audience should sympathize with the character, even as they recognize their flaws [...] I am wondering if it's ok if the audience doesn't sympathize with the character.." ---------- @kmunky Clearly the question refers to a tragic hero protagonist, and the "character" refers to that hero. You have misread "character" to mean "any character". Of course the audience doesn't have to sympathize with the bad guys, but they do have to sympathize with the hero.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 21:45
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    @kmunky Well, the OP specifically asked about "a tragic hero for a tragedy" so I'm guessing that aspect is important to them.
    – Cadence
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 23:24
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Sure, I can think of several examples --Lolita, The Talented Mr Ripley, and Match Point for tragedies, Young Adult or Youth in Revolt for a more comic take, A Clockwork Orange or Fight Club for less easily categorized examples.

The audience doesn't always need to sympathize with the main character, but they do expect to learn something from the person's journey, which means they need to empathize to at least a limited extent. There's often a moral lesson to be discerned, even if the main character never learns it. In Ripley and Match Point, for example, the MC destroys their own chance at love and happiness. We learn from them that even an unpunished sociopathic life is its own hell. Similarly, the villain/protagonist of Lolita self-destructs, even though he initially seems to have gotten away with his crimes scot-free. Both he, and the narcissistic hero of Young Adult experience a brief moment of moral self-awareness late in the narrative. In all of these cases we can view it, and think to ourselves "If that were me, I would have made better choices."

In both Orange and Fight Club there's something magnetic about the sociopathic central characters. Audiences may neither sympathize nor empathize with them, yet still find something to admire in their struggle to wrest the most out of life, and their opposition to being crushed by the steamroller of the status quo.

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  • And Goodfellas. We don't sympathize with Henry Hill, but we're interested in watching his easy corruption and long downfall.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 5:13
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In the official tragedy, Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus", the hero isn't exactly likable, but we can respect him. His good points are: being a hero general just back from saving Rome (several times), lost several of his sons in those wars and took it in stride, and he turned down being the emperor. That's pretty much the back-story for every cheesy action hero today -- a modest hero who's made great sacrifices for the nation. We'd like to see the guy live on his farm in peace, even if we wouldn't visit him much.

Then he human sacrifices an enemy in retaliation. That was legal and his right and you can see why he did it, but still ... . He's also such a rigid military man that he won't stand up to the new emperor for his remaining family. And he expects his kids to follow his orders, like modern day military movie dads, and is furious when they won't. He also tricks someone into eating a pie made from their own children, but by that time he's clearly gone mad.

So all-in-all his flaws are pretty bad, but they're still flaws -- he's not Evil. But his enemies are Evil -- four of them who are monsters in different ways. And what happens to him and his family is so much worse than he deserved.

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The main protagonist in the short story The Spider’s Thread is a genuinely unlikable character, a murderer and thief, throughout the story. And yet, the reader is subconsciously rooting for him all the time.

How is that achieved? The problem in the question seems to be a semantic one for me. A hero is by definition the character in the story the reader is most interested and invested in. This requires a certain level of sympathy, where sympathy is quite literally the “feeling his feelings” part that keeps the fictional story interesting for the reader.

Akutagawa uses a two-fold trick to make the character approachable. One is a single good deed that he did in the past. This serves then as hook for off-loading the work of feeling sympathy with this character to a god-like Buddha, who appears in the frame story. The reader is then in the position to be invested in the character’s fate without having to know motivations and reasons for the character’s bad acts.

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  • Thanks for drawing my attention to Akutagawa. I hadn't heard of him, but Wikipedia tells me that he inspired Rashomon. Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 19:52
  • Great example. Also referred to as Pet The Dog/Save The Cat trope.
    – kmunky
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 22:42
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In real life, as well as in Schindler's List and Shindler's Ark: Oskar Schindler.

He was a deeply flawed man. A drunkard, a womanizer, a man willing to become rich out of property stolen from others and forced labour. In most circumstances he would have been fairly detestable.

And yet, there was a moral line he would not cross, which far too many others did. They simply pretended that they didn't know what the Nazis were doing, or "simply followed orders". He put his life on the line to save as many as he could.

Why is the antonym of bad, good, and the antonym of evil, good? And yet bad and evil seem to be two utterly different concepts, and that difference is brought into focus by this man.

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Another thing to understand about a tragic flaw in classic tragedy is that the flaw is often one of the very traits that makes the hero successful and heroic. To be a real tragedy, the hero (this can apply to a villian) must rise above others, the higher the better, and subsequently fall, the lower the better, because of the same qualities. I do agree that it is challenging to make the fall of a villain feel like a bad thing. Are you sure you're really meaning to write a tragedy?

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