Tragedy is not a plot line that I have ever personally experimented with, perhaps because when I create my characters I fall in love with them. While I’m not adverse to making horrible things happen to them, I as of yet have not found the courage to destroy them. Because when it comes to tragedy that is what you have to do as a writer. You don’t just kill your character you destroy them first; they fall into a downward spiral that generally ends in their death. Classic examples from literature telling of the demise of the protagonist include Macbeth and Dorian Grey.
Until like with the other plotlines I’ve written about, I’ve never read or watched very many tragedies in my lifetime. This might not be the case for many of you out there, and you might love this plot type, but the only tragedy I’ve ever studied closely was Macbeth and that was more years ago than I care to remember. It means that to be able to explain the concept of tragedy to you, I’m going to have to have a bit of creative license with a well known and very popular fantasy series.
So the Harry Potter books are written as an overcoming a threat storyline, naturally mixed in with a few other sub-plots along the way, but basically it is about overcoming the threat Voldemort poses. Now, think about it the other way around, the story of Voldemort’s life is actually a tragedy plotline.
Tom Riddle did not have the best start in life, and I think he could be forgiven for being an uncaring and nasty child. From the glimpses you get of his life in the orphanage he didn’t have the idyllic childhood that most parents would want for their children; as is pointed out in the Chamber of Secrets by Tom Riddle neither did Harry. But once Tom Riddle got to Hogwarts he proved himself to be an extremely capable and charming individual capable of making friends. Like Harry. The difference with Voldemort though is that he wanted something more than just a happy life.
This desire, in Voldemort’s case for power and eternal life, is what makes him different from Harry. Both of them have the same opportunities at the start, but what sets Protagonist in tragedies apart from other protagonists is their desire for something (power, money, everlasting life: you name it and your protagonist can want it) that they are willing to acquire by crossing lines that most people would not cross. In a way tragedies are morality tales designed to teach about the consequences of greed.
The path that these protagonists tread leads them to getting what they want but at a price. Then however they have to pay that price. Macbeth gets haunted by ghosts. Voldemort is taken out by baby Harry because failed to see the power behind love and how a mother’s love could undo him. He was condemned to wandering as little more than a spirit possessing corporeal hosts.
The next phase in tragedies is the protagonist overcoming their obstacles, whether it be a matter of conscious, or in Voldemort’s case a Hogwarts’ teacher trying to get the Philosopher’s Stone for him. The Protagonist gets a little bit of good fortune and continue on in the goals. In Voldemort’s case his rise to power is what constitutes the Harry Potter series. Protagonists in tragedies always meet their downfall though, usually facing set backs and more obstacles as they continue to rise higher and higher, until something knocks them down. Enter Harry Potter.
So if Voldemort was the protagonist in the Harry Potter books the story would be a tragedy. You’re not intended to like such protagonists; you’re meant to learn from their mistakes. It is their downfall that makes these types of stories satisfying to read.