Main Character, Personal Tragedy, Protagonist, and Triumph
All tragedies are not created equal. In fact, when it comes to constructing one, great Authors understand the structural definition of a downer ending and how to use it to create an emotional response unlike any other.
Darren Aronofsky’s last two movies, The Wrestler and Black Swan, show central characters who push themselves to the limit in their quest for greater fame. In fact, the similarities are so prevalent that many believe these two films are telling the same story:
Like Aronofsky’s last movie, “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” is a tragedy about a performer maniacally obsessed with her craft.
But are they the same?
No matter where you go on the web to read about these two films, one word continues to pop up: tragedy. And why shouldn’t it? Both central characters manage to kill themselves in their quest for success on stage. Nothing more tragic than that…
…for an Audience member.
But from the perspective of the Author, death is not an automatic checkmark in the tragic experience box.
Consider what Aronofsky himself said in this quote from FIrstShowing:
They are really connected and people will see the connections. It’s funny, because wrestling some consider the lowest art — if they would even call it art — and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.
This is a wonderful clue as to what Aronofsky believed the Goal of each story was.
For an Author to fully grok the meaning of their own story they first have to determine who the Protagonist is and what the Goal of the story is. Because of the potential for thematic confusion that comes with the differences between Main Character and Protagonist (they are, after all, not one and the same), it can be helpful to think of characters in terms of their objective role within the story.
In this case, Nina is not Nina, but rather “the dancer”. Randy is not Randy (not all those personal issues that go along with such a name), but simply “the wrestler”. Thinking of them in this way guarantees that those icky-sticky emotional issues personal to each don’t come into conflict with the larger story at hand.
Looking at a story this way, the Protagonist is not big on the emotional stuff.
Taking into consideration Aronofsky’s quote above about their drive to “express themselves,” it becomes clear that both the dancer and the wrestler successfully accomplished the Goal they set out for. Both Protagonists resolved their story’s larger problem—that is, the problem in the story that brought all the characters together. The dancer dances the Black Swan (essentially embodying the essence of that part) and the wrestler reclaims the roar of the crowd.
Does this mean that both stories were resounding Triumphs?
No, because objective success says nothing about the emotional level of the story’s central character.
As covered in the series of articles, Meaningful Endings there are four different endings to a complete story. The first two are familiar and often talked about: the Triumph and the Tragedy. Star Wars and The King’s Speech sit squarely in the former, Se7en and Hamlet sit squarely in the latter.
The last two are often only lightly touched upon or mashed up into some confused interpretation of the first two. The Personal Triumph tells a story where there is failure on the part of the Protagonist, but emotional resolution within the central character. The Personal Tragedy story flips things around. Within this ending, while the Protagonist may have succeeded in his or her efforts, there is still great emotional angst within.
It is this last one that separates The Wrestler from Black Swan.
As he climbs those final ropes, Randy epitomizes deep emotional pain—the woman he loves has abandoned him and his daughter has rejected him. His efforts to create some sort of personal life have left him feeling emotionally cutoff and alone. In other words, Randy is ridden with angst. The only decision left for him now is to sacrifice himself for the crowd, returning to his life as The Ram by casting aside the Randy.
Nina, on the other hand, is ecstatic with how things have turned out. As she falls to her death, a peaceful glowing smile tells us all we need to know about where she stands emotionally. She has fulfilled her desire to be perfect and tells us as much with her final words.
Note how I referred to the characters in this section by their actual names. A purposeful choice. When searching for an emotional accounting of the central character, it only makes sense to look at them subjectively rather than the objective approach used previously. Using their proper names conjures up all those things that draw an Audience closer emotionally to the events on-screen.
And neither should death. Nina’s story was a resounding triumph, but it came at a great cost. This dichotmoy of meaning—a seemingly tragic ending that, in reality, is jubiliant—is precisely why many found the film reprehensible. The film tries to prove that the only way to “express” yourself successfully and feel emotionally fulfilled is to commit what many consider the greatest offense.
Sophisticated Authors challenge the Audience by using structure to their advantage. By showing tragedy as triumph, Aronofsky forces the viewer into cheering a suicide…to see that end as a good thing. The Audience feels good, but not good about feeling good.
Authors create, Audiences receive. Whether it be the Personal Tragedy of Randy in The Wrestler or the resounding Triumph of Nina in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky was saying something decidedly poignant about the experience of a performer. What an Audience member chooses to label a work of narrative fiction has little to do with the actual effect the story had on their mind.
This is the power of great storytelling.
Dramatica combines the structural concepts of the Story Outcome and Story Judgment to describe what a story means. The Story Outcome concerns itself with the Success or Failure of the Objective Story. The Story Judgment measures the level of angst within the Main Character at the end of the narrative. A Judgment of Good means the Main Character resolved their personal issues. A Judgment of Bad means that angst is still there.
Black Swan had an Outcome of Success and a Judgment of Good. Nina’s efforts to embody the Black Swan ended with great applause and her desire to be perfect perfectly fulfilled.
Randy was not as lucky.
While he successfully regained the roar of the crowd, the issues with his girl and with his daughter have left him feeling Bad. He might be smiling, but he is smiling through the pain. Nina’s smile is more genuine and signifies clearly the difference between these two “tragedies.”
In fact, technically neither of these films is a true Tragedy. Mildred Pierce, Amadeus and Hamlet claim that honor.