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  • Writer's picturePhil Parker

Exploring the Tropes: #2 Creating characters with faults

It was the Greek writer, Aristotle, who created the term, 'Hamartia', to mean a tragic flaw in a character.

He maintained that if readers were to engage with a character, they needed to be human, faulty in some way. If they were too perfect, the audience wouldn't engage. There's a lot of truth in this, isn't there? In his work, Poetics, Aristotle argues that it is a powerful device to have a story begin with a rich and powerful hero, neither exceptionally virtuous nor villainous, who falls into misfortune by a mistake or error (hamartia).

This concept exists in all the classics, Shakespeare made a career on it! Hamlet with his indecisive nature makes mistakes, Macbeth trusts the witches, Othello is tempted into jealousy by Iago's actions, King Lear's unstable mind leads him to lose his daughter.

I thought it might be interesting to consider this idea from a speculative fiction perspective and relate the idea to some classics in this broad genre.

Curiosity can be a fault in some characters. After all, it's known to kill cats. But it can lead to normal lives being disrupted when a character starts asking too many questions. For instance, in Logan's Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, the Sandman, Logan 3 experiences near-fatal curiosity. The day before his palmflower turns from red to black, indicating he's turned 21, he meets the person he's been hunting. As a Sandman he's duty bound to return him for execution until he learns of Sanctuary. Now that should lead him to say, "I'm not interested!" but it doesn't. Like the Runners he spends his days hunting down, Logan 3 pursues his curious mind and leaves the city for places unknown.

You might not consider curiosity to be a flaw, but so many speculative tales take place in oppressive societies where asking questions and having a curious mind is frowned upon. Punished even. I mention this because the point of speculative fiction is to be curious! We want our protagonists to go beyond what is known. Gene Roddenbury created a successful media franchise with a series based on a spaceship 'going where no one has gone before'. So make your characters curious, let it get them into hot water!

Refusal to Conform - the character that needs to be an individual is always a problem in speculative fiction. I mean, why can't they be like everyone else? Perhaps it's because in this genre we worry what happens when people turn into sheep. (Not literally!)

Ray Bradbury's 'Farenheit 451' protagonist, Guy Montag is a 'fireman', he burns books. But he starts to doubt the purpose behind his job and takes matters into his own hands.

Winston is the same in Orwell's 1984. Babel-17 by I'd also include Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower because her protagonist encounters the return of slavery for purely economic reasons in an America which looks frighteningly like the one that is developing in front of our eyes. In all of these stories, the central conflict arises out of the search for individuality and how we have to fight to retain it. The protagonist needs to see the benefits of being different, eccentric compared to other people. They may not be happy about the situation but they stubbornly stick to their individuality. And don't get me started how this topic could lead into the persecution of minority groups. Oh wait, here comes the next section.

Prejudice and bigotry - speculative fiction explores most forms of what I'm going to called 'tribalism'. Protagonists are often subjected to suffering it at the hands of the ignorant, the frightened, the narrow-minded. Octavia Butler fits in to this section. Malorie Blackman's YA novel, Noughts and Crosses is now getting taught in schools because it helps encourage debate. A Canadian professor, Darko Suvin, invented the term "cognitive estrangement" - that what we are reading is not the world as we know it, but a world whose differences force us to reconsider our own with an outsider's perspective. When you read interviews with speculative authors you find this 'outside looking in' perspective is what draws them to write in the genre. Ursula Le Guin's writing is an example. In 1969 her The Left Hand of Darkness introduce trans-sexual characters for the first time. Surely this is what makes the genre so different to every other? It gets audiences thinking about topics without appearing to lecture them. It makes for a powerful form of writing. Protagonists in these stories carry the weight of responsibility of society's education.

Instigators of Change - following on from the previous category, characters need to bring about catharsis. This takes us back to Aristotle who invented the word - he talked about how literature could 'purge' the reader of their emotions, allow them to vent their feelings. In this context it encourages a form of learning, perhaps 'self-realisation' is better here. We see what happens to our world if we maintain the status quo.

John Wyndham, a favourite author of mine, wrote such stories in the 1950s/60s. I used to teach The Chrysalids to get across this message. It's set in a post-apocolyptic world where mutation is rife. David Strorm is a boy with psychic abilities, son of a community leader who destroys anything that has mutated because it's a deviation. People who deviate are cast out of communities to try to survive in the wilderness. In the early stages of the story we see a little girl, Sophie, torn from her family because she has six toes, it's the first time David starts to realise how wrong this policy is. David's subsequent actions, taken as he grows older, turn him into an instigator of change. It's a story, like so many in this genre, that works as a parable, we need to learn from the mistaken view that Change is bad. Especially when you see the way politics adopts the same philosophy as David's father.


Speculative fiction needs characters that make us think. They've got to do more than just help tell a story. They carry with them on their narrative journey, a message. I think that message may likely fit into one of these categories. There's a rich tradition, particularly in science fiction, of authors using the genre to do just this. What is the purpose of speculation otherwise? Surely it is to wonder what happens if people continue to behave in ways which ignore these qualities. Aren't these categories some of the qualities that give humanity the potential to be more than we already are? I think so.


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