Why We Love Tragic Heroes (And Hate To See Them Die)


the passage tragic heroes

A friend of mine and I were talking about Justin Cronin‘s post-apocalyptic vampire novel THE PASSAGE a while back. He said he loved the first part of the book but hated the sudden shift in the story about a third of the way through, where the protagonist, Brad Wolgast, dies (kind of) and the story leaps ahead almost 100 years.

My friend is not the only one who’s complained about this; just look through some of the Amazon reviews. I’ve seen people tweet or post on Facebook this very complaint directly to Justin Cronin. Author Chuck Wendig alluded to the plot twist in his blog post 25 Things You Should Know About Protagonists, under the rule that you should never kill one off.

I’m going to say something a bit radical here.

While Brad Wolgast functions as a protagonist in the first third of the story, he is not the protagonist of The Passage. As in most epic stories, there are multiple protagonists.

I’m going to say something even more radical.

Not only is he not the only protagonist, he’s not a hero, either.

Before fans of the book come after me with their cross-bows, let me state that Brad Wolgast is one of my favorite characters in a book–maybe ever. I’ve just finished my third reading of The Passage and he breaks my heart every time, and not solely because of his ultimate fate.

But he’s not a hero, in the sense that we usually think of a hero. He’s a tragic hero. This is different from an anti-hero. An anti-hero is a character who would normally be the antagonist functioning as the protagonist (MacBeth, Dexter, and Walter White in Breaking Bad would all be examples of this).

Tragic heroes are characters with all the potential for heroism who never fulfill that promise, and because of that cause and/or become a victim of tragedy.

Wolgast has all the trappings of a hero: he’s an FBI agent and he’s good at his job. His backstory is already tragic, having lost a child and then his wife because he couldn’t come to terms with his grief. He’s not a perfect guy, but he’s basically a good guy who seems to have good motives. When he loves, he loves deeply.

Interestingly, Cronin explicitly foreshadow’s Wolgast’s “death,” yet readers are still shocked by it. I think the reason is because we’re so conditioned to believe that the good guy is always going to prevail.

I believe Cronin did this because Wolgast represents the humanity lost in the story’s apocalypse. Evil happens not just because bad people do bad things, but because good people become complicit in the evil, or ignore it, or deny it. Wolgast does all three. He is complicit in the creation of the monsters who take over the world by agreeing to persuade death row inmates into taking a supposed immortality drug. Deep down, he knows this is wrong, but he does it anyway.

When he’s ordered to pick up a young child named Amy for the experimental treatment, again, he does it even though he knows it’s wrong. When he later decides to run away with her, it’s already too late. Both are captured and she is given a milder case of the treatment. When the vampire creatures created by the drug are let loose on the world, he is given another chance to run away with Amy. His response is to hide away with her in total isolation so they can be father and daughter without the outside world interfering. He makes a conscious decision to shut out the collapse of the world happening around them.

Of course, he can’t ignore it forever. Again, it’s too late when he realizes it. In a misguided attempt to contain the plague turning people into vampire creatures, the government sets off nuclear bombs in certain cities. One is close to where Wolgast and Amy are hiding and Wolgast becomes ill with radiation poisoning.

Amy, being close to immortal because of the treatment, is left alone after Wolgast’s death, which isn’t really a death. Before he succumbs to the radiation poisoning, he’s attacked by some of the vampire creatures and becomes one of them.

So Wolgast doesn’t actually die and he doesn’t actually disappear from the story. He’s still a presence when the story jumps ahead almost 100 years. Amy refers to him several times. She and Wolgast would read books together, one being A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. When she mentions Jacob Marley and is asked who he was by characters who had never heard of Dickens, she says:

“He wore the chains he forged in life . . . It was such a sad story.”

Clearly, she is also referring to Wolgast, who wears the chains he forged in life, becoming one of the creatures he was complicit in creating.

ned stark game of thrones tragic heroesAnother example of a character’s death throwing readers (and TV viewers) for a loop is Eddard Stark in A Game Of Thrones. Again, he has all the trappings of both the sole protagonist and a hero. He is a good man with a strong moral code.

It’s this very moral code that turns out to be his undoing. Thrust into the position of Hand Of The King (the king’s top advisor) he is completely naive when it comes to dealing with the political intricacies of court life. When he discovers information that will bring down the queen, he does something mind-bendingly stupid: he TELLS her what he plans to do about it.

He does this from a moral belief that he owes her a chance to save herself and her children from the wrath of the king. Instead, he gives the queen the very weapon she needs to destroy him.

When I saw that scene play out on TV (I read the book later) I screamed “NO!” at the screen. It was obvious to me he was doomed from that moment on.

Yet many fans objected strenuously to his death. Again, I think it’s because we so want to see goodness prevail.

How can Ned Stark be a tragic hero? It’s because he was the wrong kind of hero for this particular story. In the world he inhabits, moral rectitude is a flaw, not a strength. If he’d had a devious streak, he would have found a more clever way of defeating the queen and her cohorts.

Unlike Wolgast, he doesn’t suffer eons for his failings. In this case, it’s Ned’s children who suffer, which makes up the meat of the rest of the story.

Note that both Wolgast and Ned Stark are lingering presences in their respective stories. There are other characters who come and go and people don’t weep for their absence (i.e. Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones). But tragic heroes stick with us, reminding us of human frailty and how goodness is not the only quality needed to combat the forces of evil.

When heroes die it’s sad, but if they’re true heroes, there is no wasted potential. They have fulfilled their destiny as heroes. I think that’s why when tragic heroes die, we feel more than sad, we feel almost cheated. That doesn’t mean the writer has made a mistake. I believe both Cronin and George R. R. Martin enriched their stories by including these tragic heroes.

7 thoughts on “Why We Love Tragic Heroes (And Hate To See Them Die)

  1. It’s interesting that the death of Stark in Game of Thrones, while shocking me, didn’t make me upset or “hate” the story in any way — in fact, after I got over the shock, it felt like a natural part of the story and I kept going, because all the other characters and the rest of the plot kept my interest. The Passage on the other hand just turned into a mess after Wolgast’s death, and more specifically after the 100 year leap in time. As a reader, I invested so much time and emotion into that first section, which was so great, and then the only way I can describe the shift is that the story hit a brick wall. The rest of the characters (except for Amy who disappears for a big chunk of the tale) just weren’t as interesting as Wolgast. The very end of the story sort of redeems itself (a bit) but not enough in my humble opinion. I’m glad to hear that others share my point of view, but I see what you’re saying about tragic heroes. And those tragic heroes don’t necessarily have to die — I previously wrote about Jack Bauer from 24 being an example of the classic tragic hero of our time.

    1. I think if Cronin had put “Prologue” at the beginning of that section, people wouldn’t have been so thrown by the leap in time. Basically, he dramatizes the exposition and creates such a memorable character that it’s hard for people to adjust.

      I actually love the rest of the book and many of the characters. Peter Jaxson is kind of the anti-Wolgast–he refuses to live in denial and can’t stand not knowing, so leaves his protected world. But Wolgast was a hard act to follow. Cronin said in an interview that Wolgast and Amy are based on him and his daughter, so no wonder he put so much care into creating the character.

  2. I have not read the Passage, but Game of Thrones both as a (very large) novel and tv series is wonderful. I like your perspective on Ned as being “the wrong kind of hero” for this story. It is interesting because I see Game of Thrones as being – as this tension is part of what makes it great – a story without heroes in a land that desperately needs them. Ned was an honourable man and lives in a world where honourable men are very scarce on the ground (a little like our own) and does not always reward honour and loyalty. (Although a strong family and the deep loyalty of his men, his children and his wife could be seen as a reward? for living by a code of honour.) Ned was loyal to a king that as a man did not inspire much respect, and it is the King’s weakness and actions as both a King and a man that create the scenario that ultimately leads to Ned’s death. Also, his death was necessary for the story, or at least it would have been a very different story if he had survived. I think Ned has all the traditional attributes we associate with the character who is the ‘hero’ in the clash between good and evil. But that’s not the fight in Game of Thrones. The fight is for power and dominance and sometimes just because the characters don’t know how to do anything else.

    1. I love your analysis of Ned’s character and agree that he lives in a world where honorable men are scarce (this is also true in The Passage). I also like how you say,” . . . a story without heroes in a land that desperately needs them.” What’s interesting about Game of Thrones is how Ned’s children, in various ways, try to be those heroes. I can’t wait for Martin to finish the last two books to see if one of them becomes the right hero for the times!

  3. We all know Ned would have mourned for Robert.
    I think Stannis does mourn his big brother’s passing —
    but he’s stannis the bloodless, so…

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