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What can Writer's Learn from the Ancient Greeks?

There are stories that have been passed down for thousands of years. Now yours can be one of them…

Hey Authocrats, Joseph here.

I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t been at least a little bit influenced by the stories of classical antiquity, and that’s with good reason! These stories have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds if not thousands of years.

So surely there must be some hidden formula modern writers can take from them?

In this digital age, where a single tweet lasts only a quarter-hour before dissapearing into the depths of cyberspace, we can only admire these stories for lasting as long as they have.

So, join me as as I look at the devices the ancients used to tell their stories, so that maybe we can use these formulas for ourselves.

Let’s find out, shall we?

This is what we as writers can learn from the ancient Greeks.

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The Importance of Pathos

It is the storyteller’s duty to create characters that resonate on an emotional level with the reader/ audience.

That means doing away with any one-dimensional plot device characters and creating decidedly human ones in their place.

In all their Greekly wisdom, the Greeks utilised a system called Pathos. Pathos was popularised by none other than Aristotle, and consisted of gifting a character with endearing traits, so as to endear them to the reader.

Here are a few examples:

  • Parenthood
  • Shyness
  • Dreaming of Adventure
  • A strong moral compass
  • Being ill/ dying
  • Bravery
  • So on so forth…

In short, using Pathos effectively will help you create an effective and dynamic character for your readers to follow.

The Stirring of Hamartia

The Greeks weren’t always insisting on endearing their heroes. Quite the opposite in fact. They often imbued them with terrible characteristics with the sole intention of making the audience dislike or even despise them. This was done through a phrase called Harmartia.

You’ve almost certainly heard someone say: “Oh well, we’re only human.” Well, Hamartia is pretty much that.

Hamartia can have different effects on a character, and that all depends on your intention for the character later down the line.

For the ancients, Harmartia was used to spell doom for a character. It was a certain personality trait that would attract them to their ultimate end, I.E. overconfidence or stupidity.

To us modern writers, however, Hamartia has a different function.

Nowadays, we don’t see faults and flaws as a necessarily bad trait. We have detached ourselves from the idea that negative faults influence mortal consequences, and often we simply use these traits to spur the plot on its way.

In summary: Harmartia is the fatal flaw of the hero. Which leads us nicely onto our next topic.

The Irony of Hubris

You have likely heard of Hubris.

Hubris is a very specific form of Hamartia, and is characterised as the defining fatal flaw.

Sufferers include but are not limited to:

  • Achilles from the Illiad
  • Xerxes, God King of Persia before the battle of Thermopylae
  • Julius Caesar from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
  • Mr Ismay, the architect of a certain “Unsinkable” 20th-century cruise ship
  • Thanos from the Infinity Saga
  • Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars
  • Practically any supervillain who has ever existed

The Greeks adored hearing their proud protagonists boasting of their invincibility only to be brought down a peg or two. Nowadays, however, we often see Hubris used as a flaw to overcome victoriously in our heroes. See: Tony Stark or Theon Greyjoy.

Dramatic irony abound, Hubris as a storytelling device isn’t going away any time soon!


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The Resurgence of Nemesis

Nemesis is so often interchanged with the word villain that it has become a synonym. Etymologically speaking however, they are different.

(Etymology – the study of the origin of words and my own personal Hamartia.)

The term Nemesis actually derives from a deity from the ancient Greek pantheon named Nemesis, oddly enough. She was the Goddess of Divine Retribution, and she was the omen of anyone who was up to no good in the land.

And so, Nemesis, or Rhamnousia as she was often called, became both a storytelling technique to plague our fatally flawed heroes and a boogeyman to keep misbehaving citizens in line.

The Fatality of Moros

Moros is one of my favourite Greek deities, and also a highly contentious storytelling device..

Every story goes somewhere. That’s what they do, after all. They go from beginning to end. That means that the concept of Moros/ destiny can be readily inserted into the plot-lines of most characters. We, as writers, know where they end up after all!

Moros, the God of destiny is another such deity who found his way into the annals of storytelling history.

Destiny in ancient Greece was much the same as our modern day, except instead of vanquishing some evil, it usually resulted in the attainment of eternal glory (Godhood).

But, destiny didn’t always have that in mind. That is where Perepeteia comes in…

The Reversal of Peripeteia

Your ancient Greek hero is plodding along his hero’s path when, whoops, he has fallen victim to his own Hamartia and experienced Perepeteia as well.

  • Achilles has taken an arrow to his heel
  • Caesar has been stabbed in the Senate House
  • Goliath was taken down by the boy David.

It’s worth noting that Perepeteia doesn’t always result in death. It can also happen near the beginning of many origin stories. See: Tony Stark or Doctor Strange from Marvel Comics. They both took a good ol’ humbling and went on to do great things later on.

In short, Perepeteia, whether fatal or not, is a great way to bring about a pivotal point in any character arc.

The Cycle of Catharsis

Where better to end our exploration of Greek storytelling devices than with the Catharsis.

Where it is often interchangeable with the climax of a story, Catharsis has a more emotional resonance than that.

Instead of just wrapping up a story, a Catharsis will imbue in the reader/ audience with a feeling of pity towards the hero/ protagonist. This is with the aim of gifting them a moral to take away from the ordeal.

After all, who could argue that they didn’t feel sympathy for poor old Doctor Faustus as he was carted away down to hell?

Faustus’ Pathos was his desire for knowledge, but his Hamartia was that he wanted it at any cost. In his Hubris he thought that after making a deal with the demon Mephistopheles that he could outwit him, but he could not. His Perepeteia was that he had to live out eternity in Hell, but not before in a true Catharsis, he spoke of his regrets to the reader.

Therefore, a true Catharsis is a revertion back to the initial Pathos. Although we have grown to dislike Faustus for his greed, his all-too-human response to damnation leaves us unable to wholly hate him.

In summary: the Catharsis gives us a thematic moral to take away so that it lives with us forever.


This was possibly one of the most fun articles to produce for Authocracy thus far. As a heavy reader of classical literature, this was a joy to share with you and I hope you have pulled something useful from it.

Do share any thoughts on these terms in the comments section down below.

Until next time, Authocrats.

Joseph

Joseph Pierce

Joseph Pierce

Founder of Authocracy Publishing

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