Who doesn’t love a good tragic character? A character with a fatal flaw that dooms them to failure no matter how hard they try or no matter how good their intentions. A well written tragic character can be either the protagonist or antagonist of a story, as long as the reader feels sympathy for them. The character of the tragic hero is often attributed to Aristotle, although it actually comes from Renaissance Italian and French commentators who elaborated his original ideas. Perhaps the tragic character resonates so well with readers because it adds a layer of humanity to characters that may otherwise be regarded as purely bad or evil. A tragic character blurs the lines between good and bad and gives us a more realistic and believable character to root for. Today I’ll be looking at five tragic literary characters who tug at our heart strings.
WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
Holden Caulfield – The Catcher in the Rye
It could be argued that unlike many of the characters on this list, Holden Caulfield fares pretty well. Holden is a white, middle class, educated kid from a good family who may be somewhat dysfunctional but not by any means bad people. None of this really helps poor Holden though, as he suffers from feelings of isolation, anxiety, and a general confusion about the world around him. When you’ve got demons in your head, it doesn’t matter how far you run, they’ll always be right behind you.
Throughout The Catcher in the Rye, Holden meets a good number of other characters, but is unable to make a connection with any of them. Holden’s emotional isolation may stem from the loss of his brother Allie, who died of cancer a few years prior to the events of the novel. There are clues throughout the story that Holden may be getting the help he needs, but whether he’ll ever be able to the find answers he’s looking for is left for the reader to decide.
Sandor Clegane aka The Hound – A Song of Ice and Fire
Pretty much every character in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series could be considered tragic to a greater or lesser extent. In the brutal world of Westeros, where the politics is every bit as dangerous as open warfare, it seems every major character is struck by tragedy at some point. Both lords and peasants get shit on in spades in GRRM’s epic series, but perhaps one of the most tormented souls in Westeros is the fierce warrior called Sandor Clegane, better known as The Hound.
Whilst other characters are able to overcome their suffering in one form or another, Sandor Clegane’s life seems to have consisted of one painful experience after another, both mentally and physically. This pain is made all the worse by the fact that his greatest wound was delivered by his own brother when he was only a child. Sandor may be a beast of a man, but his older brother, Ser Gregor is even larger. Nicknamed “The Mountain”, Gregor has gained a fearsome reputation for his cruel, sadistic nature and uncontrollable temper. When Sandor was only six, his twelve year old brother found him playing with one of his toys. Gregor showed his dominance by holding his little brother’s face against a hot brazier, horrifically scarring his younger brother for life. Rather than punish Gregor, the boys father spread a rumour that Sandor’s bedding had caught fire and left it at that.
Sandor found service with house Lannister where he became the bodyguard to the future king Prince Joffrey. Sandor’s abilities as a ruthless fighter and skilled swordsman earns him a fearsome reputation, and as Joffrey’s bodyguard, he even follows orders that require him to kill a young peasant boy who supposedly “attacked” the young prince. Despite his hardness and ferocity, it is clear that unlike his brother, Sandor is no mindless monster. Although he admits that battle is one of the few things in life that makes him feel alive, he appears to take no pleasure from hurting those who cannot defend themselves. When the young Sansa Stark held hostage by the Lannisters, Sandor does his best to protect her from the sadistic Joffrey would, which is more than any of the knights do. At the Battle of the Blackwater, Sandor fights fiercely but eventually he breaks after seeing so many men burned alive. After telling the now king Joffrey to go fuck himself, Sandor finds Sansa and tells her to come with him so he can take her somewhere safe. She declines and so he abandons the castle and wanders aimlessly until he encounters another Stark child…
Despite his fearsome nature, one can’t help but feel sympathy for the Hound. Like his nickname, he is a dog that has been treated so badly he can only snarl and fight his way through life. His hideous facial burns have him stared at wherever he goes and his pain goes far deeper than his physical scars. It’s clear the man has suffered serious trauma from a life of violence and the only way he can escape his pain is by drinking himself to oblivion. He may kill you without much thought, but unlike so many of the Machiavellian characters in GRRM’s books, he’d never think of stabbing you in the back. In his own way, the Hound has a code of honour that grants him a brutal form of chivalry. He even refuses to be knighted, believing that a knights vow to both protect the innocent and yet kill is hypocritical. Sandor is a man fueled by hate. Hate for his brother, hate for the hypocrisy of knights, and hate for a world do violent and dangerous that the only safe response is to reply in kind. Sandor was marked with pain and tragedy the day his brother mutilated him. This is one dog who deserves to be thrown a bone.
Lisbeth Salander – The Millennium series
On the surface, Lisbeth Salander posses gifts that could help her get well ahead of the game. She is highly intelligent, an excellent judge of character, a genius with computers, and has a photographic memory. Unfortunately, Lisbeth has no intention of playing the game, in fact, she’d be more likely to kick the game over, get on her motorbike, and never be seen again.
Due to a violent and traumatic childhood, Lisbeth has grown into a peculiar and very withdrawn person. Her anti social personality is no doubt the product of the abuse she’s suffered although some speculate that she may have anything from Asperger’s syndrome to even psychopathic tendencies. From the day she was born, Lisbeth has known violence. Her father beat her mother routinely until one day he beat her so badly she sustained permanent mental and physical injuries. In order to try and save her mother, Lisbeth threw a petrol bomb at her father. Her father received severe injuries but survived, whilst Lisbeth was placed in a psychiatric facility for children. It is later revealed that Lisbeth’s father is part of a huge conspiracy and she is targeted throughout her life to stop the conspiracy coming to light.
Over the course of the books, Lisbeth is raped, beaten, falsely accused of several serious crimes, and constantly misjudged. Despite all this, she is a survivor and her mental fortitude allows her to fight back, clear her name, and reveal the crimes that have been committed against her. Despite the cruelty and pain she endures, Lisbeth never considers herself a victim and her strength and resilience helps her overcome everything that is thrown at her. It could be argued that the real tragedy is her self imposed isolation and the walls she puts up to protect herself. No one could blame her for being this way, but there’s no doubt that it is what keeps her alone.
Sméagol/Gollum – The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings
One of the reasons Sméagol is so tragic is because once upon a time, he wasn’t so different from the Hobbits we know and love from the Shire. Without a band of loyal friends to help him, Sméagol was powerless to resist the One Ring and it ended up destroying him both physically and mentally.
Despite all the terrible things he does in his efforts to reclaim his precious, we can’t help but pity him because he is what Frodo would have become if the Ring were able to corrupt him. By the end of The Return of the King, Frodo has changed drastically from the innocent Hobbit we met in book one and his proximity to the Ring has significantly corrupted him. When he finally has the chance to destroy the Ring, he is turned and, were it not for Sam, the Ring may well have found itself back in Sauron’s possession. Even the great and good of Middle-Earth, including both Gandalf and Galadriel admit that they couldn’t hope to master the Ring, so what chance did a simple being like Sméagol have?
The Ring twisted his mind until Sméagol was all but destroyed and in his place was Gollum, the sick and twisted murderer who would stop at nothing to reclaim what was taken from him by Bilbo. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Sméagol is the fact that occasionally his good side will appear, like a person suffering from a mental illness who has moments of clarity. Not only does this remind us of the good that used to exist in Sméagol, but it also reminds him of the monster he has become. This made all the more tragic by the fact that after years of isolation, Sméagol’s condition seems to improve with the company of Frodo and Sam. Alas, the power of the Ring is too much and, like an addict, Sméagol eventually gives in to his dark side in order to reclaim his prize.
Everyone – Romeo and Juliet
“Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things. Some shall be pardoned, and some punished. For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo”. With a quote like that, you know you’re reading some pretty tragic stuff. Perhaps the most tragic characters in literature, Romeo and Juliet are doomed from the start.
These two star crossed lovers may be head-over-heels for one another, but in Shakespeare’s world, the saying “love conquers all” just isn’t true. Everybody knows why Romeo and Juliet is so tragic, the two realise they can never be together and end up making some dumb decisions that end with their deaths. However, the tragedy doesn’t just apply to both R and J.
Not a single character gets through this story without taking a serious kick to their emotional nuts. Of course, Romeo and Juliet’s actions wind up getting several of their friends and loved ones killed like Romeo’s BFF Mercutio, and Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt. It doesn’t stop there however, obviously both sets of parents must deal with the loss of their children but also with the knowledge that it was their actions and pride that lead to all this. Meanwhile the Nurse and Friar Laurence must live with the guilt that despite their best intentions, they failed to protect the young couple. The Prince must also live with the realisation that he failed to keep order in Verona and we mustn’t forget Romeo’s cousin and friend Benvolio, who despite his best efforts, failed to keep the peace between the younger Montagues and Capulets, and of course unknowingly doomed them all when he insisted Romeo join him at the party where Juliet and Romeo first met.
So there we go, just a few of the most tragic characters to be found in literature. Think I’ve missed out a character worth mentioning? Be sure to let me know in the comments who you feel deserves a place in this article.