every woman adores a fascist -- sylvia plath

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 2: The Tragic Hero

Step 2:  The Tragic Hero. So, based on Step 1, we know that we have to excite wonder in the audience and make them want to figure out what happened to the main character and why.  In order to do that, they need to be afraid that the horrible end that met the tragic hero could happen to them.  The audience's fear must be excited in order for them to want to understand how and why the tragic hero suffered his or her misfortune.  Thus, the tragic hero must be like the audience, (and hence "liked" by the audience).  More to the point -- and to create an even greater sense of wonder -- the tragic hero should be someone the audience would like to be -- someone they admire.  This heightens the sense of fear and wonder as the audience sees such a person as someone better than themselves -- better at life -- and thus less likely to suffer downfalls.   The 'tragic hero' thus, is the audience's ideal surrogate.  If you don't give the audience a character they like or admire -- someone they can connect with and thus believe their misfortune could be their own -- you've simply delivered an interesting quandry that nobody personally cares about (let alone fears might happen to them).  Your tragedy will be something akin to a math problem on a chalkboard ("How do you square a circle in 2-dimensional space?")  Nobody cares, even though it's legitimately puzzling.  Thus, make the main character likeable, admirable, and someone who is able to accomplish the ends they set out to achieve.  They don't need to be perfect.  They don't need to be virtuous.  But they do need to be like the audience and admired by them.  


The idea of a "tragic flaw" -- the vice that dooms the character -- is a massive misinterpretation of Aristotle from the Romantic period in Western history.  You see, there's this word in the Poetics, "hamartia" that has caused a lot of confusion, primarily because it can mean so many different things in Ancient Greek.  Some people translate it as "sin", others "mistake", and others as "flaw"... and so on.  In The Poetics, Aristotle attributes the main character's downfall to "hamartia".  And so, people are led to believe that his or her downfall was due to his or her sin or vice or, or whatever ('flaw').  The correct interpretation of Aristotle's use of the word is that the main character made a "mistake" in his or her calculations for obtaining their goals and thus suffered the tragedy.  The tragic mistake is not a personal failing, but the very human failing of not knowing everything at all times:  Oedipus cannot possibly know who is true parents are, and thus he makes the (human) mistake of marrying his mother.  Now, that unintentional "mistake" can be seen as a "sin", but only accidentally and not as a matter of his character. Oedipus' intention (marrying the queen of Thebes) is neither vicious nor a sin (as he does not know), however, the objective act is (as a matter of divine law).

When you design your story, you must have in mind a character whom the audience admires and whom they do not expect will suffer a paradoxical and tragic end, as this will excite their fear and wonder in the story.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 1: Wonder

M.C. Escher's Waterfall
Step 1:  Wonder.   The key to a great tragedy is to excite wonder  in your audience after they've experienced your story.  They must want to understand what happened and why.


I know, I know, you're saying "What about the tragedy, Aaron?  What about the incest and accidental father beheadings?"  We'll get to that.  But don't make the mistake that your tragedy must only be organized around a mom sleeping with a son, or something.  Sure, that's shocking, but that's not the entire point.  Such things are simply the means to the end of creating wonder in the audience.  The audience must want to know what happened to the main character and why it happened after experiencing your story.  Shocking things alone are a part of it, but not enough by themselves to prompt the question "why?" for the audience.  Since wonder is best caused by something unexpectedly happening, the audience must expect one thing to happen, and then experience another -- something paradoxical.   (Aristotle uses the term "para ten doxein", from which we derive the word "paradox" to describe this twist.)  On that note, anyone who has read Aristotle's Poetics probably knows that his work  has confused many readers by expressing two goals with tragedy:  both creating wonder in the audience, and also the main character's horrible downfall.  The reason why people get confused by this is because they think he's talking about the same goal. It's not the same goal.   One goal (the character's downfall) is subordinate to the other (exciting wonder in the audience).  The character's horrible downfall excites wonder in the audience by happening completely unexpectedly. 

So why that?  Why must the tragedian rely on the unexpected downfall of a character to excite wonder in the audience?   That will be answered in our next Easy Step.  

Next up --  Step 2:  The Tragic Hero.