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.

Sociological vs Psychological Storytelling

Game of Thrones, in its eighth and final season, enjoyed audiences of more than 17 million people per week. However, fan and critic reaction though out the season indicated many of those millions loathed it.

Where did the season go wrong and why exactly did it go downhill? In May 2019, Zeynep Tufekci published an article in the Scientific American entitled, ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.’

Her thesis was simple; the original narrative created by George R. R. Martin struck a cord with audiences because of its unique subtlety as a sociological story which stood out among Hollywood narratives characterised by being psychological and individually motivated.

It’s not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological .

She explains that in sociological narratives, characters evolve in response to the broader social, political, economic and cultural incentives and norms that surround them. Author George R. R. Martin drew from medieval and renaissance history for his characters and plot devices, as well as from European myth and legend. In doing so, he specialized in having characters evolve in response to the broader social fabric and beliefs within which they were placed.

On the other hand, psychological narratives features characters driven by much more individual quests and motives. The preference for this narrative style in Hollywood is understandable: the story is easier to tell and we gravitate toward identifying with the hero or hating the antihero, at the personal level. The hallmark of sociological storytelling however, is it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.

An example of the power of Martin’s sociological storytelling was his willingness to kill off major characters frequently without losing the thread of the story. Narratives driven by psychological and individual motives rarely do that because the main characters are the key tools with which the story is built. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

Showrunners, D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, took the narrative beyond Martin’s books, and turned the later seasons into Hollywood psychological narratives. In the final season, none of the main characters are killed early or unexpectedly and the motives and movements of the protagonists and antagonists became ever more internally wrought. What resulted in season 8 was ‘deus ex-machina’ styled defeat of the forces of the dead, and simplistic dissolution to good vs. evil interplay between main characters.

And it was the story’s richness which was lost in season 8, moving fans and critics to openly pan the final episodes online. Meme’s abound like the image below featuring a young woman’s Halloween costume literally ‘trashing’ season 8.

You can read Zeynep Tufekci’s full article on Scientific American, HERE.

Why Constraints Makes Art better.

Conflict is the bread and butter of narrative.

Put an exploding bomb threat into a story and one gains pace, tension and agency. Put a supernatural being of evil intent into a confined space with unsuspecting victims, and one gains heightened adrenaline rushes.

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What is significant to both games and stories is that the creation of rules necessary to an fully immersive experience. Placing tightly buttoned rules around characters – rules of etiquette, legitimacy, land title, inheritance, and so forth – effectively binds protagonists into both a believable universe worth investing emotional energy in, and also creates a highly tense, problem ridden one.

Aristotle in his seminal work Poetics, describe the primary motivator for a protagonist to be a wound, a life forming incident which leads them astray and into conflict. As an audience we want to follow them to find out how they resolve it, or find catharsis..

The greater the conflict or the limitations around the protagonists on this journey, the greater the emotional release, the catharsis, upon resolution.

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Give characters hateful parents, remove them of parentage as strays or orphans, constrict them as “bastards” without any chance of legitimacy or claim to title, confine them as slaves, restrict them as women without rights, or give them a deformity or curse them as outcasts, place them within intricate systems of religious belief, confine them to socioeconomic controls or limit them within elaborate traditions which demarcate what they can and cannot do.

In other words, place blockages for your protagonists at every turn, the more that exist, the more tension is built, and the greater the payoff when they break through to liberty.

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These are steps to human freedoms.

Stories, which are made of the creation and release of tension, are thus fed by the hero journey, or the journey of the human towards freedom.

However, the hero journey tells us that ultimately, there comes a point where the human cannot progress further into freedoms without facing an ultimate sacrifice. Freedom is only truly won  by the very surrender of what is sought.

At this point the hero faces a “death” experience – a death to freedom itself, lest freedom become a new task master not unlike the old. This death to self, and self-giving to others,  prompts the rebirth of an enlightened hero, in possession of not only freedom but connectivity to hope again.

Save the Cat

Blake Snyder was a well known American screenwriter and theorist, and his book “Save the Cat” is a leading guide to writing for screen.  In it, he outlines several tricks of the story telling trade.

One strategy he outlines is for getting the audience to side with the protagonist early on. Featured in the title, Save the Cat!  it describes the manner in which the screen writer introduces the hero in an early scene doing something nice, for example, saving a cat. This creates a bond of empathy between them and the  audience. 

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According to Snyder, the inspiration for this particular example, was the movie Alien, in which Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] saves a cat named Jones.

The contrast can be as powerful. For example, the opening montage of the TV series, House of Cards, features the  protagonist Frank Underwood, [Kevin Spacey] finding an injured and whimpering dog.

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He considers for a second, before strangling the dog and then calmly states:

Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.

This scene chillingly sets up his character and the whole trajectory of the TV series with its exploration of the intricasies of political ambition and power.  

Saving the cat, killing the dog,: such simple motifs connect the audience viscerally to characters through emotions of empathy or distrust.