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a:Why We Need Tragic Stories, Now More Than Ever


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Acropolis-Sunset-Giuseppe-Milo-525x350.jWell, I just finished another revision pass on my WIP. This one was for the final edition of a trilogy, and revising the ending has really gotten me thinking. Not just about the story. It’s also made me take a look at myself—at who I am as a storyteller, and how this process has changed me. As well as how my story and I reflect the times and fit into the world around me.

Before I go on, I’m going to offer a mild potential spoiler warning to anyone who plans on someday reading my upcoming trilogy…. Hey, stop laughing. Honest, it’s coming. Oh, I see—you’re laughing because you think it’s cute that Roycroft is worried about some dubious future audience. I suppose I deserve it. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ready? Here’s the spoiler: My trilogy is a tragedy.

Some of you might now be wondering how much of a spoiler that statement could possibly be. I suppose we’d better lay down some definitions and parameters for the discussion.

Webster’s defines tragedy as:

1a : a disastrous event : calamity. b : misfortune.

2a : a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror.

Since we’re talking about a story, we’re obviously referencing the second definition. But if you look into the specifics of literary tragedy, you’ll find that most experts narrow the definition to the protagonist in question being “brought low.” In other words, for a story to be considered a true tragedy (not just a tearjerker or a horror), the hero ends up either dead, or better off dead.

Hence my warning.

My Tragic Storytelling Past

Seriously, when I considered broaching the topic, I really did pause for a moment. But only for a moment. I mean, does knowing in advance that a story ends with a protagonist’s death keep some readers away? Probably yes, right? But do I really want to court those readers? Probably not. Not that one and all won’t be welcome. But I certainly don’t want to invite people who are going to (hopefully) become invested, only to get to the end of three books to be disappointed. Or worse, outraged.

The potentially constricting nature of the element begs the question—why tragedy? I’m already dealing with a limited audience of adult epic fantasy readers. Why add another hindrance? Honestly, I’m still seeking the answers to that question. It’s why I’m writing this post. It’s also a big part of what I love about this gig. It forces us to constantly question ourselves.

My brother-in-law is a visual artist, and we occasionally find ourselves in deep-ish (I add the ‘ish’ because there are usually libations involved) conversations about art and the artist’s life. I remember, about a decade ago, when I first started drafting this story, he asked me whether I knew how the story ends. Because it’s a prequel to my first trilogy, I did. I said something like, “Well, I know the protagonist dies.” He asked me why, and I immediately said it’s due to the fact that this character is dead in the timeline of the preexisting world-building.

But my BIL—ever the provocateur—pressed me, “But why?” He correctly observed that I still had a clean slate. Nothing was published. I could invent any ending I pleased. Even something like this guy faking his death and laying low on a Mykonos beach. Why start a project, and work so hard on it, when it culminates in tragic death? He caught me off guard and I didn’t answer right away. I think I eventually said something about wanting to write stories “that matter.” He wasn’t buying that either, and our conversation meandered to what makes stories matter. We ended up agreeing that death isn’t required for it, and that death doesn’t necessarily ensure it.

Clearly the question stuck with me. And yet I persisted. Making the question all the more intriguing a decade later.

My Tragic Analysis

I’ve got to admit, even a decade after I composed the first draft of this story, the ending still busts me up. Every. Time. I suppose I ought to be glad that it still moves me. But my enduring reaction got me wondering. I obviously know what’s coming, and yet I spent hours afterward more or less grieving. Which makes me wonder what it is about this tragic ending that has kept me in thrall to it for so long. I know it has much to do with redemption, and with the choice to take virtuous action (after a crap-ton of far-from-virtuous choice). It’s also about the power of love, and the willingness to sacrifice for it.

The issue got me poking around on the internet, and you probably won’t be surprised by Aristotle’s swift appearance in my search. I don’t want to get into a deep dive on the aspects of drama, but something Aristotle said about tragedy really caught my attention:

Through the elicitation of pity and fear, tragedy effects the proper purgation of these emotions.

Of course he’s talking about catharsis. I’ve used the term a lot over the years. But I always thought of catharsis as simply being a purging of pent-up emotion. We’ve all experienced the feeling that we could use a good cry. I thought of catharsis as simply being the release. Researching Aristotle has honed a nuanced understanding—one I don’t think I could’ve gained without the context of my story.

A tragedy can’t be just sad or frightening. Tragedy has to evoke both pity and fear. We have to be taken to what Aristotle terms tragic wonder, which is a sense of emotional or spiritual transcendence.

This, for me, is where the death of the hero becomes essential. If I’m effectively placed in the shoes of the protagonist, I am being taken to the place I fear most (death). I am forced to confront that which I normally refuse to face. Which evokes the emotions of that worst case (grief, loss, regret). Along with the dying protagonist, I confront the very worthiness of existence–whether life has lacked meaning or memorability (fear). From the perspective of the protagonist, I experience the realization of, and their reckoning with, their lack of virtue. Which prompts me to long for their redemption (pity).

If the story is effective, we are brought to and pushed past fear and pity—hence their “proper purgation.”

When we face death and its consequences, we are forced to confront our own naked truths. We are forced to ask ourselves the questions we may not otherwise face. This may involve big, existential questions, like why are we here, or what is love. But for me, and for this story, there are more specific questions, too, like:

*What truly constitutes a good life? To whom? Is being remembered well important?

*Who truly matters to us, and how do we matter to them?

*When does ambition become harmful? When does it become hubris?

*What is worthy of sacrifice and why? What do we owe to our sires? To our progeny?

*When, if ever, are we truly redeemed? To whom other than oneself does redemption matter?

*What is the nature of forgiveness?

*What defines our legacy? What would I change if I found out death was imminent?

When we confront our naked truths, we inevitably reflect not just on ourselves but on our relationships. I suspect that psychiatrists and philosophers alike can agree that relationships are among the most fulfilling aspects of the human experience. If a story elicits an examination of our relationships, the result can be cautionary enlightenment, which can lead one to seek reparation and forgiveness. But it can also provide an enhanced appreciation of our relationships, which can nourish love and gratitude.

Is any of this sounding transcendent yet? It works for me. I’ve come to believe that those cathartic releases I experience are due to Aristotle’s tragic wonder. My tragic story unlocks pent-up feelings. It results in the purgation of pity and fear, spurring me to confront my naked truths. Which offers transcendence and, ultimately, nourished love and gratitude.

I think even the lingering mournfulness I experience is enlightening and transcendent. I think it has something to do with the sad beauty of death’s inevitability. Tolkien called it “The Gift of Men,” and said of mortality, “It is as fate to all things else,” and that “With this Gift, Men are to fulfill the world down to the finest detail.”

The Tragic Current Context

As the title says, I believe tragic storytelling is as important now as it’s ever been. As I write this, those of us here in the US are witnessing democracy on the brink. Daily, we witness a lack of moral courage in the name of ambition. We face an ongoing pandemic in response to which we—as a nation—have yet to behave for the common good. We face seldom-seen levels of selfishness and divisiveness, isolation and loneliness. The digital age has ushered in a profound lack of empathy.

Never before have we been so unwilling to confront our true selves and so unable to find our common truths.

Inaction, complacency, and a lack of empathy have yielded a pervasive hopelessness.

It may sound counterintuitive, but I believe that by confronting our naked truths, even if through our own death, we fuel our hope. I believe that tragedies reveal to each of us what is virtuous. By the elicitation of our deepest fears and most anguished pity we are stripped of selfish impulse, of greed, of pride. In seeking beyond the barriers of our purged emotions, we judge less hastily, embrace more readily. We are shown not just the sanctity of giving and receiving forgiveness, but the futility of its delay.

I believe that through experiencing tragic wonder, we are brought to recognize anew the value of enduring love, compassion, friendship, and honor. The resulting transcendence shows us the way to seek for our truest selves, and to life’s higher calling.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything more needed than humans seeking their truest selves and a higher calling.

What say you, WU? Would knowing about the death of a protagonist keep you from reading a story? Has a tragic story ever made you better appreciate certain aspects of your life? Your relationships? Do you believe that catharsis can lead to transcendence? Do you think Roycroft will ever get his damned stories out there?

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About Vaughn Roycroft

Vaughn Roycroft's (he/him) teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit in the 6th grade, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.

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