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.