Death of the Critic

The Tragic Hero

Written by: Tom Blaich

When we are looking at the construction of a character, it can help to understand some of the basic archetypes that many authors pull from. We recently talked about Shakespeare as a cultural touchstone, and if we look at many of his plays, we can find evidence of a “tragic hero”. The tragic hero is an age old character archetype describes by Aristotle as:

“A man not pre-eminently virtuous and just whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e.g. Oedipus, Thyestes, and the men of similar families. The perfect Plot, accordingly, must have a single, and not (as some tell us) a double issue; the change in the hero’s fortunes must be not from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part; the man himself being either such as we have described, or better, not worse, than that.” (The Aristotelian Concept of the Tragic Hero)

While this might seem like an interesting set of rules, it is all about creating a compelling and sympathetic character. Obviously authors now don’t follow it to a T (nor should they, we have plenty of sympathetic evil characters) but the core message is solid. The hero needs conflict, and creating that core conflict out of some tragic flaw allows the character to overcome enemies both physical and mental, undergoing growth on their hero’s journey.

This tragic flaw can manifest in many ways: pride and hubris, cowardice and avarice, anything that can prompt the hero/main character into making illogical choices. This flaw should manifest from the beginning and it should be something that we can recognize. It is easy to tell that Hamlet is prideful. And we get to watch as his pride and fear lead him to his downfall. But this isn’t a trait exclusive to dusty old plays or British literature.

It is used all of the time to build conflict around our characters. Look at Sicario, where Emily Blunt’s character Kate is blinded by her own desire for revenge and pride and let’s herself be used by Josh Brolin and the CIA to help conduct semi-legal raids on Mexico. And she has to confront this pride at the end of the movie and ask herself if she made the right decision.

So why does this help us? It is all about understanding more about our characters. Can we apply this template, are their decisions motivated by some character flaw, and if we can identify this flaw, how does it change the way that we read the character and their interactions with others? We continue to try to understand more and more about how a character is built to help expand our knowledge base and become better critics.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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