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Monday, March 14, 2016

Crafting Your Character's Harmartia

Hello lovely followers! Today's post on fatal flaws (your character's harmartia) comes from a guest, Kaki Olsen, who had her debut novel, Swan and Shadow: A Swan Lake Story, published by Cedar Fort last week! Everyone celebrate with her! This post is part of the book's blog tour. See the schedule of other blogs that are celebrating Swan and Shadow.

About Swan and Shadow: A Swan Lake Story:

Aislin is cursed. A regular college student at night and a swan during the day, Aislin can only break the curse by finding her true love. But when her beloved discovers the truth, will his fear override their love? This modern adaptation of Swan Lake will help you discover what love really means. Get Swan and Shadow.

About Kaki Olsen:

Kaki Olsen is always on the brink of another adventure. If she couldn't be a writer, she'd be a full-time musician or travel guide and she would take her lunch breaks at Fenway Park. Until that happens, she speaks both Spanish and English at her every-day office job, but she has vacationed enthusiastically in such places as Istanbul and Ireland. She has lived in five states, but will always refer to Boston as home.

She regularly contributes academic papers on zombies or wizards to Life, the Universe and Everything, a sci-fi/fantasy symposium originated at her alma mater, Brigham Young University. Her published works have appeared in such magazines as Voices and AuthorsPublish.

She is a doting aunt and librarian of two bulging bookshelves.

Hamartia Introduction

Many of you are probably familiar with this word. Hamartia is what I learned in 9th grade as the “Fatal flaw” or Achilles’ heel, the one thing that can bring down a hero. It wasn’t until 10th-grade Greek class that I had to learn that it had a better definition: to miss the mark.

It is in this spirit that I’d like to talk about character flaws. These are misnamed, since a character’s hamartia doesn’t have to be a bad trait or an evil intention or a sign of weakness, but the so-called flaws have to do with a factor that makes them just out of step with the right thing for their situation.


Let me illustrate with three scenarios:

One of my favorite examples of this is Harry Potter. I won’t give the specifics, since this moment was spoiled for me a month before I was able to read the book, but I’ll let you know enough context so you can recognize it. Near the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, he has a vision that causes him to leap to action. He musters his courage, marshals his forces, plans his next course of action and is baffled when his most stalwart supporters express skepticism about the practicality of his heroic deed. Hermione Granger informs him that he has a “saving-people thing” and that Voldemort is counting on his heroism. Harry rails that no one has minded his tendency to save him in the past, but they eventually have to convince him to check his facts. Even then, because Voldemort knows him too well, it leads to one of the most profound disasters in the series.

In Swan and Shadow, my debut novel, we have a milder flaw. The one argument that escalates beyond sibling bickering between the main characters has to do with it, in fact. In a world where one twin is physically incapable of keeping appointments during daylight hours, Aislin has had to rely on her sister’s help for things ranging from court dates to SATs. And Maeve, her sister, knows almost instinctively when she can help, has learned to anticipate the right response to any situation. The flaws play off of each other in that Aislin becomes too passive of a figure in her own life at times and Maeve feels absolutely free to overstep her bounds.

Our final example is from The Deserter, a book that I’ve written, but haven’t yet sent to any publishers. Ella, the main character, temporarily has memory loss following a traumatic accident and has to take it on faith that the people professing to be her friends and allies have good intentions. She gives the benefit of the doubt and it keeps her family safe. It allows her to go to the right authorities for help and to save the life of a friend. On the other hand, it leads to three of her allies—one of whom is a close friend--being murdered for their involvement in this great journey.

The Take-away

So, why relate all three of these stories? Let’s return to the idea of hamartia. All of these things begin with good intentions. Harry wants to save people, partially due to having grown up helpless. Maeve and Aislin want to work together so that their family is able to avoid disasters. Ella wants to find her place in the service of a cause. The interesting thing is not that they have these ambitions, but that having these aims causes them to do involuntary harm.

A friend of mine once wrote a quite hilarious and accurate paper on Pride and Prejudice. He postulated that of all the Bennett sisters, Mary is the only one who accomplishes in the end what she set out to do at the beginning. Hers is not the the interesting life, but it is one that fulfills its goals. He therefore said that the heroine of Pride and Prejudice is this awkward, overlooked character. I don’t disagree with him on the point, though I have a fondness for Jane and Bingley, but I think a book entirely about the character accomplishing what they set out to do would be as exciting as reading a completed checklist at the end of an uneventful day.

Diverging one more time, I recently reread a book whose protagonist has no fatal flaws, but whose story is fascinating because of its outcome. In The Mozart Season, Allegra Shapiro begins preparing for a violin competition at the beginning of her summer. On Labor Day, her story culminates in her competition and, much to my disappointment, she loses. But throughout the book, she embraces the Jewish heritage that her half-Jew, half-Gentile family has pushed to the background for her entire life. She learns to have compassion for the suffering of others. She faces her own inability to approach a situation with humility. I would have loved her to win the competition, but her reaction to the victory of someone she initially loathed is fantastic.

So, what do you do with flawed characters? First of all, decide on their place in the story—protagonist, antagonist, supporting character, comic relief, etc. Next, determine what the purpose of the flaw is.

Finally, answer the following questions: Does it make them a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? (By this, I mean, can the audience understand their motivations or even relate to them?) Does it affect the motivations of your protagonist? Do you want that flaw to be fixed by the end? Do you want that flaw to be part of the salvation of the story? Aristotle postulated that the true hero is one who comes out of adversity with his integrity intact. As someone who has been intrigued by the antagonists since the days of Sleeping Beauty and who found Harry to be much more interesting once he started to be a bit of an idiot, I urge you to reconsider.

Hope you guys found Kaki Olsen's writing tip helpful! Don't forget to check out Swan and Shadow, and you can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.


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