Archive | February, 2012

Truth in Fiction? Let’s Hear from the Experts.

14 Feb

Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t. ~ Mark Twain

Fiction writers are always talking about the truth. It confused me at first, until I realized that truth in story has little to do with real life; it’s the ability to make the reader believe that what the writer is revealing is a possibility, that it could happen, and in fact it has. The experience a writer portrays needs to become to the audience as real as if they had experienced it themselves.

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I believe Fiction writers often find it easier to tell the truth within a pretense of story. It’s easier to be honest, knowing that the truth is snuggled in with the pretend, and the reader is none the wiser to the actual circumstances from which the author learned this truth.

Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense. ~ Mark Twain

If the writer tells a story, it still has to have rules for the reader to follow along. There should be defined boundaries in the world created. Would you keep reading that crime drama if a talking unicorn suddenly appeared? Maybe, if you believe it could happen.

I’ll leave you with this poem.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise.

Relating to the Tragic Hero

9 Feb

The tragic hero is “a literary character who makes an error of judgment or has a fatal flaw that, combined with fate and external forces, brings on a tragedy” ( This definition could be ascribed to most protagonists of any story, since rarely is a hero depicted as perfect, with events stacked against him. A tragic hero is usually good, but makes bad decisions that lead to his or her demise, associated with a tragic flaw that haunts the character throughout the narration. The tragic flaw is “a flaw in the character of the protagonist of a tragedy that brings the protagonist to ruin or sorrow” ( It can also be referred to as a “fatal flaw,” since the outcome is usually death. Since a tragic hero must always have a tragic flaw, it is usually assumed that there must be an unhappy ending. However, it is possible for a tragic character to be redeemed just in time, and in that scenario, we can find hope for our own tragic flaws.

What is an example of a tragic hero? We can look to the Iliad for such an illustration. Of all the characters in the epic, Achilles is the one best described as the tragic hero. He is a great warrior, respected by his society, and yet, he repeatedly makes the same mistakes. His pride and arrogance get in the way of his ability to resolve conflicts peaceably. He is stubborn, at the expense of others’ lives. In addition, “his tendency to go to extremes out of anger makes it almost impossible for this story to end well” ( Even the god Apollo describes Achilles as murderous, “that man without a shred of decency in his heart…his temper can never bend and change…Achilles has lost all pity!” (Norton 206)

Although Achilles follows the classic model for tragic heroes, there is one difference between him and the usual tragic figure: “Achilles is able to change, reverse his downfall, and actually prove himself as a true hero” ( With this change of events, we can see in ourselves our hindrances, and hopefully make a change for the better to avoid a disastrous ending. A tragedy is designed to show us the consequences of our actions, so that we may avoid repeating the same sorrow. The Iliad goes a step further: it shows us how we can change, to become better, how to make things right. After all, isn’t that the way it should be? As humans, can we expect to get it right all the time? We are flawed creatures, therefore it makes sense that we should need to be shown a right way. There is mercy in the story, a mercy for the character Achilles, and for the people he affects. There is hope for a future, one where the hero can avoid what he deserves for his actions.

There are many stories that can provide that feeling of hope for humanity. The story of King David in the Old Testament in the Bible is another account of a tragic hero who is granted forgiveness and is able to change his ways. In addition, if we consider the “tragic dimensions of Christian theology, as manifested in its conceptions of evil and its vision of a fallen world…such elements are ultimately sublated in a narrative of redemption at the end of time” (Felski 16). A turn of events in the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah changes this account from a tragedy to a story of deliverance.

The attraction for us, in reading a story of internal struggle, is that we can identify with the hero’s tragic flaw. It is most often, a trait we ourselves have struggled with, and perhaps are continuing to struggle with. It could be the issue of pride, or lust, or any number of behaviors that cause us harm or to do harm to others, but in the end, it’s all the same. The tragic hero must decide to change, to do something different, and that is the biggest obstacle of all. Change is inevitable, but is something we fight against. It is fear of the unknown that drives us. What if we cannot change? What if the change is not better? Even worse, what if we don’t recognize that fatal flaw which threatens to destroy us? Like Achilles, sometimes the flaw must be revealed, a painful process that no one wants to see.

If then, we find a tragic hero that we can identify with, what about one that is admirable? Since the flaw is often a great source of anguish for all involved, it is unlikely we can feel anything but distaste for the hero’s actions. Therein lies the value of a protagonist like Achilles, or Oedipus, or even Gilgamesh. Their actions cause them and others great sorrow, ultimately leading to remorse. In the case of Achilles, he is able to right some of the wrongs he has done, avoiding a potentially disastrous ending. This makes him easily identifiable; a god-like champion who has human qualities, yet manages to still come out on top. A great tragic hero “will be accepting responsibility, exerting oneself to a moral purpose, sacrificing, and demonstrating courage and moral insight to the highest degree. It should be no surprise, then, that such a person should seem admirable and awe-inspiring to us” (Meriav 271). It is important the tragic figures realize his or her own guilt, and therefore show some remorse. In this way, we are shown a “greatness of character associated with responding in this way that the person accepts responsibility for the horror committed” (Meriav 271).

The important lessons to be learned in the tragedy are many. The tragic flaw to be avoided may open our eyes to destructive behaviors that we ourselves may possess. We may recognize it in another and help them to change for the better. We also can find comfort in the possibility of change for the better, and that we have hope for a brighter future.


Works Cited

“Tragic hero.”’s 21st Century Lexicon., LLC. 02 Oct. 2010. . Web.

“Tragic Flaw.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 02 Oct. 2010. . Web.

Lawall, Sarah N., and Maynard Mack. Norton Anthology of World Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. Print.
Bookrags Staff. Achilles: a Tragic Hero (Iliad). 2000. 2 Oct. 2010. . Web.

Rita Felski and Herbert F. Tucker. “Introduction.” New Literary History 40.4 (2009): vii-vii. Project MUSE. Shapiro Library, Manchester, NH. 21 Sep. 2010 . Web.

Meirav, Ariel. “Tragic Conflict and Greatness of Character.” Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002): 260-272. Project MUSE. Shapiro Library, Manchester, NH. 2 Oct. 2010 . Web.

Comedians, Marketing Ploys, and Modifiers

1 Feb

Groucho Marx said it best: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know (1).” This is a classic line; it shows perfectly the idea of a misplaced modifier, and how it can be humorous — intentional or not.Animal Crackers

As defined by The Brief Penguin Handbook, a modifier is a general term for adjectives, adverbs, phrases, and clauses that describe other words. A modifier is labeled as misplaced if it is not clearly attached to what it modifies. “Additionally, a dangling modifier is one that doesn’t seem to apply to anything in the sentence. Dangling or misplaced modifiers can make our sentences unintentionally humorous” (2). “Three year old lunch and dinner buffet – $2.00,” brags an advertisement shown by Jay Leno, courtesy of the NBC website ( Obviously, we have to assume that the food is not three years old, but that children age three and under are only charged $2.00 for their meals. How often I’ve laughed at these ridiculous statements, made by people who haven’t thought through their sentences or phrases! There is a whole segment of the show (known as Headlines) dedicated to statements like these, but you don’t have to watch late-night television to see silly sentences created by misplaced modifiers.

The Brief Penguin Handbook gives a good example of a funny, confusing sentence on page 575, “Many pedestrians are killed each year by motorists not using sidewalks.” And exactly why the motorists should be using the sidewalks is unclear to me! The edited sentence reads like this, “Many pedestrians not using sidewalks are killed each year by motorists.” Now that makes more sense! (The sentence, not the lack of sidewalk usage.)

Many people can tell immediately that the sentence is either confusing or crazy, but they aren’t sure what the problem is and/or how to fix it. You should first find what the modifier is in the sentence. Next, you should check to see if the modifier has anything to modify (otherwise, strike it; it’s useless). Last, make sure the modifier is as close as possible to the word, phrase, or clause it modifies.

One PDF I came across, Correcting Misused Modifiers, gives the following examples and explanations (3):

  • Sentence: “The car raced to the first turn accelerating rapidly.”
    The modifier “accelerating rapidly” comes after the noun turn. By not being positioned in one of the two acceptable positions beside the intended modifiee (The car), “accelerating rapidly” modifies the first turn. To say that the first turn was accelerating rapidly is nonsense created by an obviously misused modifier.
  • Sentence: “Listening attentively, the mayor addressed the workers.”
    The modifier “listening attentively” is in the second acceptable position, to the left of a possible modifiee, the mayor. So the modifier modifies the mayor. To say that the mayor was listening attentively while he addressed the workers is to describe a physical impossibility created by another obviously misused modifier.

As I was continuing to look for humorous modifier problems, I came across these absurd statements:

• He served pancakes to the children on paper plates. (Were the children on paper plates?) (4)
• I saw a rabbit and a raccoon on the way to the airport. (Were the rabbit and the raccoon on the way to the airport?) (4)
• The hunter crouched behind a tree waiting for a bear to come along with a bow and arrow. (5) (Did the bear have the bow and arrow?)
• Flying over the African landscape, the elephant herd looked magnificent. (5) (Must have been amazing to see those elephants fly!)

After finishing my research, I decided that my findings were somewhat depressing to me. It wasn’t difficult to find these types of errors; writers and editors have become sloppy with this general rule. That’s not to say I’ve never done it, but I feel that people should be more careful with their final results, especially those that end up in print or on a website. I found that it is pretty common in both written and spoken language, but that written mistakes are remembered longer. Finally, it doesn’t seem to matter what your education level is; I think it has more to do with people being in a hurry.

The lesson to be learned here? Slow down, take your time, proofread, proofread, and proofread — unless your intention is to make people laugh. As Grammar Girl eloquently puts it, “You don’t want to inadvertently put an elephant into anyone’s pajamas. Thanks, Groucho, for the grammar lesson!” (6)


(1) Bartlett, John. Kaplan, Justin, Ed. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1992, p 693.
(3) Correcting Misused Modifiers,

%d bloggers like this: