The tragic flaw is a fundamental aspect of literature, dating back to ancient Greek drama. These flaws are an inherent weakness in your character’s personality that will ultimately lead to their own downfall. When well-executed, a tragic flaw can add depth, complexity, emotional weight, and relatability to a dynamic character and their story.
But how do you write a compelling and effective tragic flaw in your own writing without going overboard into cliche? Let’s look at some tips, strategies, and examples for crafting tragic flaws that will resonate with your readers so they remember your character for years after finishing the book.
What is a tragic flaw?
A tragic flaw, sometimes called a “hamartia,” is a common literary device that refers to a characteristic or trait of the protagonist in a story that ultimately leads to the character’s downfall, death, or other tragic end.
Tragic flaws are more commonly seen in classic literature than they are in modern pieces, or at least they are much more blatant in classic literature. Think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth—Macbeth’s ambition leads to his own downfall. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the protagonist’s pride and arrogance lead him to unknowingly commit heinous acts and suffer his tragic fate.
For a more modern example, look at Gatsby—his blind pursuit of Daisy’s love leaves him floating in his own demise.
A tragic flaw brings the main character to their fateful end due to their own shortcomings. The literary device creates a sense of tragedy and tension in a story, and is often used to explore complex themes like ambition, pride, and obsession—classic flaws that lead to failure.
Examples of tragic flaws
We already talked about Macbeth’s ambition, Oedipus’ pride, and Gatbsy’s delusional pursuit—let’s look at a few more examples of tragic flaws in literature.
1. Hamlet’s indecisiveness
Shakespeare is kind of the OG when it comes to writing tragically flawed characters, and Hamlet is no exception. Hamlet is a complex character who struggles with grief, anger, and feeling betrayed following the death of his father and remarriage of his mother to his uncle.
Tasked with avenging his father’s murder and burdened with the inability to do so, Hamlet finds a series of tragic events. His indecisiveness is highlighted in his famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” where he contemplates the value of life and death. Ultimately, his inability to act decisively leads to the death of several characters, including himself.
2. Victor Frankenstein’s obsession
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Doctor Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with his “scientific” pursuits of creating life. Some might call it a god complex (because it is), and this obsession leads him to creating the monster he so desired.
His obsession blinds him to the inevitable consequences of his actions—he is so focused on acquiring the object of his obsession that he never considers what will happen if he succeeds. After he creates the monster, he refuses to take responsibility for it, leading to a series of tragic events, including the deaths of several characters and Victor’s own descent into madness (like, more so than before).
3. Blanche Dubois’ denial
In Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanch Dubois’ tragic flaw is her denial and inability to confront the past. Haunted by the loss of her family’s wealth, the death of her husband, and her own sexual desires leaves Blanche as a deeply flawed character struggling to connect with others or accept reality. Her inability to confront that reality leads to her eventual institutionalization.
4. Willy Loman’s delusion
In Arthur Milller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s tragic flaw is his delusion and refusal to face reality. He’s a salesman struggling to make ends meet and failing to amend a strained relationship with his sons. He clings to the belief that success is just around the corner for him, and that his sons will ultimately achieve greatness.
This delusion blinds him to the realities of the situation, preventing him from taking meaningful action to improve his life before it’s too late. This leads to Willy’s downfall, which ends in him taking his own life. Both Death of a Salesman and The Great Gatsby use the delusional, blind ambition of a man who ends up dead by that ambition to illustrate the hollow non-reality of “The American Dream”.
5. Raskolnikov’s pride
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the main character Raskolnikov’s tragic flaw is his pride, as well as his belief that he is a superior human being who is simply above the law. He commits a murder to prove the theory that some people are just so extraordinary that they should be allowed to break the law (and destroy other people) in pursuit of their goals.
But his pride blinds him to the obvious moral implications of that action and prevents him from feeling remorse for his crime…at first. The guilt catches up to him until he is driven to confess to the murder, leading his ultimate downfall (but at the same time, a sort of redemption within his own self).
6. Bojack Horseman’s self-destruction
Okay, let’s have a horse cartoon example for flavor—Bojack’s tragic flaw is his self-destructive behavior and his inability to confront his past trauma. This leads him to behaviors that hurt people around him and ultimately causes him to lose everything he values in life.
How to write a tragic flaw
Let’s go over a few tips for writing tragic flaws in your characters effectively.
1. Know your character
To write a tragic flaw that is compelling and believable, it needs to make sense for the character. Knowing your character is essential, because their personality, background, and motivations should determine their flaws. Pairing an arbitrary flaw with your main character will make the character, plot, and overall story confusing and less realistic.
2. Make the flaw believable
While flaws are often a source of strife, drama, and intrigue, it shouldn’t be too over the top. Your tragic flaw should be realistic and believable, as well as making sense for that particular character. Avoid making it too extreme or implausible, because that can detract from the authenticity of your characters and story.
3. Use the tragic flaw(s) to drive the plot
The tragic flaw should be so integral to the story that it cannot be removed without substantially changing the plot. It should be a source of tension and conflict, while also driving your character’s actions and decisions. It should also be a major player in the character arc.
4. Show the consequences of the flaw
The repercussions are what makes a flaw tragic. It has to bring the tragedy! So what awful thing happens as a result of your character’s tragic flaw? Your flaw should have consequences that are both significant and believable. They should not only affect the character, but also the characters/world around them.
5. Allow for character growth
The tragic flaw should make a huge change in your character. It should either contribute majorly to their character arc, or it kill ‘em right up! Or both. Your character’s tragic flaw shouldn’t be the end of their journey. Give them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, grow, and ultimately achieve some form of redemption (or decomposition, RIP).
6. Make the flaw relatable
While your tragic flaw should be unique to your character and make sense for their background, motivations, and general situation, it’s also important that it be universal and relatable for your readers. It should tap into a deeper human emotion and experience past the actual on-page situation. This way, readers can connect with the flaw (and your character) and understand their headspace. The more connected your reader is with the character, the more impactful your story will be on them.
Crafting an effective tragic flaw can be challenging! You really have to understand the character and their goals in order to determine where their blindspots and weaknesses would realistically be, then execute a plot that your tragic flaw can weave into perfectly. By tapping into those universal human emotions and experiences, creating realistic and believable flaws, letting them drive the plot and have consequences for the character, you can create memorable and complex characters.
By allowing your characters to grow and learn from the results of their tragic flaw, you can create a sense of catharsis for your readers (or a sense of betrayal and dismay—really your call there). Keep these tips in mind next time you’re building a new character, and you might just come out with a real banger.