Episode 111: The Tragic Flaw

On September 5th Kasie and Rex got back to craft discussion with this take on the tragic flaw. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Tragic Flaw


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • Featured Authors new addition: Carolyn Hartley
  • What is the Tragic Flaw?
  • What qualifies? What doesn’t?
  • How do you write one?
  • Do you have to have one? Why or why not?
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Segment 1

In July, we launched our Author Spotlights page on the site. We add this month Carolyn Hartley. Carolyn is a digital forensics expert with three decades of experience writing, lecturing, and publishing for national medical societies. Her best selling medical consumer book, The Caregiver’s Toolbox, published by Rowman & Littlefield, was an Amazon #1 hot new release for nine consecutive weeks in two categories. Link to Featured page.

Thank you, Carolyn, for supporting the show and for being a featured author. 

We’re glad to support South Carolina writers of all genres, talents, and abilities. You can become a spotlighted author on our site by becoming a patron of the show at Patreon.com/WriteOnSC.

The Tragic Flaw

Origin: Greek term ‘harmartia’ meaning “to miss the mark” or “to err”

Frequently used in greek tragedy but popular also in Christian morality plays. 

The tragic flaw is a character’s weakness or failing that ultimately leads to their demise. It is not the superficial flaw given to a character to humanize them or make them seem less perfect. The tragic flaw is much more sinister. Examples include Marilyn Monroe whose star-power and beauty led to her being harassed and stalked by the press, a kind of constant invasion of privacy that ultimately led to what was most likely a suicide, consider Princess Diana whose fame led to a similar fate albeit violent crash, not overdose and Amy Winehouse whose addiction was fueled by the burden of creative fame.

In literature we see this in characters like Othello whose own insecurities around not being good enough for Desdemona despite her assurances are exploited by Iago until Othello ultimately kills her in a jealous rage. Maybe next week we do “Iago” or the manipulator antagonist?

Everyone has weaknesses. The depth thereof varies and most of our flaws are not as deep as the tragic one. Many of our weaknesses can be overcome and many, many stories are about that very thing — overcoming our own biases or insecurities to grow, change, and triumph.

But the tragic flaw cannot be overcome. It stays with us despite our best efforts to grow out of it and it’s because of its persistence that the tragic flaw results in tragedy.

Segment 2

What are some categories of tragic flaws?

  • Cowardice
  • Ambition
  • Over-protectiveness
  • Self-sacrifice
  • Pride
  • Greed

Where do these flaws come from?

  • Cowardice could be a result of witnessing violence or tragedy, or it could be because the character perceives they have too much to lose to take a risk
  • Ambition could be a desire to overcome inferior circumstances, maybe growing up poor, or being competitive
  • Over-protectiveness could also be about loss and wanting to avoid further loss
  • Self-sacrifice is the “not really a flaw flaw” so let’s talk about that
  • Pride is an unwillingness to admit you’re wrong, saving face, being more concerned with what others think of you than with doing the right thing
  • Greed can be about having experienced scarcity, consider Scarlett O’Hara’s declaration to never be hungry again.

Back to this “self-sacrifice” thing — if it’s Melanie Hamilton’s kindness and honor, maybe it’s an unintentional flaw. But Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter — calling their self-sacrifice a flaw is a little bit like trying to make Mary Sue less perfect with her “she’s just too wonderful” 

If we go back to Marilyn Monroe — beauty was her flaw, but it wasn’t as if there were realistic strategies for how to get past it. She couldn’t “get ugly” right? But Harry and Katniss can not make stupid choices, can not put themselves in danger, can not be so reckless.

I’d actually say that Harry’s tragic flaw is his commitment to defeating Voldemort. While it begins as self preservation, by the end, Harry has been putting himself in harm’s way to draw out Voldemort and it’s his belief that his own life has no value so long as he can rid the world of his enemy that is the real flaw.

Segment 3

So how do you write a tragic flaw? According to this link, some fatal flaws begin as coping mechanisms (like Norma Jean’s ticket out of obscurity: Marilyn Monroe, the alter ego). 

Tragic flaws add depth to your characters and are not necessarily moral failings. They might be learned behaviors — “My dad always taught me that…” or how they’re able to think in shades of grey instead of black and white — “Men’s rights are equal rights just like women’s rights are.”

What if the good is taken too far and then used against the character? — a charitable person takes in a beggar who then robs him; a nurse shows compassion to a patient who ultimately harms her; or something is misconstrued as sinister when it was meant to be helpful

A classic use of the tragic flaw of arrogance is n superheros overestimating their own technology, strength, or powers and then being defeated — unexpectedly? — in a run-in with the villain. This set-back is necessary for the hero to grow, but it might also expose a flaw that can be tucked away but not completely overcome.

Consider Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne having to ask for help or Wonder Woman guessing wrong about which human is Ares. 

So here’s your how-to:

  • Look into the character’s origin story and find a place where the person suffered. What happened? What kind of response mechanism would the person develop in response?
  • Tell three or four other examples of the character demonstrating that behavior. What other actions in the story reinforce the existence of this response? 
  • Build a conflict where the character would have to act in the opposite way to win the conflict. What are the stakes? What is the character being threatened with?
  • Punish the character for being unable to act in the opposite way. What is the cost/benefit analysis for the character? Why should s/he choose to stay committed to the flaw-driven course of action?

Segment 4

Do you have to have a tragic flaw?

No — most people do not have an all-damning tragic flaw. Many of us have benign or harmless flaws that are inconveniences or maybe complicate otherwise simple experiences. In An Abundance of Katherines the protagonist’s flaw is that he thinks the Katherines are some kind of puzzle he can crack. Like because they have the same name, they share some combination or solution that he just has to figure out and execute. But despite the name, they’re all different. This is not a tragic flaw. He could just date a Veronica.

Also, flaws can be persistent without being tragic. Tony Stark never gets truly humbled — not even when he’s experiencing PTSD in Iron Man 3. He maintains faith in his own abilities and that’s how he’s able to still be heroic.

And you don’t have to solve the problem for your character. S/he can fight through it to achieve something and then take refuge in it again after the challenge is over. This is especially true if the flaw is a deep-rooted character trait that usually works well for them until this one time, when they had to be different to get what they wanted. Then your reader will wonder if the change they saw was real or just a masquerade for the circumstances.

Yes — someone has to be damned by the flaw. It can be the antagonist’s flaw that damns them or the protagonist’s, but someone must fail because of the flaw. Otherwise, the stakes aren’t high enough. This link gives the example of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood where the Leo character is afraid of aging out of Hollywood, losing the film career he’s become accustomed to. Fear of change is a flaw because change is inevitable whether we fear it or not. But to become a tragic flaw, the character must fight against change with everything s/he has.

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