The modern-day tragic hero takes their cues from ancient Greece.

On the surface level, the term “tragic hero” might seem like an oxymoron.

The definition of the word tragic is “causing or characterized by extreme distress or sorrow.” And the hero of the story is there to save the day, right? Why would the hero of a story be tragic? How would the hero cause extreme distress or sorrow?

While the first few stories that pop into your head might not match the term tragic hero, if you dig deeper, you’ll certainly find a few.

Think Greek tragedy. Think Shakespeare. Now do you see where this is going?

To make it even clearer, consider this: a classic tragic hero is generally a good person, but he or she has a flaw, and it is this flaw that will lead to his or her undoing.

Remind you of anyone? Now that you can probably think of a few tragic hero examples, let’s dig deeper. 

What is a tragic hero?

To have a tragedy, we need a tragic hero. We can go back over 2,000 years ago to ancient Greece, to the time of Sophocles and Socrates, to see the first examples of classic tragic heroes in Greek theatre.

It was around this time that the philosopher Aristotle put pen to paper (or rather, wood-pulp-and-oil ink to papyrus) to clearly define the characteristics of a tragic hero.

To fit the definition, the character must:

1. Be of noble status

In short, our tragic hero must be royal or rich — bonus points for being both.

While these seemingly surface-level characteristics were almost always accompanied by other heroic traits (such as good moral character, strength and/or intelligence), it was the quality of being royal and/or rich that meant that ancient audiences were going to admire the tragic hero.

Let’s call it a combination of heroic or noble traits.

2. Have a fatal flaw

Our rich, royal, strong, intelligent, good hero can’t be, well, perfect.

A tragic hero must have a flaw, something that makes the audience identify or sympathize with him. We want to like him, and a flaw makes us more likely to identify with the hero.

3. This flaw is a fatal flaw

Unfortunately for our tragic hero, this same flaw that makes him more human in our eyes is also the one that will lead to his downfall: loss of life or loss of status.

What are some of those tragic flaws most often exhibited by literature’s greatest tragic heroes? The most common one is hubris, or excessive pride or self-confidence. In ancient times, this often meant that the tragic hero believed he could outwit the gods and circumvent prophecies. Other common tragic flaws include jealousy, vanity, excessive curiosity, ambition, greed and impatience.

While Aristotle refined this definition even more, modern-day storytellers take more liberties with it. For example, modern tragic heroes are not always of noble status. They do, however, always have some solidly good heroic characteristics that mean that the audience is rooting for them.

The juxtaposition of these heroic characteristics and the fatal flaw means that the tragic hero’s downfall is only partially his fault. There are extenuating circumstances that cause the audience to indeed feel this “distress or sorrow” that comes with tragedy.

To put this all into perspective, let’s take a look at the most often-cited example of a classic tragic hero: Oedipus Rex.

The title character lends his name to the first play (chronologically in the story, if not the first of the three plays in the trilogy) written by Sophocles.

The two plays that complete Oedipus’ story are Oedipus at Kolonos and Antigone. The last one may sound familiar, as it’s the most common of the three to be taught in high schools. If you don’t already know the story of Oedipus Rex, you’ll soon see why English teachers across the nation tend to shy away from it.

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To give you an idea of the importance of Sophocles’ trilogy in literary history, consider this: When we read Shakespeare, we talk about how it has inspired countless other works of fiction over hundreds of years.

Well, Oedipus Rex inspired Shakespeare. So when we talk about this Ancient Greek play, we’re diving into a founding piece of great literature.

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At the beginning of Oedipus Rex, the people of Thebes are sick and dying, as are their livestock. Their crops are failing. They fear that Thebes will be wiped off the map if something doesn’t change. Their current king—the title character—is a good king. He listens to all of their complaints, and he’s determined to get to the bottom of this great mystery. He consults the oracle at Delphi, which tells him that until justice is served for the previous king of Thebes (Laos), there will be no relief for the people.

Thus starts an ill-fated manhunt. Oedipus orders that no stone be left unturned in the search for Laos’ killer. He is energetic (and vocal) in his actions to solve the crime, bring justice to the honorable former king, and relief and prosperity to his people. Oedipus is adamant: whoever killed Laos will suffer the worst kind of punishment. 

But if Laos is the former king of Thebes, then how did Oedipus take the throne? Several scenes in the play help the audience go back in time and uncover the past events that led them to this moment.

The backstory goes like this: The city of Thebes is under the curse of the Sphinx. King Laos consults the Oracle at Delphi and is told that he will die at the hand of his own son. So when he and his wife Jocasta have a baby boy, they decide to kill him before he kills his father. Jocasta, who can’t bring herself to do the deed, gives the baby to a servant to dispose of. The servant, who can’t bring himself to actually kill the baby, ties it by its ankle to a tree branch. A shepherd happens upon the infant, unties it, and takes it to the King and Queen of Corinth, who have been unable to have their own children. They take the baby in and raise it as their own.

The baby grows up and, in time, gets his own prophecy from the Oracle: he will kill his father and wed (and bed) his mother. Hubris (the tragic flaw!) leads him to think that he can outwit the gods by fleeing Corinth. On his way, he meets an old man on the road. Neither wants to move to the side to let the other pass, leading to an Ancient Greek scene of road rage. The young man kills the old one and continues on his way.

When he eventually reaches the city of Thebes, he sees that it is guarded by the Sphinx. But the man is smart and he solves the Sphinx’s riddle, liberating Thebes. The people immediately declare him their king, and he marries Jocasta, the queen and former wife of the deceased, Laos.

The two have many children and rule happily over Thebes until…you guessed it. This new king is none other than Oedipus, who has unwittingly killed his father (King Laos) and married his mother (Jocasta).

It is Jocasta who first makes the connection and flees the scene. Later, the audience finds out that she hanged herself. Oedipus, when it dawn on him that the murderer he is so relentlessly hunting down is none other than himself, takes his dead wife’s broach and gouges his eyes out. The end.

Oedipus’ tragic flaws are hubris (he thinks he can circumvent the prophecy of the gods), ambition (he wants to be a savior for the people of Thebes), and excessive curiosity (Jocasta, as she starts to figure things out, begs Oedipus to stop pursuing the issue).

The difference between a tragic hero and an anti-hero

Another term that is sometimes used interchangeably (although incorrectly) with tragic hero is an anti-hero.

While a tragic hero has a fatal flaw, he is more or less good at heart. An anti-hero, by contrast, is not necessarily a good person at heart and lacks admirable motivation—at least in the beginning of the story.

He may sometimes do the right thing, but it’s usually for the wrong reasons. Think Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones or Han Solo from Star Wars.

While the anti-hero’s morality is greyer, you’re still rooting for them. Think about Edmund from The Chronicles of Narnia. He does some bad things, including betraying his own siblings, but through the development of his character, he rises to the status of hero in the end.

Anti-heroes also don’t exhibit qualities we usually associate with a hero. They’re not brave or strong. They may doubt themselves and try hard to not be the hero of the story. Such is the case of Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit.

He’s not particularly strong or courageous; he doesn’t want to go on a long journey. Many times, in difficult situations, he’s lucky rather than smart or brave.

Well-known examples of tragic heroes

Besides Oedipus, both literature and pop culture are abounding with tragic hero examples. Here are a few, with a tragic flaw that brings their downfall.


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His indecisiveness muddles his actions and causes the death of almost everyone in the play.


His ambition catapults him to the top before throwing him back down to the bottom.


His impulsive behavior leads him to ignore his family history, and marry Juliet mere hours after meeting her. It also leads to several deaths, including his.


Her pride forces her to ignore royal decrees and get herself thrown into a cave to die.

Jay Gatsby

His naïveté and a desire to always want more leads to fatal misjudgments and his punishment for a crime he did not commit.

Peter Pan

His cruelty and stubbornness mean he ends up alone. 

Scarlett O’Hara

Her obsessiveness means that she can never be happy. She’s another tragic heroine who ends up alone.

Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”

Oprah Winfrey

Who is a modern tragic hero?

Tragic heroes aren’t relegated to Ancient Greek writers and Shakespeare. They appear all the time in our favorite plays, television shows, and movies, although they sometimes deviate from what Aristotle had in mind. Here are a few modern tragic hero examples to jog your memory.

Willy Loman

The main character of Death of a Salesman is not of noble birth. Though not a classic tragic hero in this sense, his fatal flaw of ambition and his twisted idea of the American Dream leads him to the dark conclusion that he’s worth more dead than alive and, ultimately, his suicide. 

Michael Corleone

Ambition and family loyalty propel him along the violent and dishonorable path his father urged him to leave. Despite being motivated by family loyalty, he dies alone.

Anakin Skywalker

What may have started as an innocuous desire for control and order leads Annakin to extremism, inadvertently killing his wife and turning to the dark side.

Elena Richardson

In Little Fires Everywhere, Elena seeks to maintain order and control of her world. She just wants to be a good mother, but her excessive pride in the way she does things blinds her to the ways in which her children would thrive, ultimately leading to the downfall of her perfect family.

Ned Stark


His assumption that the world works in a certain way and that everyone in it is acting honorably leads to his death after he accuses Joffrey Baratheon of not being the rightful heir to the throne.

Why tragedy?

With the untimely demise of characters we love and the sadness we feel at the end of a tragedy, you may be asking yourself why readers and spectators continue to be drawn to tragic heroes. The main purpose of tragedies in ancient times was to teach lessons, mainly obey your superiors (especially gods).

Even though tragic hero often comes to a realization of where they went wrong and gains a greater self-awareness, they don’t get a happy ending.

A tragedy can also serve to put our own lives into perspective.

No matter how bad things get, chances are you’re not going to kill your father and marry your mother.