Tragic Flaw: Definition, Examples, Significance
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. What is tragic flaw?
  2. How does tragic flaw work in literature?
  3. Examples of tragic flaw in literature
  4. Why does tragic flaw matter?
  5. How to spot a tragic flaw in literature

So, you're here to find out about the concept of the tragic flaw. It's one of those terms that makes literature, particularly the classics, so fascinating. The tragic flaw, often referred to as hamartia from the original Greek term, is a literary device and a key element of many memorable stories. Let's explore this concept and see why it matters.

What is tragic flaw?

A tragic flaw, at its core, is a character trait that leads to the downfall or failure of a person, usually the main character, in a work of literature. It's an inherent defect or shortcoming in the hero or heroine that, despite their many admirable qualities, typically leads to their undoing. But let's break this definition of tragic flaw down a bit further.

Origins of the term

To begin, it's helpful to know that the term "tragic flaw" is a more modern interpretation of the concept of hamartia. Used primarily in Greek tragedies, hamartia refers to a mistake made by the protagonist that brings about their demise. Over time, however, we began to interpret this "mistake" as a character flaw, hence the term "tragic flaw".

Common types of tragic flaws

  • Pride: Often, a character’s pride or arrogance is their undoing. This is seen in characters who refuse to accept help or admit they may be wrong.
  • Jealousy: Sometimes, it's a character's jealousy that leads to their downfall. This jealousy can be directed towards another character's success, love interest, or any other perceived advantage.
  • Ambition: Ambition can be a positive trait, but when it becomes obsessive or disregards the well-being of others, it can lead to tragedy.

Remember, a tragic flaw isn't a minor personality quirk. It's a significant trait that is integral to the character's identity and story arc. It's also worth noting that a tragic flaw isn't necessarily a "bad" trait. Pride, ambition, and even love can be admirable qualities, but when they're taken to the extreme, they can lead to a character's downfall — hence the tragic part of the tragic flaw.

Function of the tragic flaw

A tragic flaw serves a purpose in literature. It adds depth to characters, making them more human and relatable. It also drives the plot forward as the characters act in accordance with their flaws, leading to inevitable consequences. The tragic flaw keeps you, as a reader, invested in the story, knowing that the main character's actions, driven by their flaw, will lead to dramatic outcomes. In this way, the tragic flaw brings a certain level of suspense and emotional engagement to a story. It's what makes you care about what happens to the characters.

Understanding the definition of tragic flaw, its origins, common types, and function can give you a new perspective on the stories you read. It can make your reading experiences richer and more rewarding. So, next time you pick up a book, keep an eye out for the tragic flaw. It might just make the story that much more interesting.

How does tragic flaw work in literature?

So, you've got the definition of tragic flaw down. But how does it actually operate in literature? How does it shape a story, a character, or even an entire genre? Let's dive in.

The role of tragic flaw in character development

Character development is a crucial part of any narrative. And tragic flaws play a key role in this process. A character's tragic flaw is often the seed of their growth, or lack thereof, throughout a story. It not only defines who they are but also shapes their actions, decisions, and interactions with other characters.

In the beginning, this flaw might not be evident or it might seem insignificant. But as the narrative progresses, it becomes more apparent and influential. It's like a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode at the right moment, which is usually towards the end of the story.

The impact of tragic flaw on the plot

Another important aspect of the tragic flaw is how it impacts the plot. In fact, one could argue that it's the engine that drives the narrative forward. The tragic flaw propels the character into action, often leading them to make poor decisions that result in negative consequences.

These consequences, in turn, create conflict and tension within the story, elements that keep you hooked as a reader. It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion — you know it's going to end badly, but you can't look away.

The tragic flaw and the story's resolution

Finally, the tragic flaw plays a significant role in the story's resolution. It's typically in the climax or the denouement of the story where the full impact of the tragic flaw comes into play.

The character's tragic flaw, by this point, has usually led them to a point of no return, resulting in their downfall, failure, or even death. This resolution serves as a kind of moral lesson or warning about the dangers of certain character traits when taken to the extreme.

So, in essence, the tragic flaw is like the heartbeat of a story. It keeps the narrative alive, pushing it forward towards its inevitable end. It guides the character's actions, shapes their development, influences the plot, and ultimately determines the story's resolution. It's a testament to the power of character flaws and the profound impact they can have on a narrative.

Examples of tragic flaw in literature

Now that we understand how tragic flaw works in literature, let's take a look at some examples. These examples will help further clarify the definition of tragic flaw and show how it's used in practice.

Hamlet's indecisiveness in "Hamlet"

Shakespeare's "Hamlet" offers a clear example of tragic flaw. Hamlet's tragic flaw is his indecisiveness. He constantly wavers between acting and not acting on the ghost's command to avenge his father's murder. This indecisiveness leads to his downfall as it delays his action until it's too late. Hamlet's tragic flaw is a perfect example of how a character's flaw can lead to their eventual downfall and make for a compelling narrative.

Oedipus' pride in "Oedipus Rex"

In the classic Greek tragedy "Oedipus Rex" by Sophocles, Oedipus' tragic flaw is his excessive pride. This pride leads him to ignore prophetic warnings and take actions that fulfill a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. His pride blinds him to the truth until it's too late, resulting in his downfall. It's a powerful example of how a tragic flaw can drive the plot and lead to a character's downfall.

Dr. Frankenstein's ambition in "Frankenstein"

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" provides another example of a tragic flaw. In this case, Dr. Frankenstein's tragic flaw is his ambition. His desire to conquer death and create life leads him to create the monster that ultimately destroys him and everything he loves. His ambition blinds him to the consequences of his actions until it's too late. This example shows how a tragic flaw can shape a character's actions and lead to their downfall.

These examples provide a clear understanding of the definition of tragic flaw and how it works in literature. They show how a character's flaw can lead to their downfall and create a compelling narrative. They also demonstrate the impact of tragic flaw on character development, plot progression, and story resolution.

Why does tragic flaw matter?

So, we've seen examples of tragic flaws, but you might still be asking, "why does it matter?"

It gives depth to characters

Tragic flaws add layers to characters. Characters without flaws are often flat and uninteresting. They're too perfect to be relatable. But when characters have flaws—especially tragic ones—they become more human and more engaging. We can see ourselves in their struggles, making the story more gripping.

It drives the plot

Tragic flaw isn't just a character quirk—it's a driving force in the narrative. It pushes the plot forward and leads to key events in the story. Without Hamlet's indecisiveness, Oedipus' pride, or Dr. Frankenstein's ambition, the stories we discussed earlier would be much different—and arguably less interesting.

It teaches lessons

Finally, tragic flaws often serve as a moral lesson. They show us the dire consequences of letting our flaws control us. They're reminders that our actions have consequences and that unchecked flaws and ambitions can lead to our downfall.

So, when you come across a tragic flaw in a story, don't just see it as a character trait. See it as a vital component of the narrative—one that adds depth to characters, drives the plot, and imparts meaningful lessons. That's the real significance of tragic flaw in literature.

How to spot a tragic flaw in literature

Now that you know the importance of a tragic flaw, you're probably eager to spot them in the books you read. Let's break down the steps to uncover these intriguing character traits.

Look for the protagonist's weaknesses

Start by identifying the main character's weaknesses. Tragic flaws are usually negative traits or errors in judgment. Does the protagonist show signs of excessive pride, like Oedipus? Or perhaps they're plagued by indecision, like Hamlet. Reading with a keen eye for these flaws can enhance your understanding of the material and your appreciation for the author's skill.

Consider the outcome

Remember, a tragic flaw leads to the character's downfall. If a character's weakness doesn't result in any significant negative consequences, it's probably not a tragic flaw. Ask yourself: does this flaw lead to the protagonist's ruin or dramatic reversal of fortune? If yes, you've likely found their tragic flaw.

Think about the lesson

Lastly, think about the message the author is trying to convey through the character's tragic flaw. Often, tragic flaws serve to teach readers a lesson about the dangers of certain personality traits or behaviors. Understanding this lesson can give you a deeper insight into the story and its themes.

Spotting a tragic flaw isn't a guessing game, it's about understanding the character and the narrative. With these steps, you'll be well on your way to identifying tragic flaws in literature and deepening your reading experience.

If you found this blog post on tragic flaws intriguing and want to explore more about the complexities of life and human nature, check out Rabih Salloum's workshop, 'Navigating Life - Part V.' This workshop will help you delve deeper into understanding the intricacies of life and the significance of human flaws.