A pathetic failure

pathos

You’re pathetic. Yes, I went there. Because it’s true. You certainly appeal to my emotions.

Pathetic, as I’m sure you know, comes from pathos. Pathos, along with ethos and logos, was one of the three main points of rhetorical speaking. I don’t want to go into great detail about their roots and definitions (let me instead point you to this website, which has good examples) but to look at pathos in particular.

I want to do this for two reasons. The first is to point out how pathetic modern politicians are: I mean seriously, Trump (and almost all politicians these days) used nothing but pathos in his speeches. You can agree with him or you can disagree, but learning rhetoric at least helps you recognise the tricks of the trade. Maybe Clinton wasn’t pathetic enough. A pathetic failure.

The second reason is to look at the role of pathos in writing. It’s there in every single (competent) thing you read; in every movie too. Because without pathos you have something flat and uninteresting; you have no reason to care about any of the characters or what they’re trying to achieve.

If you know anything of screenwriting (and maybe even if you don’t) you’ll have come across a concept known as ‘saving the cat.’ This is a moment of charity early on in the film designed to make you care for the protagonist – especially important in an antihero, who might otherwise be hard to root for. It could be a five second flash of our chap giving money to a worthy cause or calling his dear old Mom or – indeed – saving a cat from a fire.

This is pathos. This is direct, unalloyed, unhidden pathos. It is directly and unashamedly trying to influence us – the reader, the viewer, the listener – and tell us how we should feel. It’s subconscious and it’s terribly powerful. We are manipulated into feeling the way the writer wants us to feel.

This is not a bad thing. We, as readers, are willing participants in this game. If you’ve ever read a book and said, ‘but yeah, I just didn’t really care for the characters,’ that’s a pathetic failure. And what appeals to one reader won’t necessarily appeal to another.

The other big area of the pathetic in fiction comes towards the end: there is the ‘whisper of death’ moment around two-thirds of the way through. This is the moment at which your characters are traditionally at their lowest ebb. They are defeated, they are despairing, they are ready to quit. Sometimes the death is literal, sometimes not. Here the pathos isn’t just in the nearness of defeat but in the way the protagonist picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets ready to take up the blade again.

And then there’s the climax – or, rather, the denouement. This is where tragedy or triumph is brought home, where our characters learn to live – or not – with the consequences of the story. Happily-ever-after? With loss and heartbreak? It depends on the type of novel.

Oneiromancer uses pathos quite overtly. I have heartbreak twice: it’s there simply because it feels right in my story – but, at the same time, I’m well aware of what I’m doing. And I’m aware that I’m playing it up for a specific purpose. I want to make my readers sad, that I want them to feel. I want them to admire my characters for picking themselves up and bearing the scars with pride. It’s a difficult balance. I want these moments to matter to my readers. I want my characters’ tears feel real.

But the flipside of pathos is schmaltz. It’s fairytale. It’s unrealistic and unconvincing and, at its worst, it has the writer’s fingerprints all over it. That’s the basis of the contract: we will buy anything we read if it’s true to the story. But the moment we start to feel manipulated we kick back and reject the work.

So be pathetic. Use pathos to manipulate your readers; make them weep and make them whoop and holler. Just remember that one man’s pathos is another’s pathetic. You’re walking over a shark-pit on a buttered plank with a box of kittens in one hand and a hand-grenade in the other. Find your moments and make them count.

And watch those politicians carefully. It’s worth knowing how you’re being manipulated.

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If you’re interested in reading further, check out Thank You For Arguing by Jay Heinrichs. I came across it years ago and keep meaning to read it again. Also Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder: the over-use of exclamation marks irritates me, but it’s part of the screenwriter’s (and all writers’) essential toolkit.

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  1. Pingback: Dead Lesbian | A Writer's Life

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