Guest Post: The 5 Most Tragic Story Archetypes

By Mariah T

What was the basis for the last great novel you read, play you attended, or the last great movie you saw? By basis, we mean the archetype of the story; every story has an archetype that is representative of human virtue, morals, and norms. In other words, the story you just experienced was built around a character, a theme, a symbol or a setting that has meaning to its target audience. According to Damon Runyon, tragic heroes and tragic plays are meant to cause emotion. The protagonist becomes the tragic hero because they experience downfall due to their flaws and due to external forces.

1. Timeless Tragedy

Most television detective stories, some reality television, and theatre horror flicks have been built around the story of a wrongful death of one or more innocents. The story must then seek to resolve the crime in order to find the most appropriate justice. However, justice does not always prevail. The most intense tragedies include such timeless tales as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet. Shakespeare was the paragon of tragic literature. As one can see, tragedies can run along a spectrum of intensity.

2. The Tragedy of Physical Location and Setting

In the popular 2008 horror movie, The Strangers, a gang of sadistic murderers entrap, bind, and slaughter a few residents of a random house for no apparent reason. Before the final person is mercilessly slaughtered, she exclaims, “Why US?!” The evil-doer blandly responds, “Because you were HOME.”

3. The Archetype of a Specific Force

These archetypes can most easily be defined by naming films based upon such forces: Jaws, Twister, and Cast Away are just a few. Even the 60’s blockbuster The Birds is a prime example wherein the tragedy is an encounter with a destructive force.

4. Voyage Away from Downfall and a Tragic Return to It

Several successful celebrities have climbed to stardom from anonymity. Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, Prince, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe are merely a few of the archetypes who have made the upward journey into the world of success only to later suffer a loss of everything—including their own lives—from making unfortunate and tragic choices in life.

5. Fighting Evil and Losing

There is an entire genre of stories that are dark yet successful in book form and movie form. If you pick up a Stephen King novel, do you expect a happy outcome? Carrie and Christine (the car) could speak for this tragic archetype. Almost every morbid horror story is based upon the helpless family or group of hapless individuals who suffer wrongful death to forces of evil in the form of human aggressors (think Lizzie Borden and her axe) or those who fall prey to questionable evil, immortal forces like Jason or Michael Meyers.

The next time you read a great novel or see a great movie, test yourself to see if you can identify the tragic archetype. Whether or not you’re aware of it (or have been in the past), these human characteristics, poor choices, challenges and setting are the glue that connects the audience to the art.


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