A tragic flaw is a literary device that is used by writers to complicate their characters. It usually appears in plays and novels but can also be used in longer narrative poems and prose poems. This “flaw” is something aspect of a character’s personality that leads to, or almost leads to, their downfall. It is usually associated with the hero of the story and is the one major thing about the character that keeps them from being the ideal hero.
Examples of Tragic Flaws
Usually, especially in complex works of fiction the tragic flaw is something grand and personal. It has far-reaching implications and can lead the character into all types of trouble. Some of the most common are pride, lack of judgement, envy, cowardice, ambition, over-protectiveness, self-sacrifice, selective ignorance, faith or a lack of faith.
History of the Tragic Flaw in Literature
The phrase “tragic flaw” comes from the Greek word “hamartia” or “hamartanein” which means to err, or to “miss the mark” or make a mistake. It first appeared in the book Poetics, by Aristotle. In this volume he determined that some “err of judgement” would b the downfall of a hero. It would lead to a chain of action within the plot that eventually caused a complete reversal of events, leading the hero from the peak of power to the disaster or despair.
Hamartia is also used in Christian theology. It is sometimes applied to the fall of man and original sin, weakness of the flesh or the inability to resist pleasure. It is also, such as in Romans 6:20, personified.
Purpose of a Tragic Flaw
Writers imbue their characters with tragic flaws in order to move the plot forward. If the hero of the story was perfect and never made a mistake or misinterpreted events, then there would be no story. Additionally, characters who have flaws are more believable than those who do not. This allows the reader of the story to connect with the hero on a deeper level. The empathy a reader hopefully feels for the character keeps them engaged with the plot.
Examples of Characters with a Tragic Flaw
Example #1 Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Unsurprisingly, some of the best examples of tragic flaws come from Shakespeare’s plays. These are intensely dramatic works and therefore have dramatic and complex characters who are never perfect.
Hamlet is one of the best examples. He is the title character of the play but his tragic flaw is cowardice. In the initial events of the play Hamlet discovered that his father, the king, was murdered by his uncle. Rather than confronting his uncle, perhaps killing him, and taking the thrown, Hamlet does not. His cowardice prevents him from taking this step. Rather, he takes the long way around. He pretends to be insane. Due to his inability to confront his uncle a chain of events leads to the death of almost every character in the play.
Example #2 Odyssey by Homer
A classic example of a tragic flaw comes from the epic poem Odyssey by Homer. The main character, Odysseus, has the flaw of pride or hubris. In the story, Odysseus is a powerful, self-made man, the king of Ithaca. He embodies numerous respectable character traits, such as strength and self-assurance but these things end up working against him. He is too self-assured and too determined that he knows what is right. Despite this, he often has the gods on his side. They help him out of several tricky situations.
One of the best examples comes from his journey home when he is determined to hear the sound of the Sirens. He listens, and pays the price for his hubris. He has to be tied to the mast of the ship so that he doesn’t dive off and lose his life.
Example #3 Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Another classic example comes from the tragedy Macbeth. His tragic flaw is ambition. It is this character trait that leads to his downfall and his demise. The story is based around his desire, and that of his wife, that he become king. It is more important to him than anything else in his life. That means that he’s willing to do anything to achieve it.