Friday, April 15, 2011

The importance of pathos

I confess I have a tender spot in my heart for a pathetic character. When we hear the word "pathetic" these days, it's usually derogatory - as in, "Oh, that was pathetic," or "What a pathetic attempt that was." But that's not a definition that fits with the original concept behind "pathetic," which is pathos.

Wikipedia says (warning: this will be heavy, but the discussion afterward will not!):

Pathos (pronounced /ˈpeɪθɒs/ or /ˈpeɪθoʊs/; Greek: πάθος, for "suffering" or "experience;" adjectival form: 'pathetic' from παθητικός) represents an appeal to the audience's emotions. Pathos is a communication technique used most often in rhetoric (where it is considered one of the three modes of persuasion, alongside ethos and logos), and in literature, film and other narrative art.

Emotional appeal can be accomplished in a multitude of ways:

  • by a metaphor or story telling, common as a hook,
  • by a general passion in the delivery and an overall emotion and sympathies of the speech or writing as determined by the audience. The pathos of a speech or writing is only ultimately determined by the hearers.

Pathos is often associated with emotions, but it is more complex than simply emotions. A better equivalent might be appeal to the audience's sympathies and imagination. An appeal to pathos causes an audience not just to respond emotionally but to identify with the writer's point of view - to feel what the writer feels. So, when used in tragedy, pathos evokes a meaning implicit in the verb 'to suffer' - to feel pain imaginatively or vicariously. Pathos is often employed with tragedies and this is why pathos often carries this negative emotional connotation. Perhaps the most common way of conveying a pathetic appeal is through narrative or story, which can turn the abstractions of logic into something palpable and present. The values, beliefs, and understandings of the writer are implicit in the story and conveyed imaginatively to the reader. Pathos thus refers to both the emotional and the imaginative impact of the message on an audience, the power with which the writer's message moves the audience to decision or action.

Whew! But I bet you know a lot of characters who make an appeal to our emotions. Possibly the best known is C3PO, from Star Wars. He goes through the whole sequence of IV V and VI doing what he needs to do, all the while saying things like "We're doomed!" and always expecting the worst. Other pathetic characters include Eeyore, from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh books, Dory from Finding Nemo and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle from C.S. Lewis' book The Silver Chair.

Interestingly, these characters are not cynics, nor are they pessimists (who can be spiteful). They simply feel suffering and expect to have to endure. They feel a certain gloom about their prospects and lament the deterioration of the situation, but they are extremely grateful when things turn out well.

When you're putting together a story, it's worthwhile to consider whether any of your characters have aspects of pathos. Pathos can be a hugely strong draw for a character who would otherwise be unrelatable (see my earlier post on likeable characters here). That points of course to antagonists, but also to others. My friend Josephine pointed out the character of William Randolph Hearst in The Aviator as someone who was fascinating because of the extent of his suffering, even when his behavior in general was off the charts and hard to relate to. My own character Nekantor from "The Eminence's Match" is a "twisted piece of work" to quote my author friend Lillian Csernica (she notes that she meant this in a positive way!). He does cruel and evil things but is motivated at least partially by his own obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I can't leave the topic of pathos without discussing Star Wars again - specifically, the fact that there were no pathetic characters in I-II-III that I could identify. Even C3PO had lost his pathetic outlook and turned into a kind of one-line fall guy. I can't watch those movies without thinking how differently Jar Jar Binks would have turned out if they'd actually allowed him to be pathetic instead of just goofy. Think about it - banished for being clumsy! If the movie hadn't just dropped that backstory by the wayside and it had actually made Jar Jar a bit more hangdog - a person who tries not to be clumsy but causes trouble inadvertently and suffers terrible guilt as a result - it would have made a big difference for the film, in my opinion. Think about how Dory came across because of her lack of memory. If she hadn't been pathetic, it would have been awful - instead, she was transcendent (in my opinion!).

What about your writing? Is there anyone whom you would describe as pathetic? Is there any character who might benefit from having pathetic elements added to his/her character?

It's something to think about.


  1. Thanks for posting this! Now that I think about it, I do have a character who doesn't have a lot of lines, she could be a great pathos character!
    Happy Friday!

  2. I'm glad it came to you at a good time, jcaddell! Thanks for the comment.

  3. Thanks for this! It's not something I've ever thought about, but that is an interesting character base.

  4. You're welcome. Thanks for the comment!