Writing Reality: Pathos across Genres

21/10/2013 at 05:48 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , )


My fiction writing grew out of fantasy. That’s a fairly obvious statement to make, given that the format is based around suspension of disbelief, dreams and whimsy – creating either an entirely fresh perspective, or a warped version of our reality. But I tended to lean more towards the former – mythology, an absence of the technology easily accessible today. Magic was a cornerstone, as were epic battles and soul-quests. I’d cast anthropomorphic animals in the roles, since humans – behavioral patterns, beliefs etc – held little interest for me at the time.

Animals proved easier to understand and write about, being governed more by survival instincts and natural tendencies. Even when personified to include materialistic preferences, the characters I’d read about in such children’s fantasy as Brian Jacques’ excellent Redwall saga, and Robin Jarvis’ Deptford Mice series, still lay closer to the ground than mankind. Their lives were far more interesting; it meant I could conveniently leave out such dull areas (how I perceived them then) as money and religion. There was a mental block in place, which meant I truly believed I couldn’t write human characters with inherent / external powers, or have them engage in interesting quests. I didn’t think anyone would believe me.

With age has come not only an increased interest in my race (learning to trust people was a start), but a crucial awareness of suspension of disbelief. It was a revelation to pick up JG Ballard’s High Rise to discover that yes, human society CAN break down in fiction. The book is a bestseller. The circumstances are close to the bone, still somewhat alien, wholly engaging; and – as with any credible work of fiction – it was the characters who made it so.

When I made inroads on adult fiction myself, several years ago, I stuck to my favourite genre; had no problem dealing with landscapes, abstracts, symbolism. I’m more of a concept writer. Magic and nature are easier to identify with, than the ebb and flow of human interaction and behavior. So while scenery dripped with metaphors and genre tropes were played out trick by turn, characters fell over like stacked dominoes, bland and rigid. I just didn’t know how people worked. I’d never bothered to research, in real time or reading across genres.

Recently, I’ve forced myself to step away from conventions, discarding that which appeals to a target audience, in favour of getting to know people in life and in literature – what makes us tick as a society, as individuals, and typical cause-effect triggers. Turns out that humanity isn’t as boring as I’d first, mistakenly, believed.

Writing people across general fiction, has helped me develop a greater focus on the little inflections that make up a larger picture. All those films and books where seemingly “nothing happens” – they’re a great study of human nature, with little circumstantial distraction. It’s the subtle details that so often instigate events.

As part of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s three means of persuasion, Pathos is probably the one fiction writers are most familiar with. While genre conventions can work as the basis for certain aspects of writing – in fantasy, the presence of a magical field and casting of spells, mythical creatures; in science fiction, the cultivation of remote planetary settlements, following deep-space exploration – these could be seen more as the fallout, than the actual pivot of a story.

It’s the thoughts and emotional reactions of a mage as a person – one wishing to survive, to countercast, to avenge – that causes them to pull out necessary spell components and speak aloud the words of magic. Transplant this scenario to science fiction, and the reactionary fallout – the magical element, used on the offensive/defensive – can be replaced with weapons technology. Both push the suspension of audience disbelief, working against our reality – but it’s the emotional triggers which make the scene more identifiable.

Or at least, it should be. This is where I’ve been going wrong for some time. My focus has been too much on embellishing the contents of a scene, with little regard for the emotional catalyst, and the character behind it all. It’s their lifestyle and historical context, which govern reactions to each situation, and to fellow beings. From here, plot can advance and narrative can be steered.

Your chosen genre may include fictitious races, with ethos and mentality all their own. But for an audience to identify with their cause, there’s a need for Pathos. Our job, as authors, is to get across to the audience how much they should give a damn about what happens to any one character, whether pro- or antagonist. It’s no good writing a complete badass of a villain, if the reader doesn’t at least have some sense of feeling towards them – even loathing takes consideration. Suspension of disbelief is based upon the audience’s assumption of a pseudo-reality; theirs is a need to recognize, sympathize and perhaps even empathize with character decisions.

Comedy-pathos can work wonders for appealing to audience emotions. Let’s face it, there’s only so much tragedy we can all take, before going numb and perhaps cold towards a character; likewise, constant slapstick and banter wears thin. Handled well, the balancing act between set-up and fall can be heartbreaking as it is rib-cracking. When an author or director invests time in creating and sustaining a character-narrative that’s wholly plausible in its trials and tribulations, the payoff is audience engagement to a bittersweet degree:


“Are you the farmer?”
“Stop saying that, Withnail, of course he’s a fucking farmer!”


“I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.”
Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson

Withnail’s choice of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a closing soliloquy is a double-whammy of pathos. Not only is the theatrical element present, around which his life has been threadily based; the very fact he delivers such a powerful nest of words to air empty of an appreciative audience, speaks volumes in context. The wolves have little regard for his deliverance; the rain, less so. He appeals to the sky, knowing full well that it can’t answer or deliver the recognition he yearns for. The bittersweet smile says it all, along with his choosing the words of the established bard to get across to the audience the exact level of his pain.

For the Dragonlance saga, authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman created the race of kender to act as both fools and foils for hero and enemy. Agile little thieves (though taking great offence at being addressed thus) with kleptomaniac tendencies, an innocent wit and aggravating humour, they’re also blessed with phenomenal luck. This is handy, considering all races on the fantasy world of Krynn are bound by a desire to be as far removed from kender as possible – for the sake of possessions as well as sanity. They are the comedy sidekick, with a nonstop prattle and jocularity that is a light in the darkness of plot events … and a headache for whoever’s on the other end.

It’s when the kender as a whole, start to notice (and care) about shifting world events, that other races realize the dark depths into which Krynn is sinking. The comedy pays itself off in pathos, with Tasslehoff Burrfoot – a recurring kender-character – acting as a particular benchmark:

“The kender peered around as best he could through one good eye. The other had nearly swollen shut. ‘Where are we?’
‘In the dungeons below the Temple,” Tika said softly. Tas, sitting next to her, could feel her shiver with fear and cold… Wistfully he remembered the good old days when he hadn’t known the meaning of the word fear. He should have felt a thrill of excitement. He was – after all – someplace he’d never been before… But there was death here, Tas knew; death and suffering. He’d seen too many die, too many suffer…He would never again be like other kender. Through grief, he had come to know fear; not for himself but for others…
You have chosen the dark path, but you have the courage to walk it, Fizban had said.
Did he? Tas wondered. Sighing, he hid his face in his hands.
‘No, Tas!’ Tika said, shaking him. ‘Don’t do this to us! We need you!’
Painfully Tas raised his head. ‘I’m all right,” he said dully.'” – Pg 288, Dragons of Spring Dawning, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.

In opposite effect, it’s when the light of pathos is cast upon the darkest personality, that unusual facets shine; capturing a fuller shape for the audience to see, rather than a flat cutout villain:

“David opened his eyes, sweat pouring down his face, and marched towards the bar.
‘I’ll kill her,” he shouted at the row of bottles.
He thought again of the university girl. Today wasn’t the first time he had seen her… Had she recognized him? No. What would he have been to her?
The stupid idiot who had stood dripping water while delivering a pizza.
She hadn’t even looked at him…just passed him the money, told him to keep the change, and closed the door. And he had stood there on the landing, leaning on the door, crying like a baby.
She was his mother back to haunt him. Same little face, same hair, but healthy and clean. Clear-skinned and bright-eyed. No open sores weeping their disgusting liquid. But she didn’t fool him. He knew it was her…She would pay for what she had done… His grandma had tried to persuade him to go to the funeral, but he owed nothing to the silly bitch who had pumped too much crap into her festering arms.” – Pg 52, I Once was Lost, Sandra Bruce.

Even when a protagonist has the ability to read and manipulate minds, to employ sensory powers out of the control of others, they can still be subject to the same emotional quirks and fluxes that erode the best intentions and upset the most carefully-laid plans – or just create a terrible working atmosphere. A flawless character without emotional reflexes makes for a dull read. We all have rough days; allow your characters the chance to experience the same, if only to offset their better qualities, and to create tension. Relationships make a particularly good crossing-point between genres – especially when inherent powers become as much a blessing as a curse.

“‘I was going to ask her Highness to give me a lift home,” Loftus said, “but I dunno now. Got a date with -‘
He disappeared. A moment later, Ackerman could see him near a personnel carrier. Not only had he been set down gently, but various small necessities, including a flight bag, floated out of nowhere on to a neat pile in the carrier…
Powers joined Afra and Ackerman.
‘She’s sure in a funny mood,’ he said.
When the Rowan got peevish, few of the men at the station asked her to transport them to Earth. She was psychologically planet-bound, and resented the fact that lesser talents could be moved about through space without suffering a twinge of shock.”

“The Rowan felt the links dissolving as the other Primes, murmuring withdrawal courtesies, left him. Deneb caught her mind fast to his and held on. When they were alone, he opened all his thoughts to her, so that now she knew him as intimately as he knew her.
Come live with me, my love.
The Rowan’s wracked cry of protest reverberated cruelly in both naked minds.
I can’t. I’m not able! She cringed against her own outburst and closed off her inner heart so that he couldn’t see the pitiful why. Mind and heart were more than willing; frail flesh bound her. In the moment of his confusion, she retreated back to that treacherous body, arched in the anguish of rejection. Then she curled into a tight knot, her body quivering with the backlash of effort and denial.
Rowan! came his cry. Rowan! I love you!
She deadened the outer fringe of her perceptions to everything, curled forward in her chair… Oh Afra! To be so close and so far away. Our minds were one. Our bodies are forever separate.” – Pgs 142/157, The Rowan, Anne McCaffrey.

The greatest war-campaign may have begun with the “simple” act of one treacherous heart breaking another; the resultant turmoil becomes both back-story and the ripples to reach out and affect / change many lives. The darkest horror story may have the death of a child at its tragic core. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black sees the broken love of the eponymous character become a curse powerful enough to affect the local community and visiting narrator Arthur Kipps. No one is left unscathed after contact; though to my mind, the supernatural element pales somewhat in comparison to the pathos of her grief, and the terrible circumstances under which it was born.

woman in black

Allowing your characters the chance to emote fully across genre conventions, can form integral links with the world of the audience. Don’t be afraid to include the small nuances of life, the seemingly mundane details that will flesh them out as people. It’s thought, emotion and memory which make us at once unique, and bound by empathy. Regardless of whether it’s a brave new world created, or a close shave with reality, the result should be an understanding between creator and audience.

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4 Comments

  1. Aquileana said,

    Great insights on Pathos/comedy working together and on greek influence in the structure of the story…

    I really enjoyed the way you try to shape characteres and try to figure out ways to create empathy and to link different literary genres, always keeping in mind relationships between the characters and the plot…

    I also liked the ending of your post where you highlight the huge value of details and “small nuances of life”…

    Thanks for sharing; dear Rachael,

    Cheers & best wishes;

    Aquileana đŸ™‚

  2. Graham Milne said,

    Amazing as always, but big bonus marks for including Withnail & I.

  3. Science Fiction Writing For Teens & Adults – The Experiment (Part 2: Emotions Run Deep.) – Written By Alexander Kennedy | Fiction Writing For Teens & Adults said,

    […] Writing Reality: Pathos across Genres (celenagaia.wordpress.com) […]

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