Narrative Techniques: Hamartia

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at hamartia as a plot device, and how to effectively use it.

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© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

To err is human, and when it comes to hamartia, it is also to kick off a plot.

Hamartia is commonly understood to refer to the protagonist’s error or flaw that leads to a chain of plot actions culminating in their downfall. What qualifies as the error or flaw can result from ignorance (as it is not always bliss), an error of judgement, a flaw in character—such as arrogance—or even a sin.

The term was first used in Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he describes the source of hamartia as being at the juncture between character and their actions. Francis Fergusson, in his introduction to the S. H. Butcher translation of Poetics, describes hamartia as the inner quality that triggers, in Dante’s words, a “movement of spirit” within that compels the protagonist to commit actions which drive the plot towards its tragic end, inspiring in the audience a build of pity and fear that leads to a catharsis. This is a key to the Greek Tragedy, where the level of pity from the audience and the resulting catharsis is dependent on the esteem of the protagonist at the beginning of the tale, such as Othello’s hubris.

However, Jules Brody has argued that the word hamartia, as coined by Aristotle, means to “miss the mark,” and as such means that it has nothing to do with guilt or fault, or even morality. It simply means to try but to fail. This may be because a vital piece of information was unknown at the time, later discovered in the key ‘anagnorisis scene,’ in which the character discovers this vital information and sees the world clearly. Or it may remain hidden from the character for the entire novel, only ever being revealed to the audience.

One of the greatest examples of hamartia stems from Christian Theology, and that is the Original Sin. Adam and Eve are blissfully unaware, living in the idyllic Eden with a close relationship with God, yet that changes when a serpent tricks Eve into eating the Forbidden Fruit. This not only triggers the downfall of Eve, but also Adam and the rest of mankind.

Aristotle wrote how hamartia is a powerful writing technique, with one event triggering the downfall of an affluent character—neither good nor bad. This may be because it shows that hamartia can affect anyone, not just heroes and villains. It demonstrates that “to err is human” and that these tales could one day be a tale about us, the audience.

However, it has also been argued that hamartia could be the result of the ‘will of the gods,’ a cruel game played by malicious or mischievous gods, this being known as ‘divine intervention.’ In many novels this can be seen as deus ex machina, but that is when fate decides to save the characters. When the gods decide to play cruel games, this is hamartia. This is particularly noted in Oedipus Rex, which argues four areas from which a protagonist’s demise can originate. The first is fate, the second is wrath of an angry god, the third comes from a human enemy, and the last is the protagonist’s frailty or error.

Hamartia is a very versatile narrative technique, suitable for almost any genre and not just tragedies. It can be what triggers the chain of events of a wild epic fantasy, or a thriller. A man in good fortunes could one day decide to try his luck at slot machines and lose it all.

How this is used depends largely on what it was that triggered the downfall, either a flaw or an error. Both could go unnoticed by the main character, seemingly unaware that they accidentally knocked over the urn possessed by a dead relative, or they aren’t aware that their constant gossiping really irritates their partner. Or it could be something that haunts them throughout the novel, and can be used as a device in character development.

Hamartia is designed for the tragic stories, but that doesn’t mean the lessons learnt in creating them cannot be adapted to meet the needs of any tale. Tragic heroes can be found throughout literature, and in many different ways, from Star Wars’ Anakin Skywalker to Stannis Baratheon from A Song of Fire and Ice, so don’t let the lack of recent Greek Tragedies put you off utilising this fascinating technique.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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