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.
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.