Monday, February 7, 2011

Ethos, Logos, Pathos

Cricket McRae

A while back a young friend of mine told me about a persuasive essay she had to write as a school assignment. Waving her hand dismissively, she said, “You know, all that ethos, logos, pathos stuff.”

Well, yes. I did know about that “stuff,” though certainly not from high school English class. I’d come across it during my years as a geeky philosophy major in college. Ever since that conversation, the notion of how Aristotelian rhetorical technique applies to fiction writing has been floating around in the back of my mind.

Because apparently I’m still a geek.

Still, fiction writers do have to be persuasive. They have to convince readers the story they’re telling is not only possible and realistic, but important enough to care about. That’s at the very least. Sometimes a tale can go much further – to inspire, educate, or comment on social or political issues, for example.


Ethos appeals to the ethical character of the reader and/or relies on the character of the author. Especially in mysteries, the goal is to catch the bad guy and bring him to justice. An occasional variation on that is to allow the killer to escape because his actions were ethically, if not lawfully, sound. Protagonists must have a value system to which we relate, even if it doesn’t precisely echo our own. Heck, even antagonists have to have a value system that makes sense, though it’s often in moral opposition to ours. Ethics are always part of the drive behind a murder investigation.


Logos appeals to rationality. A logical argument uses reason, syllogisms, statistics and the like. But a piece of fiction has to make just as much sense as rhetorical argument in terms of logic. To be believable, characters have to act in a consistent manner. They must respond to situations as we expect them to based on their previous behavior. Or, if they don’t, the reason they don’t has to make logical sense. Works of fiction that involve world-building – fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, etc. – have to be logical down to the last invented detail in order to be believable. And too much coincidence is illogical, so realistic cause and effect should drive the plot.


Pathos appeals to the emotions. Writers have to be careful about overuse of pathos, not only because it’s considered cheap and underhanded (advertisers use A LOT of pathos to get you to buy stuff) but because it’s a delicate balance. It’s easy to be ham-fisted, especially if the author makes the mistake of telling the reader how they should feel. But in the hands of a skilled storyteller, pathos is probably the most important way to engage readers, keep them thinking about the book (or short story, or poem) long after they’ve finished it, and get them talking about it to others.

An author can’t make a reader feel, though. All we can do is create characters whom readers care about, put them in situations where the reader wants them to prevail, and then present realistic and relatable challenges and difficulties. People care most when they identify with someone. Sympathy is one kind of pathos. A deeper level of pathos involves engaging the reader’s imagination to the point where they are actually feeling what the characters feel. That’s what we want. Never mind that the characters are fictional.

It’s a glorious, circular, tricky business, indeed. As an author do you think about how you persuade readers via your writing, or does it just happen in the course of telling your tale? As a reader are you aware of being persuaded by a story? Do you seek out fiction that makes you feel a certain way?


Darrell James said...

Cricket- Wow! It's awfully early for me to have to think this hard.

But, I guess my own ethical, logical and emotional standards become the guide for my characters (on either side of good and evil).

As such, I usually don't have to think a whole lot about it as I'm writing. I have created characters that challange my own sensibilities, however. On those occasions, I then have to stop and reason my way to it from their POV.

Good post. It does give me cause to think.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Cricket! The one problem I have with Logos is that fiction characters often have to be more logical than people in real-life. Friends and readers are constantly calling my attention to "stupid criminal" stories or odd crimes, saying I should write about them, but if they appeared in a work of fiction, readers would way, "Nah, that would never happen!"

Kathleen Ernst said...

Interesting post! I've never broken down my books with those thoughts in mind, but perhaps I should!

G.M. Malliet said...

My latest sleuth is a priest, so a lot of what you talk about applies, same as with my cop St. Just. They don't exactly make up their own rules but they do think for themselves. Might bend a rule or two. I don't mention this to the reader...hopefully the reader will agree with me these are good guys, if fallible.

Cricket McRae said...

Darrell, I love that you create characters that challenge your own sensibilities.

You are so right, Beth! Truth is often stranger than fiction is ever allowed to be.

Thanks, Kathleen! Don't know that it's necessary to deconstruct our writing this way, but I couldn't help myself. ; - )

Gin, does your priest have to deal with conflicts between his religious values and the values of his former profession?

G.M. Malliet said...

Cricket - the "vengeance is mine" thing he does find tricky.

Julia Buckley said...

It also comes up in speech class, which I'm teaching now. We talked about Aristotle on Day One, and now we analyze every bit of rhetoric in terms of its ethos, pathos, or logos.

Tomorrow they're looking for those very ideas in infomercials. :)

Jess Lourey said...

There's a lot of reasons I appreciate your post, Cricket, but the foremost is your explanation of logos. I bet every author has had those people who come up to them and say, "I've had the craziest life, and it would make a great book."

And they tell you the story of their life, and it makes a GREAT story but would make a terrible book because there is too much about it that isn't believable. That idea of internal consistency is hard to explain, but you did it well. Thank you!