What is Hamartia? Literary Terms 101

Hamartia: “The error, misstep, frailty, or flaw that causes the downfall of a tragic hero. Sometimes called the tragic flaw… bad judgment, ignorance, accident, inherited weakness, or plain bad luck…Whatever the error or defect, it results in action (or inaction) that leads to disaster. – NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms by Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch (1991).

I strongly recommend getting this dictionary if you’re a fiction writer.

My Take on Hamartia In Writing

Hamartia must appear in every story, if you think about. It’s necessary conflict (internal and external). How else is your character going to develop if they don’t endure some sort of issue that is placed upon them or self-perpetuated? Many authors understood that any type of tragedy or disaster makes audiences feel pity, fear, or satisfaction for the character(s) affected by it. One example off the top of my head is (vague Game of Thrones spoilers ahead!!) is Hodor who just…had to hold that damn door and shatter my heart into a million pieces.

I’ve seen tragedy hit the whole spectrum of archetypes, even though this definition focuses solely on the tragic hero since the Greek Classics have most protagonists fail due to their prideful nature. It has to happen because that’s what makes a plot work; that’s what makes characters relatable. Audiences want to see the character confront disaster, whether they survive it or not because it echoes reality, you succeed or you fail. However, tragedy is not that black and white. Some rise from the ashes of their suffering and some don’t, but transformation is inevitable. Even when a villain faces disaster in death, and I mean a well-crafted villain with backstory, motive, and ambition, you see them as more than just the bad guy who got what they deserved. If anything, it should poke at the audience’s moral compass encouraging them to question their ethical boundaries (because pitying a villain is strange to some and accepted by others).

Additionally, adding a little metaphysical take on this, the act of manifesting or weaving your own destiny is common in stories and hamartia plays in the mix of that. Most of us prefer calling it “reaping what you sow”, but in the metaphysical community, we call that “The Dark Night of the Soul“, where you’re in a place of complete sacrifice or surrender and come to terms with whether you’ll endure what’s happening to you by trusting yourself to survive it or choose to despair and desperately mourn that you didn’t reach your ego-based expectations. I don’t think hamartia is enticing if it becomes the definite annihilation of the character where they’re damned for eternity for their purposeful or accidental sin and that’s it. A choice must be made. Hamartia exudes its greatest effect as an inevitable, destructive force that shows no bias to any archetype and shouldn’t be considered “evil” or “just”, “bad” or “good”, but simply destined to appear before you and demand you make a choice, which can be taking action or being inactive.

I’ll be sharing more literary terms in the future, but seriously, get the dictionary of literary terms. Maybe I’m being a lit nerd and pushing too hard, but it’s just…fun to read. Especially if you like learning random new things.

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