What is a Tragic Hero? Definition and Movie Examples

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A tragic hero is a character archetype who typically possesses noble qualities but is destined for downfall, suffering, or defeat due to a tragic flaw (hamartia) and the resulting consequences of their actions. This character’s journey often evokes a sense of pity and fear in the audience, leading to a cathartic experience. The tragic hero is not entirely good or evil, making their eventual demise relatable and profound.

Key Attributes of a Tragic Hero

The tragic hero archetype has been a key element in narratives since ancient Greek tragedies and is defined through its mix of character strengths and fatal flaws. This mix is exactly what makes this character archetype so interesting and compelling still.

Below, you can see a description of common key attributes of the tragic hero in literature and film.

Noble Stature and Virtue

The tragic hero is often of noble birth or holds a high position in society. Their virtuous qualities make their downfall more impactful.

Example: In Othello (1995), Othello is a respected general who is admired for his leadership and bravery. However, his jealousy, stoked and fueled by Iago, leads to his downfall.

Tragic Flaw (Hamartia)

This is a critical trait that leads to the hero’s downfall. It could be hubris (excessive pride), jealousy, or ambition.

Example: In Macbeth (2015), Macbeth’s ambition drives him to murder King Duncan, setting off a chain of events that leads to his tragic end.

Peripeteia (Reversal of Fortune)

The hero experiences a significant reversal of fortune, often (but not always) from a position of power to one of despair.

Example: This is evident in Jeppe on the Hill; Or, The Transformed Peasant (1981) – a Danish comedy by the Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (first published in 1723). In the play, the drunkard peasant Jeppe is found in a stupor by The Baron and his court. They decide to play a joke on Jeppe, who takes him to the baron’s castle, dresses him in fine clothes, and puts him on the Baron’s bed. When Jeppe wakes up, the servants convince him he is the Baron. He orders food and drinks and soon falls asleep drunk again and is taken back to his poor life, believing he has been to paradise.

I believe Jeppe on the Hill influenced Trading Places (1983), starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd.

Read more on peripeteia in film.

Anagnorisis (Recognition)

The moment of critical discovery or realization where the hero understands the true nature of their situation.

Example: In The Sixth Sense (1999), psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) realizes he has been dead throughout the movie.

Read more on anagnorisis in film.

Catharsis

The hero’s journey offers the audience a sense of emotional purging or catharsis. This emotional release is a hallmark of the tragic hero’s narrative arc.

Example: The character of Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) evokes this through his rebellion against the oppressive system and his ultimate sacrifice.

Read more on catharsis in film.

Summing Up

A tragic hero is a character in a story who starts with great qualities and high status but has a major flaw or makes a serious mistake that leads to their downfall and suffering. Despite their fall, they often gain some form of wisdom or self-awareness.

To write a tragic hero for a film, create a character with noble qualities and a fatal flaw. This flaw leads to their downfall, evoking pity and fear in the audience. Show their internal struggle and external consequences, making them relatable yet doomed. Finally, ensure their story offers a moral lesson or reflection on human nature.

Up Next: What makes a Movie Hero?

Author

  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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