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Does crushing tragedy have a place in fantasy?


I have a character who is built up throughout my novel to attain Mary Sue status. She's a main character.

For whatever reason she is forced to kill herself at the end of the story (due to the world's physics which I'd rather not change). This is after the boss battle, one of the final scenes.

Would this put a bad taste in your mouth? Have you seen anything similar in a book you loved or hated?


Myth Weaver
"For whatever reason"? It'd help a lot if we knew the reason.

That said, this question reminds me of the novel I'm beta-reading, which has a huge downer of an ending. See below for spoilers.

After the fight with the antagonist, the MC is left wounded and waiting to die, her love interest is dying or dead, the main antagonist is dead but his son has basically taken his place, and an army is marching on the MC's hometown, intent on destroying everyone.

The aforesaid novel is meant to have a sequel, which I have not read or critiqued. But even with that, the ending described above left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I told the author so. It just felt like she cut the story short too soon. It would have been much more satisfying if she let the battle play out and gave the whole thing more closure. I don't mind tragedy if it's inherent in the story as a whole -- I love Macbeth and Hamlet, and the musical Sweeney Todd -- but if the rest of the story is your typical fantasy adventure, I'm not so sure it fits.


Ah, MacBeth. A most fantastic play. Yes, Laurence. Tragedy definitely has a place in fantasy. It's execution that matters.


Much of how a death comes to be interpreted (how the reader may feel it) arises from the outcome of such death.

Does your character left unfinished business in the world? love ones? somebody who intrinsically need him/her? where the "bad guys" fully vanquished? can it be avoided? Are things that often matter most than the death itself in how the reader may feel. Of course after you kill a character that your reader had learned to love, be prepare for retribution from some angry readers, but that it's good, it means you have created something real enough to inspire emotion.

I think that, like in real life, tragedy has a place in writing (all types of writing). And as in real life, how crushing a death is depends of how and why it happens.

Have you read Paula from Isabel Allende? Is the semi-autobiographica recall --she is a master of magic realism so you can imagine-- of the events that culminated with the death of her daughter, and while you know is coming and all the time you hope it won't, when it happens there is a sense of accomplishment which softens the blow. In other words, you may kill your character and it may be a great tragedy (just look at how fans from SoIaF feel about the death of certain characters), but if the death accomplishes a purpose, then it has a reason to be written.

Caged Maiden

Article Team
Endings are tricky. I was writing a novel about a guy who had some goals and wanted to accomplish something big, and the whole novel his mood and attitudes showed that he was paranoid and agitated, because to accomplish his goal, he might have to make some real sacrifices. His career, his family, maybe jail time. And as the end of the book approaches, he really feels the weight of those eventualities. He tries desperately to find a solution and then has a moment of joy right in the middle of a freak out, realizing how much he loves his wife and family, and how he'll sacrifice for them. And so the end of the book is him doing something to achieve his goal, but there is a miscalculation, a mistake anyone could make, and it costs the character his life. What's worse, it looks like the mistake is intentional and that it was meant to kill someone else, too. And so the character suffers a quick death, but his wife and family live on as the survivors of a traitor, bearing his name and everything.

Anyways, my point is that I almost didn't have that ending. I almost has a half-hearted "happily ever after" where the husband sees his goal through and he and his wife look forward to the birth of their first child. And the other cast all similarly go off into the sunset.

It sucked. It didn't work, didn't fit with the whole rest of the tone of the story, and didn't even make me want to write it. So I was chatting with another member here, and he suggested that maybe I had the wrong kind of ending, because it seemed like I just wasn't feeling it. He suggested a twist and basically the tragic ending above. And it was SO MUCH BETTER!!! and it really fit with everything else in the book, and now I love it so much and can't believe I didn't think about fitting a tragic ending to this story.

Anyways, my long point here, is that endings change. Planning something out is fine. Testing the waters and asking if folks are really put off by tragedy is great. But just give yourself the freedom of not committing to a tragic ending if later on, it no longer fits with the tone of the story and the kind of story you wound up telling :)

By "physics of the world" I'm assuming the character has a similar problem to being from a foreign world, or is maybe an angel or something, or is the last unicorn, whatever, which means that she had some power to use to defeat the bad guy, but her survival then threatens something in the world, maybe magic, or even the existence of the world itself. And so she must kill herself or subject the world or whatever to catastrophe. Again, I can only assume how a character and physics of a world are interconnected, but I'll run with that.

Basically, there's always another way. Plot-wise, you can always find another way, maybe even a simpler one, to change a tragic ending into a victorious redemption in the bottom of the ninth. Or a way to make that happy ending into a tragedy. For plot reasons, there is always another way. But the biggest issue you'll find is that certain kinds of stories deserve and feel completed and satisfying with certain kinds of endings. Which was why mine wasn't working. After watching people lose their minds and live a very raw existence for 40 chapters, i couldn't very well say, "and then everyone parts ways and has a happy life from that day onward" and believe it was going to satisfy. It was weak. Now, I know some people probably seriously dislike tragedy. I'm probably one of those people. I love happy endings. But sometimes, it's just called for, and as much as I didn't want to write my own character dying in this scene, because I wanted him to live happily, it just wasn't the right choice, no matter who i disappoint with the tragedy in the future.

Hope that helps you decide what to do? ;)


Does it have a place? Sure. Absolutely. But it's probably going to be a smaller place, a niche of the fantasy market. If you're ok with that then go for it.

I still remember the fantasy novel Tigana pretty fondly even though it's pretty tragic. I had tears streaming down my face at the end. But at the same time, I'm not eager to reread it and experience that tragedy again and I would only recommend it reservedly, to people who I know would be ok with it.

Beyond general advice, it really entirely depends on how you manage to execute it.
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I don't want to get into any spoilers, but one of my fantasy series ends in a most dark fashion (if it really ended but that is a different question).

Tragedy is a powerful emotional technique and a great part of our literary tradition. Done well it can be brilliant. I see no reason you should avoid a dark and sad ending if you are happy with your ability to handle it.

X Equestris

Tragedy is fine, when done well. However, if your main character becomes a true Mary Sue (never faces a real external challenge, doesn't have flaws that could motivate internal conflict, etc.), I might put the book down before I got anywhere close to the end.


Here a quote from George R.R. Martin very on the point with this discussion:

"Presenting grief is hard to do. ... I was on a TV show called Beauty and the Beast, which starred Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. Linda left the show after the second season to pursue a movie career, so we decided to write the character out instead of recasting her, because that was more dramatic...

...We wanted to spend a whole episode where the character is buried and everyone spends 60 minutes weeping and grieving and sharing their memories of her... they [network] said “the character’s dead, you need to move on and introduce the new beauty. Let’s never mention the name of her character again.”

...we kind of won the battle but we lost the war. We presented the episode and it was very powerful. I think our hardcore viewership watched it, wept copious tears and then never watched the show again!

...Grief doesn’t necessary translate to entertainment value. That said, it does make for more powerful storytelling. Presenting not just death, but grief is important. At some point, we all experience the loss of our parents, or sibling or close friend and it’s a very powerful emotion..."
If it's foreshadowed well enough, and the reasons for her needing to die are clear to the reader, it wouldn't so much be a surprise and jarring death as the capstone to her victory–it will be experienced as such, at least. It can give a bittersweet feel to her victory, and that is fine.
I like the idea. However, you say this is a "crushing tragedy", but it would be even more tragic if she was forced to kill someone she loved.