Hamartia

In Poetics (335 BC), a treatise of dramatic theory, Aristotle explains hamartia or the protagonist’s error and tragic flaw. This flaw leads to a chain of actions culminating in disaster and can include an error of ignorance, as well as of judgement or character, or a wrongdoing.

For Aristotle, hamartia is largely a morally neutral term, meaning in Greek ‘to miss the mark‘, or ‘to fall short of an objective‘. Interestingly, the same word hamartia or ἁμαρτία, is also used in Christian new testament theology to denote ‘sin’.

Audiences today would not understand the word sin to carry morally neutral weight, quite the opposite. However, a nuanced reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, can help us understand better the nature of hamartia.

The purpose of tragedy for Aristotle was to lead the audience to emotional ‘catharsis’ or purging, a purification, or cleansing of excessive passions. Aristotle writes, for a story to be “of adequate magnitude”, it must involve characters of high rank, prestige, or good fortune. Here hamartia is the quality of a tragic hero is relatable:

…the character between these two extremes – that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty (hamartia)

Tragedy thus presents us with a protagonist full of foibles, flaws, human faults, and vices. The audience is invited to both empathise with the protagonist, but also to judge with the objectivity of a third party observer. If our protagonist is not caught by conventional justice or punished for their crimes, they often suffer through pain, guilt, trauma or an ever increasing slide into self compromise.

By creating empathy with the protagonist, the story-teller can lead the audience through the experience of cleansing punishment experienced by the protagonist or the key players. As the plot arrives at a tragic reversal or change or fortune for this hero, the ‘recognition’ of the tragic flaw evokes in the audience both a pity and a fear which culminates in ‘catharsis‘ or purging of emotion.

Tragedy is in many cases, salvation, for it is another who suffers for our sins. We observe the evils, the justified motives, the small steps which lead to a crime, and while we can empathise with their journey, and we suffer with them, we are reborn to live anew. Waking as from a dream, we return to life, granted a second chance, the chance to live a better, wiser, more integrated life.

Hamartia, and Aristotle’s exploration of tragic narrative help us understand the inevitability of our own suffering through mistakes of judgement or character for we too are good people, yet frail. The fabric of story operates within a just universe, and our actions lead to a chain of cascading consequences leading to disaster. The gospels go on to outline how into this just universe, arrives a truly innocent ‘other’ who suffers in our place, and who doing so purges or cleanses us as we empathise and suffer with him and are reborn anew, granted a second chance to live a more integrated life.

Beginnings: Setting a Story into Motion

In July, I shared a video essay by screenwriter Michael Arndt on insanely great story endings. The 90 min presentation is a brilliant excavation of how narrative works, and how crisis and catharsis interweave to create ‘insanely great’ story endings.

The Oscar winning screenwriter of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ has also created a shorter lecture on story beginnings.

 

 Here are the key steps Arndt identifies set up a good story beginning:

Step 1: Show Your Hero Doing What They Love Most

The first step to setting up a story is to identify the protagonist or hero’s ‘grand passion’. This is their defining trait, the centre of their universe. As you introduce the character the universe they live in, you show your hero doing the thing they love to do the most.

Step 2: Add a Flaw

The character’s grand passion however, contains a flaw. Usually it’s the dark side of their natural love, a good thing that’s taken too far, a fear or a weakness. What is key however, is that the hero’s flaw is tied to their deepest love and desires.

Step 3: Add a Storm

In the early stages of the story, usually around page 10 of a screenplay, you want to establish ‘storm clouds’ on the horizon of the main character’s world. Your character is walking down the road of life, on a nice bright sunny day, and then BABOOM! ~ something comes and totally blows their joyous life apart and irrevocably changes the path they are on.

Step 4: Add Insult to Injury

This bolt from the blue not only interferes with your character’s life but skewers them through their grand passion to their deepest flaw. This wound, changes their whole sense of what their future is going to be. To increase the stakes at this early point in the story, add insult to injury, making the whole world seem a little bit beyond unfair.

Step 5: Make Your Character Pick the Unhealthy Choice

All of this serves to set up the character journey of your protagonist for the rest of the story. Your hero’s grand passion has been taken away, the world is revealed to be unfair and he or she comes to a fork in the road, and they have to make a choice on how to deal with their new reality.

There is a high road to take, a healthy responsible choice, or a low road to take. As the audience, we are barracking for the hero to do the unhealthy, irresponsible thing, because we feel his or her pain.

Bring It Home

To put everything right, your character must make a journey that is the rest of the story. By the end of this journey, hopefully, not only will they get back what they lost, but they will have healed the flaw they had which was tied to this deep passion and desire.

The key point of Arndt’s analysis is that the essence of your story, comes out of your character’s deepest desire and darkest fears. The thing they love gets stolen away from them, and the world is revealed to be unfair. Their journey to reclaim their lost passion, heals their deepest fears, their wound and flaw and re-establishes equilibrium and peace.

And this is what makes insanely good story beginnings.