Tragic Heroes and Catharsis

Status: [insert choice number of expletives and square it. That’s my mood.]

You’re probably figuring that right now, my question header is really confusing, seeing as we are supposed to talk about Mary Sues. Trust me dear reader, I’m going to basically follow with it – with a twist or three. Enjoy the ride, and understand what I think I’m trying to get across.

For my literature classes this year, I have been studying about the genre of Tragic Heroes. The kind that started in Greek antiquity and progressed through the ages and has influenced Tragedies seen in Shakespeare’s time, and elements of Tragic Heroes even persist in modern culture. Just take a look at say, Inception or maybe even Robin Hobb’s (I am such a fan of her’s) Assassin’s Trilogy. I’ve been recently doing notes compiling what a tragic hero is. Here, let’s share the quote in question.

Tragedies center of flawed individuals, necessitating the existence of “free will” wherein the protagonist is free to choose their own fate; if the hero is incapable of choice, he cannot commit his hamartia or ‘mistake’, thus undermining the basis of the tragedy. This leads to devaluing the effect of catharsis as viewers cannot possibly identify with a hero whose peripeteia comes about solely due to external force. Such flawed protagonists can be seen not only in the classical Greek plays of antiquity, but also in medieval Shakespearean dramas and even in more recent works of literature.

Aristotle, in his work Poetics, defined tragedy as having several quintessential qualities. Primarily, most tragic heroes possess ‘hamartia’. Hamartia is primarily defined as an error of judgment or unwitting mistake applied to the actions of the hero, but is also commonly generalised as a fatal flaw, a character trait that is the motivation for the character’s catastrophic choices. Both definitions are equally applicable to the genre of tragedy. However, the main point about hamartia is that in the action committed by the protagonist in the pursuit of a certain goal, instead creates a situation or chain of events that leads to the exact opposite, with cataclysmic consequences. For example, the hero might attempt to achieve a goal, but in the course of doing so, hamartia rears its ugly head and engenders disastrous consequences. Hamartia is crucial as it allows for the events and consequences to follow that ultimately lead to the protagonist’s reversal of fortune, or peripeteia.

Sounds complicated? Luckily for you, I’m going to run you through it in a sound bite.

Tragedy comprises of a few elements. Firstly, ‘hamartia’, which is commonly known as the fatal flaw as well as the choice the hero makes which eventually sets him on the slippery slope of disastrous events that lead to his eventual destruction. The flaw can range from pride, ambition to greed or maybe inability to believe the truth. For example, Oedipus Rex’s flaw was hubris (pride), and his essential action was choosing to rebel against the prophecy of the Gods, thus walking him into the prophecy and fulfilling it.

Secondly, viewers of tragedies must undergo catharsis upon watching the play. The release of emotions by empathizing with the hero as he is eventually brought down low to the dregs of society, losing his stature and power is something that resonates clearly with the audience – who only too well understand shame and horror upon suffering the consequences of their actions.

Catharsis, requires empathy. Empathy to the hero, who makes a choice that though may be filled with good intentions, eventually pave a way to hell. To understand the difficulty or seeming difficulty of making a choice, and eventual choosing of the wrong choice.

An audience understands the struggles and destruction of a character, and believes and roots for them.

Now, Mary Sues (I don’t quite like naming them as this though… hm.) are primarily characters that seem altogether too perfect. As Hunger has mentioned previously – Mary Sues tend to always do the right thing, and that everything bad that happens to them is due to outside circumstances outside of her control.

Why do we not like Mary Sues? It is because we do not empathize with them. All the bad things that happen to them are because of fate! Never due to making a bad decision, never because they dropped their perfect facade to be human for once. It is never their fault.

I think as a reader, we love reading about grand stories, full of wonder and possibility. Yes, possibility that hinges on the characters and their motivations. Characters which react based on emotion and do all the wrong things with the right intentions. Characters that are flawed, simple, and human. We care for the underdog, we understand their struggles. We like it when people don’t make the right choices.

Why? Because they are human, and not soulless autonomons that make all the right decisions and always choose the right thing. Though bad things can occur to us that we have no control over, not everything bad is not our fault.

Viewers cannot possibly identify with a hero whose peripeteia comes about solely due to external force.

Everyone makes bad choices. Even your characters.

Make your characters flawed individuals. We will love you for that.

Those Greeks had it going right.



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