Tragic flaws or mere mistakes?

The oldest surviving work of literary theory that we have is Aristotle’s Poetics. Even if you’ve never heard of it, if you write fiction, you’ve heard its lessons. In particular, you may have heard that your protagonist should have a flaw, and this flaw is key to the plot

Or maybe you’ve heard wrong. This post at the Sententiae Antiquae blog, No, Virginia…There is No Tragic Flaw, takes exception to that assertion on the grounds that “flaw” is a misinterpretation of the original Greek word hamartia, which means “mistake.” The post goes on to say that the idea of a flawed character comes from the Christian doctrine in which we are all flawed by original sin, while the Greek word refers to “a mistake that is not connected to an essential character goodness or badness.”

Even if the Christian idea might apply, the post says, “this is not the Aristotelian context and this is not what Aristotle had in mind.” (Sententiae Antiquae’s authors can be delightful pendants.)

In fact, the meaning of hamartia has been debated for a while, and I think it’s good to bear in mind those competing definitions while writing. Amid the plethora of competing literary theories about all aspects of fiction, I contend that one truth remains: If writing is a sort of test, it’s a test with an enormous variety of right answers. Does the protagonist possess a sinful flaw, or merely make a mistake, believe a lie, lack key knowledge, or attempt the wrong thing? Each answer suggests a different story. I hope all the stories get written and read.

Aristotle goes on in Poetics to discuss characters in a literary work. “The character will be good if the purpose is good. Goodness is possible in every class of persons. Even a woman may be good, and a slave, though the former is liable to be an inferior being, and the latter quite worthless.” To which I can only harrumph in the noisiest way possible. A mistake has been made here indeed, and it is deeply tragic. Sinful, even?

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