What are the ethics of writing tragedy?

Tragedy comes under two rubrics—truth and fiction. Real tragedy, like child rape, mass starvation, or school shootings, are painfully true. Make-believe tragedy, like King Kong, Lassie, or Moby Dick, are painfully false. The difference can be subtle and often disguised in either direction. In all six examples, pain and death felt real to the reader, but were hard to put down or not quickly forgotten.

They have something else in common—ethical norms.

Writing tragedy is an intentional grab at someone else’s heartstrings: a real person’s too-soon death, a loveable animal’s destruction, or maybe just saying good-bye. The common element in each is how the writing ends. It must end tragically. You cannot assuage your reader by sugar coating or an apologetic ending. That’s the first ethical norm: write from your heart, not your gut. Otherwise you are mixing real tragedy with make-believe tragedy. You can depress your readers—that’s inevitable in writing tragedy. But you can’t lie about it and make nice at the end.

If the protagonist is doomed, do not make it obvious up front.

If the antagonist wins, do not hide it until the end.

If the story itself, rather than its characters, is tragic, color every scene in drab, make the narrative arc a definite drop, and do not make jokes.

If by the end of the book, you don’t feel bad, you are fudging tragedy. Whether true or make believe tragedy, do not fudge the writing. How about that for an ethical norm?

Nah, that’s not an ethical norm. The ethics of writing tragedy are what you owe your reader—feeling tragic, not just hearing about it in a tweet or a two-minute lunch conversation. You owe your reader exactly what they read your book for—to understand tragedy—to feel it—and maybe to get past one of their own making.


Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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