Hero Archetype #3: The Tragic Hero

Who here knows the story of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles?  If you don’t let me paraphrase it for you:

Oedipus is the son of King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth.  After hearing a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi stating that he would kill his father and lay (in the biblical sense) with his mother he flees Corinth horrified.  He runs to Thebes, where he meets King Laius on the road and kills him over a minor squabble turned fight.

Moving on, he ends up saving Thebes from the Sphinx my answering it’s impossible riddle, where it then kills itself.  After he saves Thebes from the Sphinx, he is then allowed to wed Jocasta, the Queen Dowager of Thebes (wife of Laius).

What Oedipus didn’t know is that Laius and Jocasta were his parents.  Laius heard a similar prophecy when Oedipus was born saying that he would be killed by his son.  After having failed to kill Oedipus, he was taken in by the childless king and queen of Corinth.

Not only did Laius manage to live up to the prophecy made about him, but Oedipus lived up to his own.

Now, what’s the difference between Laius and Oedipus in this story?

Laius did wrong to his son on purpose, trying to save his own life.

Oedipus lived up to his own terrible prophecy by going out of his way to avoid it.

That’s what makes him a tragic hero.  The definition of a tragic hero is as follows:

Someone who commits a great sin that usually end up causing his demise.  The sin is never caused on purpose, but rather as an act of righteousness guided by poor judgement or fatal human flaw.

Oedipus was so concerned with not killing his father in Corinth that he ended up killing his biological father in Thebes.  He was concerned with not laying with his mother in Corinth, he ends up laying with his biological mother in Thebes.

He thought he was doing the right thing, and in a way he was.  Despite suspecting that the King and Queen of Corinth were not his biological parents, how could he possibly know that this strange turn of events would cause him to run afoul his actual parents.

The worst part is, for most of the stories surrounding him (Oedipus Rex was only one of three Greek tragedies in The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus) was that he remains unaware of the fulfillment of that prophecy and the curse that came with it.

He was simply a man trying to do what he thought was best and he ended up doing the two most horrible things you could in Ancient Greek society.

Did he deserve his fate?  In my opinion, no.  Others may disagree.  I don’t know enough about another person’s mind to even suspect in what direction they would lean.

The point I’m making is that giant rift there, that gap between right and wrong is another way you can get people invested and talking about your story.

I’ll be honest, I’ve always been a fan of the tragic hero archetypes.  I’ve always found something so relatable about the guy who tries to mind his own business and keep his own little world and the people in it safe, yet ends up doing something terrible in the process.

I love it for two reasons:

  1. I love the moral quandary.  Right?  Wrong?  Good?  Bad?  I love how it all melts into shades of grey.
  2. Occasionally, just every so often, that tragic hero ends up becoming the villain.  And I’ve always been a fan of that dynamic.

Either way though, you cannot argue that this is what all stories today need more of.  A good man, knocked low.  A good man faced with the moral dilemma of should he do some bad to do some good?  Or, would doing something good result in having a bad effect on the world?

All of these things are interesting, thought-provoking and polarizing.  Once you have people polarized, you’re really getting to the core of interesting because there’s something about this character and/or world that you’ve created with resonates deeply with them.

What author doesn’t want that to happen?  What author couldn’t use more of that?

So what do you think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Think I’m crazy?  Whatever you think, please leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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3 responses to “Hero Archetype #3: The Tragic Hero

  1. Pingback: Hero Archetype #5 — The Villain | Vincent Alcaras -- Author·

  2. Your perceptive & judicial abilities are exceptional!! Also, his fate is relative to many and quite applicable to today’s World Events!!


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