What’s in a tragedy? This morning I reread one of my older posts about tragedy in storytelling and I thought of something to add to the discussion. While it’s true that loss is a part of almost every story (usually lost time, sometimes lost resources, occasionally lost people), I think part of the problem is that loss being insignificant.

Panel from Green Lantern #54, the origin of th...

There’s no Zuul in here. Only Dana.

It might not be a great idea to focus on something that can’t be regained in a narrative, since that tends to be where angst comes from, “oh no, I can’t bring my dead girlfriend back from the dead.” You probably don’t want a story with a whiny protagonist, but how do you establish a sense of loss beforehand?

(Women in Refrigerators)

The loss doesn’t have to be a person though, and you probably want to avoid racking up too much of a body count. If you have to kill someone to motivate your protagonist to action, you’re doing it wrong. Your hero probably ought to learn from their mistakes, maybe try some preemptive action, maybe answer the call of adventure sooner – lest Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru suffer again.

One problem with the Mary Sue type of character is that none of their success seems to come with any cost. Even Cinderella has nothing at the story’s beginning, for her to get all these wonderful boons from her fairy godmother. She lost her father and mother already, and her life is kind of crappy – which justifies what comes next.

It’s probably worth looking at the sort of cultures we have on earth for what we as people assign value to, how, and why, when it comes to establishing those things that a protagonist might lose. For instance, you can show a loss of time if the character is “living on borrowed time,” like in Constantine or season two of Supernatural.

In the case of the former, Constantine has aggressive lung cancer that he’s dying from – and in the latter – though their lifestyle in general will probably be the death of them, Dean has sold his soul to a demon in exchange for his younger brother’s life. Now and again, we see Constantine hack up a lung. Dean starts seeing demons everywhere.

Whatever you take from your character, it’s your job to make sure it costs them something. You can’t feel bad for them and give it back, it’s their job as a protagonist to do something about it. They may get character development out of it instead, which is arguably more valuable. Unless we’re talking lives. You know what I mean.

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