Through my very humble readings of literary criticism, I came to understand that literature, as a complete body of human production, can have three major types of characters: tragic, comic and ironic. The tragic hero is generally found in ancient Greek drama and important medieval and post-renaissance plays. The comic character can be found in comedies (duh) and in some comic situations within tragedies. And finally the ironic “hero” has flourished mainly in the twentieth century as a reaction to the absurdity of the human situation.
To start with “serious” things first, tragedies are the natural realm of the tragic mode that is built throughout the play with a mixture of certain elements. First, the hero must be of noble birth, must have a noble purpose and must have noble values. So, a tragic hero cannot be a commoner, cannot be going after drugs or some shady business, and cannot be corrupt with no moral values whatsoever.
As that person does not exist in real life, not even in those “ideal” ancient Greek cities, he had to have some sort of a flaw. His flaw, nevertheless, must be noble in some ways so to maintain this elevated tone tragedies have. He will be too ambitious, too proud, and too self-confident to a point that his judgement is clouded by his hubris. Then he will commit his fatal mistake and find himself face to face with the powers of the supernatural.
Despite all our sympathy with his handsome, god-like and heroic young man, his fate is sealed and he dies eventually as a logical retribution of his hamartia. His death will of course create in us mixed emotions of sympathy, fear and relief and that would be all. The examples are numerous as you probably know and you must have thought of Oedipus, Achilles, Macbeth…
The second mode in literature is comedy. Here the hero is not a noble man has no quest whatsoever and although he is not necessarily the most debauched human being you may come across, yet his morality is not perfect. He is a “normal” human being like you and me has his dreams and goals in life but he usually stumbles upon reality.
His failure to achieve any kind of social recognition or at least integration makes of him a character we both feel sorry for and despise at the same time. He is someone we pity and reject, someone we like but will not invite for dinner, someone we will pass by without noticing him unless he manages to put himself into some awkward situation-something he is very successful at.
Now why is such a pathetic character important for us as readers of literature? Simply because he is us. He represents our struggles, our smashed dreams, our hopes, our bitter regrets, our failures and every negative moment in our lives. We pity him, because we cannot not pity our vulnerable selves. We hate him because we can but reject our weaknesses. He is our reflection in the mirror before we put our clothes on: totally naked and exposed. A reflection that we want to keep as private as we can because if exposed to the wrong people we will feel weak, humiliated, and angry.
The comic character is the closest to ourselves and that is why we reject him so violently and we are always ready to sacrifice him. Although he brings in some laughter and wisdom to the narration we grow easily tired of him and of his “normalcy” and get excited when the fictive mob start sharpening their knives for him. Very often he ends up killed either literally by some angry fellow or metaphorically through some odd disappearance from the scene. His disappearance creates in us feelings of relief, a relief of someone who was on the verge of being exposed. We are glad that he is gone, that he will not talk about how human and ordinary he is.
Finally the ironic character is the youngest of them all, at least to my understanding. He is of course not noble in any way. He is born in a normal family and sometimes not in the most orthodox manner. He has no purpose in life neither noble nor otherwise, and does not mean to have one either. His morality is absent completely and if not he is a great doubter. He has doubts about God, religion, humanity, values and his breakfast cereals. He is usually educated, somehow, but does not want to employ his education in any fruitful business. If he works, he does so for the money and does not strife to reach any philosophical satisfaction. And you know the rest. The ironic character is an anti-hero par excellence.
He is usually born after the WWI and preferably during the second half of the twentieth century or later. He saw all human values collapse and lost any sort of faith a man could have. Completely disillusioned, he lives just because he was born. He usually stands there doing nothing and judging everyone. Sometimes he would even stop judging satisfying himself with a look of disdain. He cannot be moved by any catastrophe befalling his fellow citizens. He is not necessarily bad or evil and does not seek to destroy any life or anything. He is simply retired from life and humanity.
The ironic character allows us to face the reality not of ourselves and our nature, but the reality of our deeds. He shows us our corruption, falsehood, hypocrisy in the bluntest ways, making bitter and subtle remarks about the futility of our lives and the absurdity of our work. And most of the time he is honest in what he says.
Although we do not identify ourselves with a character like that usually, we know very well that what he says is true. He has a point and that point disturbs us deeply. He forces us to comprehend the dividedness of our human existence as we aspire to be heroes while we are only a bunch of fools very ordinary and comic who achieved nothing but utter destruction to humankind.
The problem is that death is not a problem for him. It is not a punishment and it is not something he fears. The issue is that this type of characters has no worries and no dreams so when we come enraged threatening him with death and hellfire we are met usually with an sarcastic smile reminding us, again, of the absurdity of our actions. And as he may die eventually his death produces nothing. He beats us one more time through his death for we cannot feel any relief or satisfaction at his destruction.
These three characters in literature: tragic, comic and ironic do not only reflect the progress of literature as a human production, they also reflect the maturity of the human mind that went through stages of aging. From a naive understanding of a world divided in two: black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, to a more mature understanding that sees the world as a big grey zone where borders are usually blurred.
Reading literature as a whole body will allow us to have a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves, how we came here and via which roads. And hopefully this insight would help us be better individuals and not mere players on this absurd stage of life struggling our way out of it to be heard no more.