The plot of the tragedy is defined by a character who is led to their undoing by their actions. It is a story where a hero, once basking in greatness, tumbles into darkness and destruction.
At the end of the story, there is usually a lesson to be learned, a warning of how common flaws, such as greed, arrogance, or callousness can become one’s downfall.
A tragic villain is a character that commits objectively evil acts but still causes your readers to experience pathos, which is defined as a feeling of deep sadness and pity for the character.
The 5 Stages of The Tragic Villain
Stage one: In the first stage of the tragedy, the villain will usually start off as seemingly normal. There is nothing particularly interesting or special about them. In this stage, it is important to give the villain human qualities that make them no better or worse than the next person.
Stage two: In the second stage, it is revealed that your character has a dream, something they desperately want to achieve. This newfound goal immediately takes up all the space in their mind. They are hungry for success and are consumed by their search for glory. In this stage, the character starts to actually achieve this dream and things seem to be going well for them.
Stage three: The third stage is where things start to unravel. Plans start to backfire and everything your character tries to do to fix things brings them further down the road to failure. In a desperate attempt to try to save everything, the tragic character will commit dark acts and their flaws start to reveal themselves.
Stage Four: In the Fourth stage, things start to go terribly wrong. The tragic character is spiraling into their own madness. They are erratic now, desperately going around committing terrible acts hoping something might change.
Stage five: Stage five is usually where the death of the character happens. This death can be literal or metaphorical in the sense they lose themselves completly.
Additional Tips to writing Tragic Villains
Give you Villain a goal that makes sense
The first tip to writing a tragic villain is defining your villain’s goal for stage 2. What do they want, what are they trying to achieve and why do they want to achieve it? It is important to define what your villain’s purpose is because it will put into perspective their actions. An important tip would be making your villain’s dream something that is at its core honorable or relatable.
It is important that your readers be able to understand why your character wanted to achieve their dream and why it was so important to them.
Writing a character with a goal that seems pointless or out of touch with reality will make it harder for your readers to empathize with them.
Give your character a Sob Story
The reason why writing a sob story for your villain is a sure-fire way to make them a more interesting character is because it adds in the complex emotion of empathy. It’s simple to hate a character that is bad on the surface and has no viable excuse for being bad. They just do bad things because they were born evil, end of the story.
Truth is that most people have the capacity to be both good and bad. Good people do things they regret all the time. Bad people sometimes do good gestures as well. Hence, showing the good and bad side of your character and making your audience empathize with them will make your character feel more “real”.
Maybe your villain witnessed a horrible murder during their childhood that changed them for the worse or they grew up in a foster home where they were never shown how to love. Either way, the important thing is to make your audience see the humanity within your antagonist. This creates a complex character that will intrigue your readers.
Lack of Proper Role Models
Another important tip that goes hand in hand with the previous one is emphasizing the fact that your villain didn’t’ have any proper role models to look up to. Maybe your character was never taught how to love, was never properly cared for, or just happened to follow the wrong path because they had lacked proper guidance.
Whether it be because the parents themselves were terrible role models or because they were orphaned from a very young age, the backstory of a tragic villain should include a lack of guidance.
The posibility of a different outcome
The story of a tragic villain is one where they were cursed with horrible luck, where they were led down the wrong path, made all the wrong choices, and ended up on the wrong side of life.
However, what really makes the story of this character truly tragic is the possibilities of what could’ve been. If only they had had a normal upbringing, if only they had had guidance.
This type of thinking, a phenomenon in psychology called counterfactual thinking, is, for better or for worse, inevitably a part of human nature.
Emphasizing these possibilities enhances the tragic undertone of your villain’s story and will make your audience feel more empathy towards them.