Pathos Is Not A Dirty Word, And It Belongs In A Writer’s Vocabulary

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Pathos is down on its luck these days; appeals to emotion are bound up in reasonable fears of ‘post-truth’ and ‘populist’ writing, but I’m here to tell you that intelligent use of pathos can make your fiction better.

Now, pathos certainly has its dark side. Many of the TV, radio, and internet adverts we’re bombarded with on a daily basis rely on pathos to manipulate consumers, and directly addressing emotion can feel like a way to bypass other important aspects of storytelling. But there are ways to use pathos – in moderation, or at the correct moment – that can take your writing to the next level.

So why pathos?

Such appeals to emotion only work so well in advertising and political discourse because they add meaning to otherwise cold pleas, imperatives, and statistics. Whereas Aristotle’s two other modes of rhetoric (‘ethos’, an appeal to character, and ‘logos’, an appeal to logic) rely on the representations of facts (either through hard data or through the elevation of an ‘expert’ figure), pathos relies on telling a story.

Appeals to emotion get a bad rap, but they’re vital to great storytelling. Click To Tweet

Look, for example, at this extract from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream’:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Look at the how King identifies the individual stories of those he is addressing. Look at how he uses artful, evocative language to tie the civil rights movement into a context of great mythological quests and journeys. Look at the imprecise but potent metaphors: “storms of persecution,” “winds of police brutality”. King is painting a picture of immense power by fitting the civil rights movement into a recognizable narrative structure.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this – pathos and fiction are closely linked and, just as storytelling is central to appeals to emotion, so too can appeals to emotion be central to good storytelling. I want to talk about why you should never forget about pathos, whether you’re developing characters or describing a landscape.

Pathos through beauty

Before we get stuck into the hows and whys, it’s important to spell out what pathos means in regard to fiction and literature. You’ll see appeals to emotion most commonly in the appeal to aesthetic beauty. What I mean is simple: if something is beautifully written or presented, the person engaging with it will feel an emotional response that, in turn, endears them to the writer/artist’s intention and ‘message’.

We can look again at King’s speech as an example. Remember how he used vivid language to instill his argument with simple beauty and, therefore, emotional weight: “storms of persecution” is more powerful than simply “persecution” because it conjures an almost romantic image infused with striking and naturalistic violence.

This link between beauty and emotion goes some way to explaining the continued relevancy of political poetry, protest songs, art as propaganda, and didactic artforms of all kinds. It’s why we don’t question poet Larry Levis when he writes:

It is so American, fire. So like us.
Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph.

Of course, this is to isolate pathos from its roots in rhetoric and use it in its broadest sense. This extract from Levis’ poem ‘My Story in a Late Style of Fire’ isn’t explicitly trying to appeal to an audience’s emotions to prove any particular point; the poem isn’t didactic or explicitly persuasive. It does however show how craft can ‘dress up’ straightforward points or meanings. Now, let’s talk about fiction.

Pathos through ‘show, don’t tell’

If you’ve ever spent any time on writing blogs, you’ll be all too aware of that central tenet of modern writing: ‘show, don’t tell’. This litany is a simple one, and involves telling stories with nouns, verbs, and dialogue rather than through excessive exposition, adverbs, and adjectives.

With ‘show, don’t tell’, the reader witnesses a tense conversation rather than just being told outright that two characters don’t get along. They witness a character lie or steal rather than being told they’re untrustworthy. Part of the reasoning behind this school of thought is that showing delivers far more effective pathos than telling.

Important to note here is the distance from Aristotle’s logos; in both cases, whether the writer shows or tells, the reader is receiving the same core information. It is how that information is presented that makes all the difference in fiction.

This means that even if your story depicts emotional events, that doesn’t guarantee an emotional response. A character can be beaten or mistreated without inviting the reader’s sympathy, or murder without evoking outrage or anger – these emotional responses, core to the reader’s engagement, demand an active and conscious pursuit of pathos on the part of the author.

Don’t assume your reader will feel a certain way – take them there with your writing.Click To Tweet

What can you do?

Approaching pathos in fiction follows a fairly well-defined progression. First, you choose how you’re going to do it – I’ve talked about approaching pathos through aesthetic beauty and through showing over telling. Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive approaches; there’s always a degree of mixing and matching.

Perhaps the most famous novel to employ pathos through beauty is Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial Lolita, a novel that explores what happens when you write about a horrible person doing horrible things in some of the most beautiful prose of twentieth-century literature. The resulting conflict is one of the most fertile and divisive discussion points in literary studies.

On the other hand, novels that achieve pathos through show, don’t tell include The Color Purple by Alice Walker and American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis, both of which achieve incredibly powerful emotional responses through their unflinching refusal to turn away from distressing events.

Once you know how you’re going to pursue pathos, it’s time to think about why you want to do so. Are you trying to improve your character development by putting them in situations that inspire the sympathy and/or empathy of your readers? Are you trying to establish a dominant mood or atmosphere through the lingering specter of a particular emotion (if so, check out John Williams’ Stoner and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, two quietly and inexorably sad books)? Or are you just trying to hike up the drama to keep your reader interested? Whatever the answer, pathos can help you out.

Finally, ensure your ‘how’ is supporting your ‘why’. Draw on the reader’s emotions at relevant moments, being mindful that constant pathos can fatigue a reader’s ability to care. Restraint is the name of the game. If you devolve into sheer sentimentality, you risk becoming parodical, and can easily put off discerning readers. Stay selective, make deliberate choices, and you’ll encourage unparalleled engagement.

Pathos into practice

Pathos is a delicate device – the literary equivalent of salt. Too much and you ruin a good story, but just enough and the whole thing is improved. If there’s one thing you take away from this article, it should be that pathos can’t be taken for granted. Don’t assume the reader feels a certain way if you haven’t invited that reaction with form and content.

Make sure the way you deliver your pathos serves its purpose. Click To Tweet

Instead, be sure that you’re leaving space for emotion and inviting it with the way you write. Do that and you’ll be amazed at the improvement.

Have any thoughts on the balance of pathos, ethos, and logos? Let me know in the comments! Or, for more great writing advice, check out 3 Questions You Need To Answer Before You Can Write With A Strong, Distinctive VoiceSympathy Isn’t Empathy – Here’s Why That’s Your Problem, and Why You Need To Know About Sense Writing.


4 thoughts on “Pathos Is Not A Dirty Word, And It Belongs In A Writer’s Vocabulary”

  1. Look forward to your blogs, they’re in-depth and informative. Keep them coming!
    A piece of advice I’ve seen around, I think Mark Twain had something to say about it, don’t give your protagonist a dog because at some point in the story you’ll kill the dog to get the sympathy of your readers and it will come across as cheap. True enough, I’ve seen it, but I recently read a historical novel, a colonial Englishman fighting the French and Indians in the forests. The scout had a dog for a sidekick, and with all the people who died in the book, it was the dog’s death that most affected me. (And I’m no dog lover.) The writer had the courage to break the rule (or maybe he didn’t know any better) and he got away with it because of how carefully he developed the relationship between dog and man. Both could be irascible and by turns cowardly and brave, and their survival depended upon one another. The author “used bathos in moderation” and it “took his writing to the next level.”

    1. Hi Hugh, many thanks for the kind words–I’ll have a new post coming in a couple of days on Noir fiction, keep an eye out! That’s a really interesting point you shared about the man and his dog – I think Mark Twain has been proved right thanks to Hollywood’s overuse of the tragic dog mechanic, but there’s no denying its power. It sounds like the historic novel you read managed to secure the perfect middle ground–no mean feat! Do you know the writer’s name?

    1. Thanks Jim, I think there’s a lot to say about it! Thanks too for sharing that resource–I’m sure many of our readers will find it useful.

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