Friday, December 4, 2015

The Tragic Flaw

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

I've been doing a little thinking, friends. Perhaps we can think together. 

Have you ever considered giving your lead character a tragic flaw?

The term tragic flaw most often refers to a failure on behalf of a story's protagonist. The failure can be a character flaw, or an action, or maybe even an area of ignorance. Whatever it is, this flaw leads to a tragic outcome. 

All characters have flaws but not every flaw leads to a full-blown tragedy. That said, many times we read to the end of the story, are appropriately mortified by the outcome and though we're a thinking person, we still can't identify just what it was that started the character down this road. This is the aspect of the topic I've been chewing on.

My absolute favorite teacher in high school was my AP English teacher. I liked him for a lot of reasons, but primarily because he challenged me. "What was Hamlet's tragic flaw?" he'd ask the class.

We'd all raise our hands and give some sort of answer. 

"Cowardice." 

"Inaction." 

"A flair for the dramatic." 

To this day, I have no idea what the correct answer is or if there even is a correct answer. What I do remember are the discussions, the arguments for and against, the details we covered while dissecting the idea of a tragic flaw. I remember learning about the character of Hamlet because we dared to ask the question: What was his tragic flaw?

For the record, I did Google that very question and found several articles that identified Hamlet's tragic flaw as a multitude of different failures. And so! I've come to the conclusion that it matters little if we can pinpoint the flaw with perfect accuracy (tell your English teachers that!). What does matter is that we understand Hamlet's flaw led to a tragic ending in Denmark. 

If Hamlet had handled things differently--if he had confronted Claudius right away, if he'd had him assassinated, if he'd chosen to ignore the ghost of his father--the massacre at the end could have been avoided. 

Of course, there'd be no story. Certainly not one as brilliant as the play Shakespeare penned. 

And so I ask you again, have you ever considered giving your lead character a tragic flaw? How would this affect your tale? 

What if your character's curiosity isn't just a playful attribute? What if, like Alice, curiosity leads her down a rabbit hole she spends the rest of the story trying to escape from?

What if your character's inaction leads to the loss of his freedom?

What if fear of offending others costs your character her life?

What if you give your character a minor flaw, like a hot temper, and let it crop up throughout the story? What happens then? Can you use this flaw to bring about tragedy? Can you use this flaw to move your story forward?

Right about now, you might be thinking that you don't want to write a tragedy. And I get that. I do. Just remember that a story's not really a story if there aren't problems and while you may decide not to give your character a tragic flaw in the purest sense, it's always worth it to chew on the idea of letting your main character foil his own plans from time to time.

We can do that by building flaws into our characters and seeing where they take us or we can address the issue from a resolution standpoint. If you know your ending (lucky duck!), stop for a minute and think. How can a flaw in my main character lead to this moment? How early can I introduce the flaw and how does it change my plot?

Like I said, this is a topic I've been chewing on. It's not something I have figured out and while I think speaking intelligently about such things has value, I'm more interested in how this tool can be of use to you and me and help us move our stories forward. 

So, let's talk. What comes to mind when you read the phrase tragic flaw? Do you think of stories you've read or characters you're building? Do you have questions? I don't have all the answers, but a hearty discussion is always fun. Talk to me, friends.

41 comments:

  1. One book (or series, rather) that I think of regarding the tragic/fatal flaw is the Percy Jackson series. According to Riordan, Percy's fatal flaw is his loyalty to his friends and how he would sacrifice the world just to save one of them. In my current story, the MC's tragic flaw is fear. I may not have given it enough "air time" though, so I'll have to see if there's some way I can bring it out.

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    1. Fear creeps up in every one of my stories. There are so many ways you can toy with it to really stab at your lead character. I bet you find just the right angle.

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  2. Oh! I did a post about these once- except I called them fatal flaws. I have two main character's, and their tragic flaws are pride and selfishness. I think the selfishness shows pretty well, but I probably need to shine a little bit on the pride of the other character.

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    1. As the saying goes, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." Selfishness and Pride are great flaws, and they're abstract enough to do all sorts of fun things with!

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    2. Yes! I'm having a lot of fun with them. :)

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    3. Enjoy playing around with those two attributes! Excellent weapons, methinks.

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  3. AWESOME POST! I will definitely use this in the future if I haven't already. In my current WIP, my main character won't let herself get close to almost everyone because of her dangerous lifestyle as a backstabbing assassin. She has several loyal friends, but she doesn't let herself see that they are important to her. Late into the book, during a prison break, she leaves one of her friends behind and doesn't tell anyone else because she doesn't want to admit she did so. The only person she admits to caring about dies trying to save the character she left behind.

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    1. How awful! And now that's something she'll have to live with.... Sounds like a great tragic flaw.

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    2. Very cool. A backstabbing assassin? Her friends better be careful!

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  4. The examples that first come to mind are movies. First, Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Peter's self-reliance--or arrogance or whatever was going on with him--cost hundreds of lives when he leads them into a death trap.

    And Episode I-III of Star Wars is the most poignant for me. Anakin Skywalker destroys everything good around him by his decisions.

    I'm a fan of tragic flaws as it offers so much material to work with. Not only does it drive home whatever take-away message you want to convey, it's sometimes the only (believable) reason for a stubborn character to change. And thirdly, I think it makes for a more complex character. We all have regrets so we can sympathize and ache when they do the regrettable.

    I like to use this tool whenever I can, though perhaps not on such a grand scale as killing hundreds of characters or destroying the galaxy. But the loss of a pet, or a severed friendship are some of the tragedies I've incorporated in my stories.

    When a MC makes a wrong choice, I like to give them the hardest consequences I can think up. Their rise above the aftermath is so much more meaningful then.

    I'm curious to see what everyone else thinks about the subject. It's one of my favorites, if you couldn't tell. ;-)

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    1. It seems you have this down! Hard consequences are the best, and I like how yours seem to be directly directed at your protagonist=)

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    2. Poor Peter! And yes, Star Wars is really built around the tragic flaw, isn't it? Talk about destroying yourself. Anakin has that down.

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  5. I just think of a hero blaming themself for someone else's death... so... Harry Potter? Yeah, I think of him,

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    1. Sure! The blame game is a great flaw. We all feel guilt so deeply, it's something we can relate to. Within HP there are other characters who struggle with this too: Dumbledore, Sirius, Snape. It's a theme JK Rowling seemed to hone in on.

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  6. I think the other comments already listed most of the flaws in books I could think of; Percy Jackson, Narnia, Harry Potter. I do think I can safely add Harry Dresden to the mix, though; he doesn't like to rely on his friends for help, because they usually get hurt really badly, so he tries not to ask them unless they're in as deep as he is, which leads to them coming to help him totally unprepared, and then something bad happens to them. Yeah.
    There's also The Legend of Jig Dragonslayer, by Jim C. Hines. Jig is a goblin, so he's a coward and thinks he cares only for himself. He only realizes that second part isn't true when one of his friends is killed.

    When I see/hear of a tragic flaw, I have to admit I much prefer physical ones to emotional or personality ones. It's one thing for a person to be too scared or unwilling to do something, but it's another for them to not be, to do their best, and be stopped by something like a chronic disease, or their wheelchair, or something. I've had type 1 diabetes since I was seven (Type 1s can eat sugar so long as we give insulin. Type 2s can't. Strike out against diabetes ignorance!), so that's nine years I've had a disease which has actually killed people I've known.
    I'll admit, it's scary. There are times I have to wake up at two in the morning to ensure my survival. Or times where I'm out with friends at a party, and my blood sugar crashes, and I have to sit down for an hour until it comes back up.

    What if a hero is trying to save their friend, and they literally can't get up? If they have to save the world, but they'll probably die before succeeding?

    There are some good books out there where the protagonists are seriously injured in a way that has no benefit whatsoever, but they are rare. Why? It adds so much more challenge for them. I have a book planned for sometime in the future about a diabetic teen with super powers, and I can't wait to think up all the challenges she'll have to overcome.
    On a side note, does anyone know some really good fantasy stories with ill or sick protagonists? I can't think of any right now.

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    1. Wow! That's really inspiring! I'm so glad there are writers out there who really know what its like to fight a challenge like that. I have never had a problem like that, but I'm really inspired by people who can face it. Even if its rare to find the protagonist you look for, you can always create them:)

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    2. Those are some interesting thoughts, Lily (and I love your superhero idea!), but I think tragic flaws are usually someone's flawed way of thinking rather than a physical ailment. Tragic flaws are something the reader wants to see the character overcome, and a physical disability (such as the need of a wheelchair or the like) usually can't be overcome. It's part of who the character is.

      What do you think, Mrs. Dittemore?

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    3. It's the overcoming of the thought, or overcoming and innovating in the place of the restrictions which are physically demanding. Overcoming something is not restricted to your perceptions of miraculous healing being the ONLY way to overcome something. And this is only if you think the flaw HAS to be overcome. The tragic flaw, according to the post, is something which will end up resulting in some kind of failure, whether its overcome afterwards is up to the writer, but a tragic flaw by definition doesn't need to be solved.

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    4. Wow, that sounds great, Lily!!

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    5. Thanks for all the feedback, guys! Linea, you have a point, but I have to agree with Anonymous that a fatal/tragic flaw does not have to be overcome, and that while it can be next to or actually impossible to physically overcome something like a disease or paralysis without some kind of Deus ex Machina, it can be overcome emotionally, just like everything else.
      Thanks for your thoughts, everyone!

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    6. I see your point. Thanks for responding, Anonymous & Lily. :)

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    7. Hm! Great discussion here. What do I think, you ask? I think, by pure definition, a tragic flaw is one that does not get overcome, but leads to tragedy. Think of the Greek or Shakespearean tragedies. Think of the carnage and loss. That said, we can still use the concept of a tragic flaw to create the kind of challenges that can be overcome as well. In both instances, the flaw comes from the character himself and I think that's where our focus should be. At least initially.

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    8. Great points! I love how you put it!

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  7. For my character, her flaw (and I'm not quite sure if it's minor or major) is that she is self sufficient. This has helped her survive well throughout her life but she is going to have to rely on friends more than she wants to in order to get her to the end of the story... I'm hoping she'll overcome this flaw and it will show that she can now understand that she can't do anything herself - a work in progress, definitely :)

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    1. Done right, this will make a wonderful character arc:)

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    2. Oh yes! A refusal to depend on others is a tragic flaw indeed. What happens if she doesn't overcome it? Then you'll have quite the tragedy.

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  8. When I think of tragic flaws I think of the hubris nature of Denethor and what that eventually led him to do. Overbearing pride is a very powerful thing in any character. I think I have been unconsciously building a tragic flaw into one of my characters which will cause him to fail in the end.

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    1. Oh yes! Denethor is a great example. He certainly orchestrated his own demise.

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    2. Oh, I forgot to tell exactly what my character's tragic flaw is. I suppose it's probably the flaw of failure; that is to say, thinking things are too hopeless and the dark forces too strong until such time as the situation truly becomes hopeless. That is a very weakening flaw, I guess.

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  9. I think of Merlin in the BBC Merlin series. His tragic flaw is his willingness to see the good in people.
    I'm a fanatic for this flaw and I'm eager to use it sometime. :)

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    1. Oooo! That sounds intriguing. I've had that show on my To Watch list FOREVER.

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    2. It is truly phenomenal! I adore the character development in it, it is chock full of great examples of character growth and the consequences of choices that are made. It has awful animation (especially the first season where there are mythical creatures in every episode, but it gets better after the first.) and a few plot issues, but the suspension of disbelief totally kicked in (for me if not my parents) and I just relished in the character's stories.

      Sorry. I'll stop raving now. Thanks for this post. It is amazing. :)

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  10. I've never stated my character's flaw, I just stick it in subtly.
    He's a shape changer and doesn't trust humans. Unfortunately, he can't get very far in life by himself.

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    1. Very cool! It's probably a good thing that you haven't just blurted out your character's flaw. Best SHOW the reader, right?

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    2. Shape changers are so cool:) (Different Anonymous)

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  11. Popping in now to read all your comments. My Fridays are impossible, you guys!

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  13. First off I hope you will reply, second off I don't know if it will alert me you commented.
    I'm currently writing a story, not my first by far. But the first one in years that I've sat down with renewed confidence, and every day of writing I find it slacking, lessening, depleting. I can't do what I wish to do and have it come out as acceptable to myself, even in the rough draft.
    I'm currently hanging myself over this one word "Clothes." All of my characters seem to be butt naked except the main character because I can't describe all their clothes. I had to put a 'plain' outfit for a gay man! It's infuriating because even when I research clothes, modern day explanations and clothing are not an accurate representation of what I wish a medieval-renaissance era book to hold. Tunics, robes, leather, but you can only go so far with the same outfits on everyone. I'm almost at my wits end on how to put what I see in my mind into this story.
    Now for the Tragic Flaw, my character receives gifts throughout her journey, from many individuals.
    A time comes where she has to chose to give or take something important to her.
    Her choice will cripple her will, regardless if its the correct or wrong decision.
    I don't think I can explain more than that, as I have yet to write the scene yet. It is just on the whole flow chart I drew up. (Seriously looks like a gigantic spider web.)

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    1. As to your cloths problem: I grew up using these "Dover Fashion Coloring Books" which are actually really helpful for descriptions of historical clothing. Who, when, where, materials etc.
      I use them for reference all the time. (hehe)

      Hope that helps!

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