Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who Needs a Tragedy?

I have been re-reading some David Gemmell recently, in particular the two books he set in ancient Greece - Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince. Brilliant stuff - but by now you would have figured out I am a die-hard Gemmell fan. Even so these two books represent some of his best work (and a great place to start if you have never read any. You have to like fantasy action though!).

One very strong element that weaves through the books (not surprisingly since they are set in Greece) is tragedy, especially on a personal level. The way Gemmell sets up the story has created a tremendous emotional driving force in his characters. He has conflict on many levels - from the classic Dark Vs Light and the threatened birth of a Dark God, to the never-ending chessboard of conflicts between Greek nations - to the struggle within the characters themselves.

The conflict within characters is classic Gemmell territory.

In the background is the seer Tamis fighting to prevent the Dark Birth, yet also fighting her own pride, which blinds her into using the weapons of the enemy and almost dooming them all. Her protege Derae, after being torn from the arms of her lover the Spartan general Parmenion (the main character), is first manipulated, then witness to Tamis' deathbed despair. Even so, she is forced to follow in her footsteps, treading a perilous path between defending the Light and using her formidable powers for destruction.

Parmenion himself is a noble character, yet like all Gemmell's heroes, struggles against the dark side of his own nature. In his case his burning desire for revenge against the Sparta that saw him beaten and humiliated as young man. This later moderates, yet by then the love of his life (Derae) has been sacrificed to Cassandra and is gone from his life (although she survives).

There is a strong element of unrequited love - the two lovers Derae and Parmenion are major players, each yearning for the other yet separated by fate. So beautifully woven into the storyline along with other side plots of a similar nature, each exploring an element of human nature and relationships.

Yet it's so hard on the characters! Seeing them in pain is like being in pain yourself. This dynamic both draws you on and yet makes you suffer with them.

Is it too much?Is that emotional driving force worth the punishment on you and the characters?

Do we need tragedy?

14 comments:

MataPam said...

I prefer my character abuse up front. Then the character can spend the book redeming himself, or getting revenge, regaining whatever.

Tragedies are all right, when there's a point to it. Noble sacrifice and giving your all, including your life is fine--even if not my favorite sort of ending.

I dislike the pointless downer endings. "Oops, insufficient emotion at the ending. The cute kid they just rescued is going to have to die."

Jim McCoy said...

Honestly, the real world sucks sometimes and therefore the world of fiction has to be tough sometimes too.

I'm stuck at a part of my novel because I know it's gonna hurt to write it...but I'll get through it eventually. It has to be there though, for the characters and the story to be believable. It also helps that tragedy can help to forge that emotional attachment between reader and character that keeps the reader interested.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Oooh, Chris, after reading your post I feel I have to rush out and buy the books!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. I agree completely. There is nothing worse than having something like that ineptly inserted at the end.

Like you I tend to enjoy boooks where the character starts out the underdog and wins through during their journey. I guess I was wondering whether I was missing some critical element of storytelling by not including some sort of tragedy.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jim. I hope writing that seciton is not too painful:)

You have made me realise it is not just tragedy, it is the context of it in the story. What does it mean? Who does it effect? How does the character resolve it themselves and somewho transform that pain?

Nice way of thinking to use it to build a bond between reader and writing. Got me thinking now.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. All part of my cunning plan - I'm on commission:)

MataPam said...

I think for a proper tragedy, the reader has to see it coming. Romeo and Juliet, you know it was going to be a disaster.

Or not. One of my favortite movies is "Being There" Peter Sellers at his straight faced best. The cliff he was about to step off of just got higher and higher . . . and left the watcher up there, half choked on utter hysterical disbelief, so it never broke the humorous aspect and descended into tragedy, even though you knew, sooner or later . . .

I think it's that breathless anticipation of disaster that is the emotional draw of tragedies.

Kate Paulk said...

Tragedy is immensely cathartic because we get to experience the whole emotional deal, without the horrible things actually happening to us.

When done well, it's a magical and oddly uplifting experience. Not many people do it well. I'm certainly not confident enough in my skills to try.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. The anticipation is a whole other elment isn't it. I guess the tragedy itself is a whole other story, and that can be told in all the way a story can - either as a mystery, or with an initial reveal. So many balls to juggle!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Maybe I'm not reading the right books, or maybe I'm just too much of softie - but I rarely find tragedy uplifting! Give me a hero that battle through against the odds every time!

Great post yesterday BTW - I always read them too late to comment.

Can't wait to get a POD copy of your book:)

Lucius said...

Tragedy is not a negative application of deus ex machina.

Of course we need tragedy. Many of the most memorable and moving stories are tragedies, and for good reason.
Seriously, who looked at "The Little Mermaid" and thought to himself "what this story really needs is a happy ending"?
There's not much point to "Hamlet" if everybody survives and goes out for a round of drinks after. The thought of MacDuff humbling MacBeth through the power of friendship is enough to make one retch.
"Ol' Yeller" and "Where the Red Fern Grows" wouldn't have much point if the dogs eventually died of old age.
If tragedy is not uplifting, it's at least cleansing.

(Have I beaten enough strawmen to death? Yes, I think so.)

I do want to comment specifically on "Being There". It could have been written as a tragedy, but it clearly wasn't. To be a tragedy, the character of Chance the Gardner would have had to be more sympathetic or unlikable. As it was, he was as much a cipher to the viewer as he was to the other characters in the movie. We might feel bad for him, but we never sympathize with him, nor does he ever give us reason to dislike him.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Lucius. It certainly helps to add driving force to a story. What I am realising is that everyone seems to have a different definition of what tragedy is in a story. I guess I was thinking of it in terms of the continuing sorrow and yearning that has no positive resolution. However in the broader sense I guess you could view everything that happens to a character in the way of conflict or challenge as a tragedy of sorts - in this way of thinking it is essential to the story otherwise there would be no conlfict, which is an essential story element.

Lucius said...

There are exceptions to all rules, especially rules of thumb.

But by and large, the fall of the tragic character is an anti-climax. The conflict happened earlier. Take the classic example of Oedipus. The conflict happened when his parents, then then he, attempted to thwart fate. After that, there's not much conflict. (Even killing his father at the crossroads is breezed past, because it's the merely the "inevitable" resolution of the earlier conflict.) The revelation is dramatic, but conflict doesn't really feature.

Or to put a different spin on it, the tragic character is often not a classic protagonist (that is, a character who changes over the course of the story). Page 30 or Page 300, Captain Ahab is what he is. (There are counter-examples, of course. It's not a hard-and-fast rule.)
This is also the case with comedy, like the earlier "Being There" bit.

;) If art is imitating life, it's hard enough to force a resolution, much less one that's only positive.
Take a trite coming-of-age story as an example. It will necessarily be a bit bitter-sweet because childhood is being left behind. Even though the character himself is likely eager to leave it behind. And the more tightly you focus on the POV of the character happily entering adulthood, the more you drive the point home to the reader, who is likely an adult and has perspective the character lacks.

It's the wee hours of the morning, and I suspect that I stopped making sense a while ago, so I think I'll shut up now.

Brendan said...

I have been talking on other forums about Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana in relation to the character Dianora. Her story I finally realised was probably the most important and was tragic as they come. While the book itself isn't tragic her story is and when I last finished Tigana, I couldn't help but wish someone would make an opera from it.