Ruin Your Characters’ Lives with Tragic Irony

Doug Landsborough
March 1, 2024

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re reading an excellent new book with a character you adore. They’ve grown on you, and you honestly like them more than most real-life people.

But then they make a decision you know will send them right into the arms of a waiting killer or into the path of a car with the brakes cut.

This is the heart-wrenching essence of tragic irony—a literary device as old as Greek legends that entwines fate, free will, and the stark reality of consequences.

Tragic irony can be a powerful tool in your literary arsenal and is timeless enough that it doesn’t just belong in Greek tragedies or Shakespeare.

But what exactly is tragic irony, and how does it differ from the other types of irony that pepper the pages of literature and the scenes of our favorite movies? More importantly, how can you harness this powerful tool to elevate your storytelling?

I’m so glad you asked. We’re going to explore tragic irony, dive deep into its definition, unearth its role in literature and creative writing, and offer a treasure trove of examples from both classic and contemporary works. We’ll also demystify the differences between tragic irony and its ironic counterparts and provide practical tips and techniques for harnessing it in your writing.

So grab your metaphorical shovel, and let’s unearth the secrets to this literary device.

The Different Types of Irony in Writing

Before we dive into tragic irony, which is quite a specific type of literary device, let’s take a second to make sure we understand the basics. For authors, irony is more than what most people think. Here are the three prominent types:

Situational Irony

This is what most people consider “irony” if you just say the word itself. Situational irony happens when the outcome of a situation is the opposite of what you (or a character) expect it to be.

It’s the universe kind of slapping us in the face for having expectations. How rude.

The Gift of the Magi” is one of the most well-known examples of situational irony in action. In the story, an impoverished couple wants to buy Christmas presents for each other. Each only owns one thing of high value—Della’s knee-length hair and Jim’s gold pocket watch. Della gets her hair cut off and sells it to buy a platinum chain for Jim’s heirloom watch. Then Jim reveals he sold his watch to buy Della a set of fancy combs…

That she can’t use until her hair grows back.

I’ve written some mean scenes in my time, but “The Gift of the Magi” always makes me sad for those two.

Don’t worry, though, because the gifts remind the pair just how much they love each other, so it’s not all bad.

Verbal Irony

The wink-and-nod of narrative techniques, verbal irony comes about when there’s a difference between what someone says and what they mean.

I’m sure I’m not the only person whose second language is sarcasm, which is a type of verbal irony, so most of us should be familiar with this.

Pride and Prejudice is a textbook of verbal irony. The book starts with, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Not only does this poke fun at the scramble for marrying due to wealth, but it’s particularly hilarious when you consider Austen herself is defined by defying cultural norms for the time—not marrying, establishing her own successful career—all while criticizing those very norms.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the readers or audience know something the characters don’t. This is a great way of generating strong emotions: excitement, dread, anxiety, anticipation, etc. In almost all situations, it generates some sort of tension.

The Truman Show is a perfect example of dramatic irony. Truman, the titular character, lives his life unaware that he’s the star of a reality TV show, but the audience is well aware of this fact. This makes us feel a mix of excitement and, honestly, sympathy for poor Truman as his life unravels around him.

Dramatic irony is extra important for us since tragic irony is a specific type of this device.

What is Tragic Irony?

I’m going to try to get through this entire article without making any Alanis Morissette jokes because I already did that in another article about irony. If anything, this restraint is the real tragedy.

That’s not what the “tragic” in tragic irony means, though. 

Rather, tragic irony is a type of dramatic irony (where the reader knows something the characters don’t). However, some dramatic irony could be happy: feeling giddy when you know our grumpy-gus detective is walking into a surprise party thrown by their new family is dramatic irony.

Tragic irony, as the name suggests, isn’t that happy. Instead, it’s characterized by the audience’s awareness of impending doom or misfortune that the characters are oblivious to.

There are few things that can fill a reader with as much dread or anxiety as tragic irony. It’s one thing to build a fear of the unknown alongside your protagonist—it’s a scarier thing to force someone to helplessly read about them walking into something terrible.

Not only that, but this kind of irony thrives on evoking tension between what we want and what we know is going to happen. And it can make the reader feel small, like “our will vs. the unyielding forces of destiny and the universe” small. Which isn’t something I want on a daily basis but is *chef’s kiss* if you want to make your readers feel powerful emotions.

Tack on an array of empathy, sorrow, frustration, and your readers loudly yelling at your characters to turn back, and tragic irony can be such a dang powerful tool.

This form of irony is best when it showcases characters caught in a web of their own decisions or circumstances, moving towards an outcome that is both inevitable and unforeseen by them yet painfully obvious to the audience.

Distinction From Other Ironies

Tragic irony doesn’t share the meaning we usually associate with other ironies, so it’s easy to get this mixed up in the bunch. I know we already covered the basics, but here’s how this dreadful irony stands out from its peers.

Unlike dramatic irony, where the audience knows more than the characters, tragic irony specifically involves a fatalistic or disastrous outcome. 

Situational irony, on the other hand, occurs when the actual result of an action is contrary to the intended result, often with humorous or light-hearted consequences. This is what we’re most familiar with and what people like to point out doesn’t happen in Alanis Moriss—nope, not going there.

Verbal irony, characterized by saying the opposite of what is meant, plays on the level of language rather than plot or fate.

Tragic irony, therefore, stands out for its emotional manipulation and the inevitability of its outcomes. It is not just an unexpected twist but a predestined fall, often marked by hubris or a fatal flaw in the protagonist. 

This form of irony invites the audience to ponder the larger forces at play—societal pressures, fate, the nature of human existence, or other water cooler topics—making it a powerful tool in the hands of authors.

Examples of Tragic Irony in Literature

Alright, let’s dive into some of the juiciest examples of tragic irony literature has to offer. We’re not just talking about any old plot twist here; we’re talking about those moments in literature that leave you staring at the page, whispering, “No, no, no, why didn’t you just listen?” to characters that sadly can’t hear you because, well, they’re fictional.

Tragic Irony in Classic Literature

Honestly, classic literature thrived on tragic irony, and Shakespeare was pretty much the king. For good reason, too.

In Romeo and Juliet, it’s like he sat down and thought, “How can I make young love tragic in a way that will have people talking for centuries?” So, he gave us a story where the audience knows that Juliet isn’t really dead, but Romeo doesn’t. And we all know how that ends. Spoiler alert: not well.

But it’s not just Shakespeare who’s in on this game. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is the granddaddy of tragic irony. The whole play is a masterclass in the audience screaming internally as Oedipus slowly but inevitably unravels his own doom. 

You’d think someone would’ve given him a heads-up about that whole killing your dad and marrying your mom prophecy, but alas, tragic irony doesn’t work with warnings.

Contemporary Takes on Tragedy

Stressing your readers isn’t just for the oldies, though. Tragic irony has found its way into modern stories as well, like the Harry Potter series. It’s riddled with tragic irony. 

While not a book, the TV series Breaking Bad is a modern epic that masterfully employs tragic irony. Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine manufacturing kingpin, initially turns to crime to secure his family’s financial future after his cancer diagnosis. The tragic irony unfolds as his actions lead to the very destruction of the family he aims to protect. 

We see the impact his actions have on those he loves, but Walt is too caught up in his own machinations and too power-hungry to notice what everything is costing him until it’s too late.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn turns the concept of a missing person mystery on its head with its use of tragic irony. The audience is led to sympathize with Nick, worrying he might be wrongly accused of his wife Amy’s murder. However, the twist reveals that Amy is not only alive but has orchestrated her disappearance to frame Nick. 

The tragic irony comes from Nick’s realization that his attempts to portray a loving image of his wife to the media have only trapped him further in her web of lies, making his situation worse. The readers find themselves in the unsettling position of foreseeing the grim reality of Nick’s fate, unable to do anything but watch the disaster unfold.

Irony vs. Coincidence

As a quick aside, I want to take a second to clarify the difference between irony and coincidence. These two terms get used interchangeably in too many circumstances, so let’s set the record straight.

Ultimately, it boils down to intention. The universe is full of coincidences, but the universe doesn’t write books.

Coincidences are random, unpredictable occurrences that can change the course of events but don’t necessarily have a hidden meaning or contribute to the irony of a situation. Like, if you’re taking a trip to a different continent to meet up with a special someone you met online and happen to run into your high school math teacher.

It’s surprising, sure, but it doesn’t really carry deeper significance or a twist of fate.

Irony requires a layer of complexity where outcomes are not just surprising but meaningfully connected to the characters’ actions or situations, usually highlighting a larger theme or moral.

If we look back at Breaking Bad, we see the larger impact of Walt’s actions, which shows the cost of power and wealth.

Or maybe the reader knows your old high school math teacher is actually an assassin who has catfished you. That’s no longer a coincidence but instead tragic irony teaching us not to trust strangers we meet on the internet.

Coincidence doesn’t make your book better. In fact, including a coincidence and not connecting it to something more meaningful can upset your reader.

10 Tips and Techniques for Writing Tragic Irony

When used properly, tragic irony can be a powerful addition to your story, turning it into a memorable, thought-provoking piece of literature.

But it’s tough to figure out exactly how to incorporate tragic irony in your work. Unfortunately, there’s no “insert tragic irony here” solution, but I do have ten pieces of advice to toss your way to help out.

1. Understand your characters - Irony often stems from characters’ actions, decisions, or flaws. Understanding your characters deeply—their motivations, desires, and fears—allows you to craft situations where their choices lead to ironic outcomes.

2. Exploit flaws - More often than not, it’s some sort of character flaw that leads someone into a tragically ironic situation. A character’s hubris, naivety, or overconfidence can set the stage for an ironic twist that can seem inevitable while still being surprising.

3. Plan for irony from the start - When plotting your story, think about how ironic situations can arise naturally from the characters’ journeys. Planning for irony from the outset makes it feel integrated into the story rather than something forced in there.

4. Use dual meanings - Design scenes that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Sure, your character is excited in the moment, but your reader knows their actions have long-term consequences.

5. Hint at future events - Use foreshadowing to hint at ironic twists without giving them away. A light touch keeps the readers engaged, trying to piece together the clues without spoiling the surprise. Tragic irony isn’t nearly as effective if the reader figures it out in the first act.

6. Use symbolism and metaphors - Symbols and metaphors can foreshadow ironic outcomes in a subtle, nuanced way. Choose symbols that jive with the theme or moral of your story to make the tragic irony matter even more.

7. Avoid heavy-handedness - There’s nothing worse than being beaten over the head with a narrative device (at least when it comes to reading). The key to effective irony is subtlety. You want your readers to feel the satisfaction of connecting the dots themselves rather than being explicitly told the ironic twist.

8. Let readers in… a little - While you don’t want to be too obvious, allowing your readers to grasp the irony before it fully unfolds can increase their investment in the story. So let them in on that little secret, if only just moments before it happens, to up the ante a little.

9. Make sure irony serves the story - Every instance of irony should serve a purpose, whether it’s to highlight a theme, develop a character, or enhance the plot. Irony for irony’s sake can feel gratuitous and completely out of place.

10. Use irony to enhance your themes - Tragic irony, in particular, can directly tie into the themes of your story. It can reflect on the human condition, the inevitability of fate, or the consequences of characters’ choices. Stuff we love thinking about right before bed.

How Are You Going to Mess With Your Characters (and Readers)?

I love tragic irony because it lets you stress your readers out in a way they appreciate, unlike when I stress them out by not writing my next book quickly enough. 

It makes your story more engaging and gives it a nice twist in a way that few other narrative devices can. Does every story need tragic irony? No, of course not. But, if you want to use this tool, it can make a big difference.

That is, of course, if you do it right.

To do that, you need to put some forward-thinking into your story. Planning when the ironic elements will pop up, crafting excellent characters to lure into tragic situations, and everything else that goes along with crafting an excellent story.

And the best way to make sure you pull all that off is to use a writing tool for fiction authors like us. That’s where Dabble comes in. I could drone on and on about the Plot Grid (for flexible planning), character profiles (to get as detailed as you want), automatic syncing to save every word (on any device), and more.

Instead, why not give Dabble a shot for free? You can grab a fourteen-day trial without even entering any credit card information by clicking here.

Now go stress your readers out.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.