The Byronic, the Tragic, and the Anti: Looking for a Hero – Part II

Not so long ago, I started parsing through a few resources to better situate my supporting character. I wasn’t sure where he fit, as he’s a bit anti-conformist, not very well liked for his past misdeeds, and I wasn’t sure where he was headed. Would he redeem himself, or would he sacrifice himself to serve a greater good?

I’d heard the terms Byronic, Tragic, and Antihero bandied about, so I decided to do a little more research into these types of characters. These are the results of my efforts.

A Reiteration of the Byronic Hero

In my last post on the subject, I talked about the qualities of the Byronic Hero and offered a few fictional examples is contemporary young adult literature, ranging from Cassandra Clare to good old J.K. Rowling. To reiterate, I turn to Literature Glossary for a more succinct definition:

Cooked up by the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron, a Byronic hero is an antihero of the highest order. He (or she) is typically rebellious, arrogant, anti-social or in exile, and darkly, enticingly romantic. Did we mention Byronic heroes tend to also be kind of hot? Yeah, that too.

The origins of the Byronic hero can be traced to John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. For Byron’s version, check out his poem Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage. The notoriously swoon-worthy Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights is also a very famous Byronic hero.

The Byronic hero is typified by a troubled past, the results of his former actions leading him to be world weary and sometimes cynical. He is considered a lone wolf at the best of times, and though he stands apart, there is often a thread of desire in him that makes him want acceptance, redemption, forgiveness: something to change the course of his fate.

A Tragic Hero, by comparison, makes a decision; a choice that affects his course of action that leads to tragedy — usually his own.

An Introduction to the Tragic Hero

Tragic heroes are often presented as characters who are good: virtuous, noble, who aspire to greatness who meet an unfortunate ends due to a choice they make. As I understand it, this presents a real “sucks to be you” sort of scenario because there must be some acknowledgement on the part of the hero that the whole thing might have been avoided:

You tried, but you screwed up, now you’re going to pay the price for your mistake, even if you don’t necessarily deserve it.

The audience sympathizes, the good guy gets it in the end anyway. We close the book feeling as if the world’s a darker place.

I am surprisingly alright with this scenario. Maybe because I don’t mind making my characters suffer so much? *tucks away a little bit of sadism for later*

Here’s where the road splits, because there are two approaches to the Tragic Hero, one summarized by Aristotle (which you might see in Oedipus), and one belonging to Elizabethan England, that we see in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Aristotle’s Tragic Hero:

  • Virtuous, wise, or noble by birth
  • Actively makes a mistake by his own action (Hamartia)
  • Experiences a reversal of fortune because of his tragic mistake (Peripetia)
  • Discovery that his reversal of fortune was brought about by his tragic mistake (Anagnorisis)

The Tragic Hero with the Tragic Flaw:

  • The hero exhibits a characteristic that might be considered favourable, which becomes a tragic flaw when imposed upon by external circumstances, and leads to his downfall (Hamlet, for example, is contemplative by nature. His failure to act is his tragic flaw, and as a result, circumstances out of his control lead to his undoing.)

Characteristics of the Tragic Hero(1):

  • Hero must suffer more than he deserves.
  • Hero must be doomed from the start, but bear no responsibility for possessing his flaw.
  • Hero must be noble in nature, but imperfect so that the audience can see themselves in him.
  • Hero must have discovered his fate by his own actions, not by things happening to him.
  • Hero must see and understand his doom, as well as the fact that his fate was discovered by his own actions.
  • Hero’s story should arouse fear and empathy.
  • Hero must be physically or spiritually wounded by his experiences, often resulting in his death.
  • Ideally, the hero should be a king or leader of men, so that his people experience his fall with him.
  • The hero must be intelligent so he may learn from his mistakes.
  • A tragic hero usually has the following sequence of “Great, Good, Flaw, Recognition, Downfall.”

A Few Examples of the Tragic Hero in Fiction:

  • Oedipus, Oedipus by Sophocles
  • Theoden, Lord of the Rings
  • Hamlet, Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • Romeo & Juliet, Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • Lennie Small, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Grendel, Beowulf

Now, here’s an addendum: What about Victor Frankenstein, you ask? What about Jay Gatsby? Holden Caulfield? Hedda Gabler? Rincewind from Discworld? What about Scarlett O’Hara or even Alex from A Clockwork Orange?

Where do they fit in? Easy answer: there are a few articles I’ve come across citing a “modern” tragic hero, but these guys fit under a different category:

They’re Anti-Heroes. And I’m going to address them in my next post in this series. 😉

Until then, let me know your favourite tragic fellows. I’m always up for a little more darkness and despair.

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Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost“ by Gustave Doré, 1866.The Final Countdown
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