Telling Stories: Short stories with tragic endings
Not every sad story is a tragedy. You have to do a little more legwork than that.
A character who loses the man she loves is a sad story. A character who loses the man she loves because when it came down to it she simply could not be honest with him, not without giving up a part of herself that mattered more than him? That’s tragic. A man who became everything he ever hated because he was too afraid of being controlled by others to let his guard down. A pair of people who once were lovers, still love one another, but find themselves on opposite sides of a war because the strong ideals that once drew them together now push them apart.
Tragedies aren’t just sad events. And tragedies are not the only way to create drama, and they’re not the only sort of dramatic characters worth considering. So let’s talk about what tragedies are not, about what tragedies are, and about how to make the most of them in play.
I’m going to guess that you probably are not super interested in the technical definition of a tragedy, and if you are, you know how to search Wikipedia. Let’s just use something quick and dirty for our own purposes: a tragedy is when the outcome is obvious to the participants but they cannot or will not do anything to change it. It’s seeing the oncoming train and knowing that all you have to do is get out of the way, but for whatever reason you choose to stand on the tracks until it runs right into you.
This is, obviously, a source of drama. Because if you can see what’s going to happen, why wouldn’t you change what you’re doing?
Because, of course, to stop the horrible outcome would be even worse than letting it happen. That’s the heart of a tragedy. You know what comes next, you know how the story ends, but you press on just the same out of a hope that you might be wrong and an unwillingness to change. You could do otherwise, but you won’t.
So your bounty hunter in Star Wars: The Old Republic continues to fight for the Sith, knowing full well that eventually he’s going to have to fight his father, who is still a wanted criminal in the Empire – but he would rather do that than feel like a second-class citizen. Your Gridanian soldier in Final Fantasy XIV falls in love with a lady of Ishgard, with the understanding that her would-be lover doesn’t feel the same way and will only lead her to ruin, because it’s more satisfying than just putting that love on the shelf. You pursue knowledge and make deals with the Phoenicians in The Secret World and are completely aware that your sanity is on the edge, but you won’t allow yourself to fall behind despite the risks.
It’s very dramatic, yes. But it isn’t the only sort of character drama.
For starters, it’s not a tragedy if everyone else sees it as inevitable but the people involved don’t. It lacks a certain amount of bite. The whole thing that makes it tragic is the fact that the people walking into hell made a choice to do so. Just winding up there when other people cautioned about how things would end does not, in and of itself, make for a tragedy.
Even disregarding that, there are a whole lot of dramatic situations that can pop up which are distinctly non-tragic. In Final Fantasy XIV, a storyline recently wrapped up in which characters were abducted, tormented, taunted, and damaged in many ways, but none of it was tragic. The character who set all of it off had no way of knowing that such a turn of events was even going to happen, much less that it would affect him so completely. He was a victim. That same character also has a few tragic relationships going, one-sided affection and admiration for a few different people, but the drama in question was not a tragedy in the least.
In fact, tragedies are difficult to work properly, specifically because they require a very narrow sort of character stupidity. You need someone bright enough to see the logical outcome and able to recognize how things could be different, but at the same time they need to be unwilling to choose a different course. The breadth of vision to see another path without the will to make that happen.
People don’t choose to walk into tragic love affairs because they’re bored on a Tuesday; they walk into them because they feel something strongly and can’t cope with it except by giving in. Sure, leaving it to one side or just outright leaving is an option, but it lacks the sense of satisfaction. They want the affair to happen, and all that the knowledge of what’s going to go wrong will do is make the forbidden fruit seem that much sweeter. If you know you’re going to come to blows with someone you care about, you try to get out of that position, unless you ultimately want to come to blows more than you want to walk away. The tragedy is chosen by the character. Sure, there’s the vague hope that they’re wrong, but that’s tempered by a sense of resigned acceptance.
You totally can walk away, but you won’t. You get your choice, and in the end you find out that you never would have made a different choice. And that’s why it works so well, when done properly. You know as an audience that the story is going to end one way and was always going to end that way, and yet you can see all of the ways things could have been different. You get the sense that someone chose to be heartbroken rather than compromise an idea or a character trait that shouldn’t be nearly as important. Inflexibility trumped good sense.
Character drama, at its heart, comes from wanting something. A character wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it. Tragedies occur when that character wants something enough to get something they don’t want as part of the deal. And they’re great when they work, but they do not have to be the only thing your characters run on.
Next week, I want to talk about making roleplaying work when you only have a little bit of time to roleplay. The week after that, I want to discuss the three-beat-scene and making it work for you in roleplaying to keep yourself better focused.
About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
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