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.

Yes, It’s F**king Political

As Skunk Anansie told us, years ago, Yes, It’s Fucking Political. Of course it is. Everything’s political, when you get right down to it. We’re readers, we’re writers; for all we might like to think that we’re above the mundanities of the dirty world, we can’t escape it. You think Dickens wasn’t political? How about Shakespeare? Arthur Miller? And you’re into politics too.

At the moment it seems that there is a move – read ‘giant lurch’ – towards the right-wing in writing, and especially in science-fiction. Actually, that’s almost certainly not true; these voices have always been there, as have an equivalent bunch of Lefties. But circumstances have now propelled a small minority of extremists into the limelight. Check out this little slice of delight, for example; and we’ve barely just got over the Rabid Puppies contretemps.

Let me just go on record and say that I detest these people, and most especially their loathsome figurehead Vox Day*. I‘m not here to talk about them specifically; nor am I going to rehash old arguments. I want to talk about the nature of writing – and indeed, life – and SF in particular.

All writing is political. Hell, the clothes you wear, the way you talk – it’s all political. Mostly it’s something you never think about – you can perfectly enjoy the Shopaholic books without ever considering the consumer society in which the characters operate. Some writers are more overt than others – Orwell, of course, is an obvious example, and I could point at the doyenne of American libertarianism, Ayn Rand.

But no story exists in a vacuum. There are underlying concepts, a framework, behind every novel. Even historical fiction has to make a choice between presenting things we now find repellent – such as the treatment of women or slaves or rampant antisemitism – with a modern eye or in the most accurate light of the time. This is a political decision, although not necessarily done for political purposes.

But science-fiction is different. Everything science-fiction is political, almost by definition. This is because we either have to create a whole new world ourselves, or because our stories are born of that classic old question: what if..? Thus are born some of the greatest writers, and stories, in the canon. Asimov and Dick are the classic examples; if you’re after a more modern examples I’d point to the great Terry Pratchett – whose Discworld series is all about the real, modern world – and Adam Roberts, who has taken as themes religious extremism, communications and animal rights in his writing.

It’s inherent in science fiction – no, not all, but some – to look into ones fears, to find trends in the modern world and extrapolate them into the future. Now, I don’t believe in censorship; nothing should be off-limits. Science-fiction is not about hiding – it is about exploring, and the most beautiful explorations are those of the human condition. A novel on the rise of Islam, or the ‘spread’ of homosexuality, or of Liberal hand-wringing (a la Mr Covington in one of the above links) can have its place.

If it’s done well, and sensitively, and explores the issues rather than just demonising those the author finds distasteful.

It’s not just the Right that politicises. The Sad Puppies – the ‘political wing’ of the more extreme Rabids – originally set out to protest at a perceived bias towards the Left in the Hugo awards and in publishing in general. More personally, I am writing my new novel, Oneiromancer, with a left-wing slant: nothing overt, but with an underlying theme of society in peril from a biased media.

This (I hope) does not do my own work justice. I write about people first and foremost, with a bloody good story laid upon them. That, at least, is the plan. But I am a product of my upbringing, my (continuing) education and my environment – just as you are too. There’s nothing wrong with this.

But it’s something we should be aware of. It’s perfectly fine to explore the big issues – in fact, it’s a necessity for the good of mankind – but you ignore the consequences, the way others with perceive your work, at your peril.

Because yes, it’s fucking political.

Everything’s political.

And if you’re writing about white supremicism, or religious extremism, then you must know how the work will be taken. You must know that those who aren’t your race or religion are exactly the same as you, with their own hopes, fears, and prejudices. And you must acknowledge this in your work.

Otherwise you might be accused of foaming a little around the chops.

*This is a link to his Wikipedia page. I would never, ever link to his blog as every hit gives him the oxygen of publicity. I’m not too happy with him having the oxygen of oxygen. Besides, too long spent in his electronic company leaves me needing a good wash and, possibly, a lobotomy.

You cannot be serious!

There’s nothing quite like a good argument. And no time like Christmas to have one; for when else will you be in close proximity to such familiar faces? Faces which, no matter how much you love them, will doubtless provoke great disagreements and upset and – what’s more – you know exactly how to press their buttons and they, in turn, know how to press yours.

 

I love a good argument. Or perhaps I really mean a debate, because actual personal disagreements can be painful and difficult. But the sort of jocular rows had in my family over Christmas are a joy, complete with mock outbursts of temper, theatrical yelling and never once an agreement being reached. You have to know one another to achieve this level of performance; it’s a rare day when you can encounter a stranger in a pub and reach this level of high farce.

 

It always surprises me that people don’t know how to argue. As Monty Python said back in the seventies, mere contradiction does not an argument make. Nor does the repeated assertion of a point without addressing a counterpoint – or, indeed, allowing a counterpoint to be made. That’s simply bullying and is frequently employed (for comic purposes, I’m sure) by Jeremy Clarkson. The worst culprits of all are politicians, who really should know better. They’ve got so good at evasion and misdirection that you’re often left wondering what the bloody point of it all was in the first place.

 

A good argument is essentially a logical construction and is best carried out in a pub, or at least with some form of intoxicating beverage on hand. I’m not a fan of debating societies or the like: too formal, too annoying, not giving you the room to interrupt with a timely ‘bollocks’. Yes, there is room for comedy abuse in a good argument, but one should always allow the opponent(s) to finish their point if it’s something they feel strongly about. Indeed, a good argument essentially follows the rules of good conversation: plenty of interruptions, the odd bit of talking over one another, but with everybody given a chance to speak. Actually, one of the most useful tricks in the art of arguing is to pause and restate the opponent’s point of view. ‘So what you’re really saying is…’ before demolishing them in a relentless cloud of logic.

 

I suppose that the real achievement of an argument is not so much to persuade someone, but to make them understand your point of view. It’s remarkable how we can all go through life assured that we’re understanding, intelligent and considerate of others, without really knowing why people hold differing opinions. A good argument can make you see things from other people’s point of view, and it’s remarkable how, on many occasions, both parties will come away thinking ‘I’d never considered it like that’, and though you may never come entirely to terms, you’ll have a little more understanding and, on some peripheral point at least, achieve rapprochement.

 

Arguing, I’d argue, is an essential life-skill, especially in these days of opinion-lead media and political chicanery. Seeing how people manipulate words, how they use logos, pathos and ethos to shape opinion – have these skills ever been more useful? This is, perhaps, the only occasion where the words ‘I’, ‘agree with’ and ‘Boris Johnson’ can appear in the same sentence: I think it’s worth teaching a little rhetoric (for this is what it’s all about, when you get right down to it) in schools to help prepare children for the adult world.

 

That’s what I think, anyway. Feel free to disagree.