It fascinates us to watch people fail. Perhaps this is what makes a tragic hero so captivating and relatable. Tragic heroes can be seen in television, film, and literature. It is critical to define this archetype and to understand how they affect a plot. By using storyboards, students create a fun and interactive way to internalize the concept, and build a framework to spot the tragic heroes throughout literature.
What is a tragic hero and how do I know who they are? This lesson will teach students about this literary archetype and ask them to think deeply about character’s attributes and how they affect the work as a whole.
To this day, literature is inundated with tragic heroes, but it was the great philosopher, Aristotle, who first outlined the qualities of a tragic hero. He suggested that a hero of a tragedy must evoke a sense of pity or fear in the audience. To do this, the hero’s misfortune must be undeserved in some way. It cannot result from vice or depravity.
To learn more about other hero types, take a look at our article on "Types of Heroes".
A tragic hero is a person, usually of noble birth, with heroic or potentially heroic qualities. This person is doomed by fate, some supernatural force to be destroyed, or endure great suffering. The hero struggles admirably against this fate, but fails because of a flaw or mistake.
Aristotle's Characteristics of a Tragic Hero
|The flaw that causes the hero's downfall|
|Excessive pride, or disrespect for the natural order|
|A reversal of fortune|
|The moment when the hero makes a critical discovery|
|A fate that cannot be avoided, usually as retribution for hubris|
|The feeling of pity or fear the audience experiences after the hero's fall|
Students can have difficulty with these concepts, especially the subtleties of strange words like catharsis, peripeteia, and anagnorisis. Here's a storyboard to help explain what Aristotle meant by catharsis:
Teachers Note: I find my students engage with the concept of a tragic hero through popular television shows and media. I always reinforce their knowledge by listing some they are already familiar with, such as Dr. Gregory House or Walter White. In this lesson, I ask students to track traits in the literature they are reading. Later, they reconstruct the features of a tragic hero by creating a storyboard to show their mastery of the concept.
This lesson can be used for many grade levels. Below are examples of the Common Core State Standards for Grades 9-10. See your Common Core State Standards for the correct grade appropriate strands.
Students will be able to define tragic hero, list examples from works of literature, film and television, and retain the effects a tragic hero has on plot.
What students should know and be able to do before starting this lesson: Students should be able to list heroes and villains from popular works of literature, movies, and/or television.
Some students will have prior knowledge, and may even know the definition of a tragic hero. They might also have misconceptions about tragic heroes and confuse them with antiheroes. This can be clarified after the activator, during the teacher review stage.
Be specific when asking students to create a storyboard that shows Aristotle’s features of a tragic hero. Make sure students include an explanation of each attribute and a quote that supports their claim. If they are doing this as a project, having the students download their storyboards to a PowerPoint is a perfect way for them to explain each cell.
Activator: Students will be given the Tragic Hero Activator Worksheet and instructed to fill in the boxes to the best of their ability. If students cannot fill in Box Three (List Tragic Heroes), instruct them that they may leave it blank. After five minutes, ask students to compare lists with someone sitting near them. Then ask each pair to say one hero or villain out loud and make a list on the board. Once that is complete, ask them why they know the list on the board is a hero or villain? As a class, come up with definitions for each, and a list of attributes they possess.
Teaching the Term: Ask all students if anyone has prior knowledge and knows what a tragic hero is, or if anyone has a guess for this type of character. If they do, write down on the board what they give for an answer. If no one knows, begin to front-load the term. After giving students, the definition, ask them to think of characters from cinema, television, and literature that they think would fall in this category, and make a list. Repeat with a think, pair, and share of a list of characters and attributes.
Defining the Term: After students have come up with the list of attributes they believe a tragic hero possesses, go over Aristotle’s characteristics. Ask students to fill out and track the attributes which make the protagonist of your work a tragic hero by writing in the answers on Aristotle's Characteristics of Tragic Hero Template.
After students have finished reading the novel or play, reinforce this lesson by asking them to complete their own storyboard, showing each attribute using a scene and quote from the text. This lesson extension coupled with a slide show presentation will help students master the concept of tragic hero.
Have students attach their storyboard to a paper which requires students to give an in-depth explanation of the deeper meaning of their element throughout the novel. Or couple this assignment with a presentation, see our article on how to present a storyboard.
Students can be assessed after their final storyboard project is completed and presented.