If you’re writing your hero correctly, he or she is not perfect. They have weaknesses and flaws that they must overcome within themselves as well as the external threat, the villain. That inner struggle with one’s own self is key to inspiring conflict and sympathy for the main character.
So what’s this “Hamartia” stuff? Well, Hamartia comes from the Greek root ἁμαρτία, which means “sin”. Hamartia is a literary term used for a character’s fatal flaw, the stain on their soul that eventually brings them down. This is most often used in reference to tragic heroes and less often to villains.
Of course, you can have a flaw without it being Hamartia: this is when the hero or heroine conquers their flaw and then defeats the villain. For Hamartia to work at its best, you’re going to want to place a seemingly minor but noticeable flaw in an exemplary hero.
Consider Michael Corleone, the tragic hero of our day. He was so set in the conviction that he would never be the gangster his father or family was. His fatal flaw was that he was too attached to his family, even though he recognized that what they were doing was wrong. Over time, however, he slowly slips into darkness with one murder after another, all under the conviction that “he’s not like his family”. The irony is, however, that his father started out just like him: he wanted to be a champion of the people, someone to lift unfortunate ones out of their distress. But you know what they say: The path to hell is paved with good intentions.
Tragic heroes are some of the best-written and interesting characters in literature, and maybe you’d like to craft your own. A quick crash course in making a tragic hero: select a highly competent likable character. Give them a proficiency for a very useful skill and a quality that makes you like them, like a bright smile or a witty mouth.
Then, deliver the coup de grace: he’s not the most honest character. He accepts bribes. Perhaps she dabbles in the darker arts of magic. Maybe she’s afraid of something. (Winston’s greatest fear is his downfall in 1984) Portray this character as interesting, likable, and competent…but with one small flaw. And that flaw is their downfall.
I will mention that Hamartia does not have to be morally evil. In fact, it’s even better when you show that this character’s good intentions are exactly what led them to the dark side. I’ve pulled up a few examples of this before, but see to what lengths a man will go to save his dying wife.
Then, you must begin a monstrous evolution. Their flaw works busily from within, working to corrupt this hero into a monster. Hank the werewolf slayer joins the party because they’re hunting the mystical Elixir: the only thing that can heal his daughter, who lies at the point of death. Over time, Hank grows impatient and irritable as they grow closer to the Elixir. He’s growing more and more desperate: more and more willing to do evil things.
However, Silvia the elf mage finds out that the Elixir does grant eternal life, but in the form of undead zombification. She only discovers this from an ancient tome right as Hank arrives home and gives a few drops of the elixir to his daughter. (If you’re a writer, your spine should be tingling with unholy delight right now) When his daughter is raised as a zombie, she probably bites him, and then he becomes a lich lord or something. His desperation made him not listen to Silvia, and that was his downfall.
Remember, the road to villain status doesn’t need to be one blackened by a thousand dark deeds. It can be full of golden, virtuous ones. But somewhere along the line, the hero is corrupted by none other than their darker selves, their own sin. And that is their downfall.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!