In a formal Tragedy
, there is a specific scene where the Tragic Hero
is given a clear choice, and they choose... poorly.
Often this wrong choice can be blamed on the hero's Fatal Flaw
, but sometimes they just get screwed over by fate. (Classic Greek theater liked to give their tragic heroes dilemmas with no correct choice
This moment may not be obvious at the time, but looking back, it becomes clear that this moment was crucial to the hero's tragic downfall. The results of this bad choice lead inexorably towards the hero's catastrophic end—had the hero chosen correctly at this point, the catastrophe could have been averted.
The literary term for this is hamartia
, a Greek term from Aristotle's Poetics
(and an admittedly vaguely-defined one—it can also be interpreted as a Fatal Flaw
). Which also means this device is Older Than Feudalism
To clarify, this is not
supposed to be an event that gets the plot moving
. The Tragic Mistake occurs well after the plot has been set in motion—it's the Tragic Hero
's personal point of no return.
Structurally, this moment is the Crisis of the story (or just this character's story arc), and everything afterwards is Denouement.
Not to be confused with the Moral Event Horizon
, although a mistaking of civilians for military personnel will certainly be painted by the enemy as one. Also compare with Karmic Death
, which is reserved for outright villains and tends to be faster-acting.
As the Tragic Mistake is one of the most crucial moments in the story expect a lot of spoilers below
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Anime and Manga
- Griffith's mistake in Berserk was his tryst with Princess Charlotte immediately after Guts leaves the Band of the Hawk, defeating him in the process. This act pisses off the King enough to have him put to the torture, which starts the downward spiral that ultimately leads to the Eclipse.
- In Code Geass, Lelouch Lamperouge's mistake would undoubtedly be when he accidentally Geassed Euphemia into massacring the gathered Japanese. He had intended to embrace her Special Administrative Zone wholeheartedly, but he didn't know until it was too late that he was suffering from a sudden onset of Power Incontinence: an offhand comment became an irrevocable command, and he was forced to kill his beloved sister, tarnish her name, and destroy a fleeting chance at peaceful resolution.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Though it could be said that Sayaka Miki's deal with Kyubey in the first place is the mistake that leads to her downfall, her actual act of Hamartia is when she refuses to cleanse her Soul Gem, because she's full of despair from seeing Kyousuke Kamijou (her childhood friend) accepting Hitomi Shizuki's love confession. Her despair not only turns her into a witch, but also leads to her and Kyouko Sakura's death.
- Neil McCauley in Heat would have gotten away from the aftermath of the heist he pulled scot free had he just stuck to his regimented game plan and not decided to make an impulsive detour to settle scores with the man who betrayed him instead of going straight to the airport with the woman he loves. Doing this alerts his Worthy Opponent Lt. Vincent Hanna that he's still in town and where he is, he gets cornered and eventually shot dead.
- Another case in the movie is the paroled criminal whom McCauley recruits for the final heist. He had no involved in any of the crimes so far and could have easily said no to the offer and walked away. Instead he makes an impulsive decision and ends up killed by the cops.
- Scarface: Tony Montana makes many mistakes, but the point of no return was when he killed Alejandro Sosa's hitman to prevent the unnecessary murder of innocents, antagonizing the only person who could have helped him out of his own mess.
- Another point of no return was when he killed his best friend and right hand man thinking that he betrayed him. The friend was actually about to tell him that he is in love with Tony's sister and they just got married. This leaves him completely alone with no allies left and completely demoralized. The old Tony might have been able to find a way to survive the consequences of killing Sosa's hitman, but after that point he simply did not care anymore.
- Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Anakin Skywalker had made many mistakes prior to this point, but what pushed him irrevocably over to the Dark Side was his decision to save Emperor Palpatine, leading directly to Mace Windu's death and leaving him no chance to go back.
- Another point of no return for Anakin was when he impulsively (and unnecessarily) refuses to see Padmé Amidala, his wife, trying to talk him down, and Obi-Wan Kenobi stowing away on her ship, as anything but an attack on him. This results in him Force choking his wife, and dueling with his former Jedi Master, ending with him having his three remaining limbs being chopped off and burned very badly by the lava. The old Anakin might have been able to find a way to save his wife from dying in her childbirth, but after waking up in the black suit, he realizes that his own fears ends up killing her.
- There Will Be Blood has a moment in the middle where Daniel Plainview is about to enjoy a meal with his son H.W. in a restaurant. They've been apart while H.W. was at a school for the deaf, and Daniel has been trying to reform because his lifestyle indirectly led to H.W.'s deafness. It looks like he's about to turn over a new leaf and create a healthy relationship with his adopted son, when in walks a businessman from earlier in the movie, who had turned down Daniel's offer. His pride bubbles up, he makes a scene and he reverts to his highly confrontational self. From here, it worsened.
- In Kung Fu Panda 2, Lord Shen is told by the protagonist that it's not too late; that he can choose who he is, and doesn't have to be defined by his desire for revenge on his family. Shen explicitly chooses to continue fighting, and dies in the battle.
- In The Caster Chronicles Genevieve's attempt to resurrect her beloved cursed her and her family for generations to come.
- In The Children of Húrin, it was Túrin fleeing Doriath and refusing to return that led to all his misfortune and eventual death.
- A Song of Ice and Fire's characters tend to fall victim to the inevitable hubris of their Tragic Flaws, but a couple of them can pin their failure to definitive points of no return. Eddard turning down the help of Renly and Littlefinger and warning Cersei that he knew her secret, expecting her to flee to safety, resulted in her killing the king and installing her son, who has him executed for treason. Robb's decision to marry Jeyne Westerling sets off the events leading to the Red Wedding. Theon Greyjoy's choice to take Winterfell kicks off what is arguably the series' most tragic character arc ("Reek, Reek, it rhymes with weak"). Arguably, leaving Winterfell in the first place is Catelyn Stark's tragic mistake, because everything that she does after leaving merely makes things worse for her family, and all of her attempts to make up for it just make things snowball until her husband and sons have all lost their heads (to her knowledge), her daughters are both missing, and most of her friends are dead or in chains.
- Things Fall Apart: Okonkwo raises the political prisoner Ikemafuna like his own son for three years, and then the village elders decree that the boy must be executed. The oldest man in the village warns Okonkwo to have nothing to do with the killing, or else it would be an offense to the gods, as if he had killed his own child. Okonkwo disobeys, and help to kill the boy so as not to appear weak before the other men.
- The fallout: The gods send bad luck in Okonkwo's way, culminating in an accidental killing that forces him to go into exile for seven years. In that time, white colonists move into the Ibo village; without Okonkwo's leadership the Ibo get taken advantage of and lose their will to fight for themselves. Okonkwo, upon returning, tries and fails to organize a resistance, and hangs himself.
Live Action TV
- 24: In season 8, Kamistan President Omar Hassan is assassinated by Samir Mehran, nearly destroying Allison Taylor's chances of having a peace treaty signed. Already growing desperate thanks to sacrifices she's made out of her own family in the past few years and horrified at the thought that they could be for nothing, she winds up siding with Charles Logan in an attempt to get it back on track. The problem with this? One of the parties in the signing, the Russian Government, has several corrupt members in their ranks up to and including the President, and they were the ones who masterminded the attacks of the day, including Hassan's death. This means that if the treaty is signed they're allowed to go scot-free, and the worst thing is that even after discovering their involvement Taylor chooses to still go ahead with it and protect them, even going so far as to have anyone attempting to reveal the truth incarcerated or otherwise silenced. She does ultimately realize what she's done and call off the treaty, but at this point thanks to her own crimes it at the very least cost her her presidency.
- This in turn, leads a broken and grief-stricken Jack Bauer to go down his own fateful path. Throughout the series, Jack's someone who's always given in to the desire for revenge, but even though it's a constant temptation he just manages to avoid following the outright route of Revenge Before Reason. That comes to an end here, where thanks to the Russians previously murdering Renee Walker to keep her from potentially exposing them after recognizing one of their undercover agents, and after Taylor makes her own mistake and intentionally sidelines him, he goes rogue to find the evidence that confirms that rogue members of the of the government on his own. Unfortunately, when he manages to get the evidence that reveals their part in the conspiracy, instead of just going through with exposing them he finally chooses to go said route when he executes a surrendering Dana Walsh, ultimately choosing to kill everyone involved in the attacks since Taylor's betrayal has destroyed his belief in any sort of justice system. It all goes downhill form there, with him eventually using an innocent person as a lure for some of the attackers, performing a borderline terrorist-level attack on Logan's motorcade in public, and killing the Russian Foreign Minister which means all of Russia, not just the crooked part, now wants him executed. At the very end he's just barely stopped before he's able to trigger an international calamity, but by this point he's considered a terrorist who's forced to go into hiding since he'll be taken in for the death penalty, if he isn't shot on sight. Additionally his own family has been made potential targets since they could be attacked to lure him out.
- In Supernatural, efforts to save the world at any cost seem to backfire whenever a character decides that they're The Only One who can do so instead of relying on friends.
- In season four, Dean Winchester demands Sam to dissolve his alliance with the demon Ruby and giving up drinking demon blood to gain the power to defeat Lilith, as per the angels' requests/warnings, or walk out and "not be brothers anymore". Since Dean calls him a monster and "closes that door" on him just like their father did, and Sam believes what he's doing is the only way to prevent the Apocalypse, it's more believable how Ruby and the angels deceive Sam. He becomes Lilith's/Ruby's Unwitting Pawn and, in his efforts to stop the Apocalypse, unintentionally busts Lucifer out of Hell to start The End of the World as We Know It.
- In season six, Castiel chooses not to seek Dean's help in fighting the civil war in Heaven, and instead makes a Deal with the Devil, breaks Sam's mind, and kills his angel friends so he can gain the power of Purgatory's souls to win the war to prevent the Apocalypse from being restarted. Then he declares himself the new god. In season seven, things go downhill from there as Castiel's actions unleash unkillable monsters on the world.
- In Breaking Bad, Walter White could have avoided everything that came after by taking his friend Elliot's offer of a job at Gray Matter Technologies with full health coverage for his cancer treatments. Instead, he saw the offer as charity and refused.
- In Jules Massenet's opera Manon, the downfall of the eponymous protagonist begins when she chooses to stay with the rich codger de Brétigny, instead of going to the convent as planned, or taking the hand of the penniless young hunk des Grieux. Other versions of the Manon story are similar.
- Medea: Though Medea is the protagonist, Jason is the borderline Fallen Hero, victim of his own pride and machismo.
- Oedipus the King straddles the line between being undone by a fatal flaw and being screwed over by fate. The crime for which he was punished was that he killed his father and married his mother—but due to circumstances completely beyond his control, Oedipus never knew that they were related to him. On the other hand, you could say that this would not have happened if Oedipus had not, in his pride, quarreled with and killed another chariot driver on the road—a chariot driver who ultimately turned out to be Oedipus' father.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Though it's arguable that Sweeney Todd's hesitation in his first attempt to kill Judge Turpin, a la Hamlet, was the point of no return for him, his real point of no return was when he killed the Beggar Woman, who he did not know was actually his wife, because he had no time left before the Judge showed up for the second and last time.
- William Shakespeare:
- Hamlet: In Act 3, the prince learns that Claudius was indeed guilty of murdering his father, and catches Claudius unawares while praying. Instead of avenging his father right there, Hamlet decides that it's not good enough—he wants Claudius to die with unpaid sin on his soul, so killing him in the act of confessing won't do. Hamlet resolves to kill Claudius later. The fallout: Hamlet does attempt to kill Claudius later, during his confrontation with his mother, only he kills Polonius instead by mistake. His death drives Ophelia to madness and death, and angers Laertes enough to challenge Hamlet to a duel—the duel that results in the death of nearly every named character.
- For extra irony, Claudius notes, just after we see Hamlet leave, that his praying is nothing more than lip service because he can't put his heart into it.
- Macbeth: In Act 2, the title character's point of no return came when he killed King Duncan.
- Romeo and Juliet: In Act 3, Romeo's "point of no return" was his killing of Tybalt in vengeance for Mercutio, leading to his banishment from Verona. Granted, Tybalt was a supreme Asshole Victim who probably deserved it, but everything still goes to hell for both lovers because of it. This is a particularly interesting turning point because until then, the story plays out exactly like a standard Elizabethan romantic comedy, which would inevitably have paired up both of the eponymous lovers (and probably Paris and Rosalind into the bargain) and made their parents put aside their differences.
- Dragon Age II has two major characters whose fatal flaws lead to terrible consequences, and in both cases it's the sin of pride that does them in. One makes a tragic mistake late in the game: Merrill's true tragic mistake is summoning the Pride Demon (believing herself equal to handling any risk it poses), which ends up possessing Marethari, forcing Merrill to kill her and possibly leading to Merrill's entire clan attacking her and her friends. The other's true tragic mistake came before the game even started, though it's really midway through his character arc since it was the events of Awakening that led up to it: Anders, being kind to a friend and believing himself strong-willed enough to resist corruption, allows the Spirit of Justice to possess him. Unfortunately, he does end up being corrupted and slowly driven insane, since his rage at the injustices he sees in the world (and hanging out near some of the most powerful demons in existence) transforms Justice into Vengeance.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, there's Bitter Springs. It was a little settlement in a canyon for the Great Khans, a tribe that constantly harassed the NCR as they took over the region and expanded their territory. Eventually, soldiers were sent in to destroy the "base" at Bitter Springs and a group of 1st Recon NCR snipers deployed around the canyon's exit to ensure none of them managed to escape...but as the place burned, the Khans tried to get their women and children out first. Add in some confused communications, and the higher-ups still gave the order to fire. Result: 1st Recon snipers gunning down wounded non-combatants as they tried to run. Anyone who was there carries serious psychological scars, even though it was years ago by the time of the game.
- Spec Ops: The Line: In chapter 8 ("The Gate"), Captain Martin Walker makes the call to use white phosphorous mortars on a group of enemy soldiers, wiping them out to the last man in a painful, slow, poisonous conflagration. Witnessing the aftermath horrifies him - but his mind cracks completely the moment he realizes 47 civilians were caught in the blaze as well. When he chooses to go on anyway, claiming the circumstances/enemies gave him "no choice", he damns both himself and everyone around him in not admitting to his own faulty judgement. The final chapter of the story sees him realize that it's completely too late to turn back... or he could decide to still go back home with all the shell-shock and facing his punishment in both life and court for his mistakes.
- Suikoden 2: Jowy had the heroes in an Ambush and could've easily killed them off - except Shu threw Pilika at him. He lets the group go, deciding he couldn't risk harming her. His strategist remarks he blew his chance. The fallout: The War continues on, turning in the hero's favor, and Jowy is ousted from the throne. (What happens depends on the player's choice.)
- In Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Akane's tragic mistake is when she runs back to get the doll, getting herself caught by Hongou and forced into the incinerator. Up until that point, she was entirely a victim of circumstance: but her mistake- stupid though it was- added a layer of moral ambiguity to her continued struggle for survival. She ends up murdering several people in order to achieve her goals.
- This is what pushes Redcloak into Anti-Villain (or flat-out villain) territory in The Order of the Stick prequel book Start of Darkness. His brother Right-Eye decides that nothing they accomplish working with Xykon is worth his casual slaughter of their own troops, and acquires a weapon that can destroy Xykon despite him being a lich. Redcloak, on the other hand, thinks that it will all have been meaningless if he backs out, and kills Right-Eye. To make matters worse, Xykon reveals that he already knew about Right-Eye's plan and had taken steps to protect himself, but wanted to see what Redcloak would do.
- In Homestuck, Eridan's mistake is killing Kanaya and Feferi because of his envy and despair. He dies horribly because of that, and it's entirely his own fault. From that point on, nobody considers him anything more than a serious danger to their survival.