Telling stories What is a tragic hero


We have to know seven plots, says British journalist Christopher Booker. There are no more narrative patterns. All of the stories we tell are just variations or repetitions of these seven plots. Regardless of whether it is about literature, films or company stories.

Booker makes the following assumption: All the narratives that have existed and will be based on very few schemes stored in the brains of the authors and the readers. His work is based on the theory of archetypes of the Freud student C.G. Jung as well as on the findings of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey.

What do these basic plots look like? The overview:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. From rags to riches
  3. The quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

All human stories, Booker claims, can be traced back to these schemes. Even more: These plots can be traced back to a single basic idea: That is the psychological development of the human being. All figures are only aspects of the self. When we read novels, go to the cinema or the theater, we experience the dazzling variants of our own mental life.

It's like the puppet theater, where we play two characters at the same time. We just have enough hands to be the entire staff of the puppet show. We are, over and over again, for thousands of years. Because in essence, we have changed just as little as the stories we tell.

The basic plots with examples:

1. Overcome the monster

Dracula, James Bond, The White shark - they all follow the same pattern: something is tyrannizing the familiar world, and the hero's job is to restore peace. For that, the monster - Dracula, Dr. No, the great white shark - be killed. The plot moves in five steps: the calling of the hero, first success and frustration, nightmare, miraculous escape and finally death of the monster. It's a pattern that everyone recognizes right away.

In the corporate context, this master plot seems to me ideal in the context of a mission. Make the world a better place by opposing evil.

2. From dishwasher to millionaire

The typical fairy tale plot to be found in Cinderella or Aladdin and the magic lamp. Or in the story of Joseph from the Old testament. A completely normal person, rather disregarded by everyone, turns into a very special personality.

This transformation takes place in five steps: We encounter the hero or heroine in an unhappy state, usually dominated by a dark figure. In this state she receives the call of fate. She got out into another world and had her first successes. Then comes the crisis: everything goes wrong. Hero or hero grow from these imponderables and master a final test in the fourth step. The final step is a happy union. Prince or princess are waiting. And everyone is happy for the rest of their lives.

Employees love colleagues who have made it from the bottom up. Business loves nerdy startups that make it to the top. Rags to Riches is a heartwarming plot that is sure to be passed on in a corporate context.

3. The search

That is the pattern of the Odyssey, of Lord of the Rings, the Hunter of the lost treasure. Of course, it can also be found in Find Nemo or Find Dory. The hero is drawn to a mostly distant goal. Only there can he fulfill his mission. Kill the suitors and take back his place as king, husband and father. Throw the ring into the fire in which it was forged. Find the ark. The prodigal son or the family.

These are the five steps: It begins with the hero's call, then follows his journey, on which he finds companions who go with him. Arrival and frustration, the goal seems further away than before. In the fourth step, the hero has to endure a series of trials, the last of which is the most difficult. Finally he reaches his goal.

Odysseus is king in his kingdom again. Frodo has destroyed the ring and with it Sauron's power, and he can go back to the Shire. Indiana Jones found the Ark of the Covenant and was the only one to survive its power. Nemo and Dory's family are found.

The search is the basic pattern for corporate management. There is a clear strategic goal. What you are looking for is certain, only the way there is adventurous. All company stories can be told according to this scheme.

4. Travel and return

Lewis Carrols, for example, use this master plot Alice in Wonderland or Margaret Mitchells Blown by the wind. Hero or heroine leave their usual world and enter a strange world, from which they return after a few adventures. In the first of the five steps we see the hero falling into the strange world like Alice down the rabbit hole. You discover an exciting new environment. A phase of frustration follows, a shadow falls over everything. This is followed by a nightmare phase. Finally, the heroine finds herself back in her familiar world.

This plot supplements the search in the corporate environment. Everywhere where things are tried out. A new project. A new location. A new employer. Return is always an option. In life and in the realm of stories.

5. Comedy

The film Four weddings and one death is a fine example, as is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Booker does not bring comedies into the usual five-person scheme because he discovers too many variations. So he sticks to three steps. We enter a small world and cast a shadow of confusion, insecurity or frustration over it. People are separated from each other. The confusion increases in the second step before everyone can see clearly again in the third step and the shadow disappears.

Unlike the first three plots, where the hero or heroine undergoes a transformation and the evil is erased, in comedy the evil often turns into the good so that everyone is really happy again.

Work life offers enough material for romantic comedies. It's all about one thing: love stories.

6. Tragedy

Goethe's fist or Nabokovs Lolita follow tragic patterns. The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The main difference to all other plots lies in the end: the hero does not achieve the goal he set himself to be. He fails, dies. He's embarked on a course that is dark or forbidden and that only works great for a while, then he has to pay the tribute.

The sequence: the hero is dissatisfied. Something is missing. In the second step he finds his way and everything seems fine. Then frustration sets in. Things go wrong, the hero can no longer rest. Fourth step: Everything comes to a head, the hero is desperate, control has completely slipped from him. Eventually he dies from the powers he conjures up. Sometimes everyone dies too, as in Lolita.

Companies like to keep tragedies secret. One does not like to talk about it. I don't think that's wise. No success without failure.

7. Comeback

No story explains this master plot better than Snow white. The heroine is bullied by the evil stepmother because of her beauty. She flees to the seven dwarfs, and for a while it looks like everything has turned out fine. But the game is turned, the heroine is transported by a poisoned apple into a state between life and death. This state lasts for a long time and it seems that the dark force has triumphed. But then, in the fifth step, the heroine is miraculously saved. In Snow White's case, a prince saves her. Their rebirth also means the downfall of the dark power. The wicked stepmother has to dance in glowing iron slippers until she is dead.

Sounds like Steve Jobs. Ousted from his own company, Apple, in 1984, he miraculously comes back in 1997, saving the company that is on the brink of collapse. His predecessor, Gil Amelio, doesn't have to dance in iron slippers, but his ghost is driven from the company. He represents evil in a longer chain of “bad” CEOs.

The comeback can be told on all levels: people, companies, products.