Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Little Change Would Do Them Good?

A writing friend and I were discussing a short story we’d both read, a bit of far-future space opera replete with an orbital station, an icy artificial intelligence and zero-G laser fire. I hadn’t liked it. The tropes felt stale, the style dull, the dialogue stilted. My friend, though, noted that the author had successfully navigated the protagonist through a change in character. That made me wonder if progression is a prerequisite for good storytelling. The generally accepted answer is yes. But I can think of one genre where it isn’t -- tragedy.

A note about the term: Tragedy doesn’t just mean a sad story. No, a tragedy -- in the literary sense -- is a narrative that traces a character's plunge from prosperity to ruin due to some fatal flaw, what the Greeks called hamartia. And it didn’t die with Shakespeare, although current incarnations do look a bit different. Today’s tragedians often work in genre, eschewing fractious royals for bloody feuds over a secret windfall (Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan) or an ex-con with a gun in his hand and murder in his heart (Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs) or a hypochondriac afraid of his own bones (Ray Bradbury’s

Of course, what makes the entire tragic enterprise work is that the inhabitants of its tales don’t develop. They proceed along as they always have and reap the whirlwind in return. Their bent constancy propels both plot and theme. Or if they experience some internal shift, it’s for the worst, an intensification of the extant error. A little change would do them good. That is exactly why the author must avoid it.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Anonymous said...

I'd never thought of the fact that the characters don't develop in a tragedy. What an insightful post.

Jessica @ The Bluestocking Society

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks! Actually, I think that some do -- they just get worse. (Think of MacBeth.) But a lot of them simply muddle along in their old sins and must pay the piper by the end.