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?