On Pathos and Characters

In film especially, there is an opportunity to show rather than to tell. However what the viewer is shown is not always helpful for developing a character, a story, or drawing the viewer into the world being shown and connecting to the characters that reside there.

This gap between the story and the audience is not unique to film, and exists within any story. Stories are used to convey ideas, concepts, morality, and any aspect of the human condition. However through telling a story a story teller is given the unique opportunity to shape the world that is experienced by the audience. In this world everything can serve the purposes the story teller, or author, has for the story.

Whatever the purpose of a story, how the story is received and perceived, will depend on how the audience connects to the story, and the characters within the story in particular. A story is only as good as its characters. And how the audience perceives these characters will depend on what they observe the characters saying and doing. This is where the concept of pathos comes up. If the audience can connect emotionally to a character, they will have a deeper connection this character, and become more invested in the story being told.

But exactly is Pathos?

Pathos: We feel because they feel

We should step back and look at where the term comes from. Aristotle outlined three artistic concepts that aid in story telling, ethos, logos, and pathos. Pathos would be the most fundamental tool in story telling. Where the other two deal with more abstracted concepts that may require more thought on the audience, pathos is immediate and clear. You feel the conveyance of pathos, you don’t think it. And this is what makes it a beautiful tool for conveying any story. Humans feel, humans think, and all three are important. But pathos is the gateway to the audience’s heart, and through their heart, their mind. Suspension of disbelief is almost entirely predicated on the audience embracing the characters they are seeing, before parsing the situations the characters may find themselves in.

You feel the conveyance of pathos, you don’t think it

Manipulating the audience’s is the point

Visual mediums like film and shows create a unique way for large audiences to share an experience and share the experience of pathos, the stirring of emotions. This is most certainly a manipulation of the audience’s emotions by the writers/creators, but that is the entire point of story telling!

To watch a show is to expect to be impacted by it, if only to leave with the experience of having watched the show. But this experience is almost always more complex, and the audience will be coming in with expectations, highest of which is to be entertained. And here pathos again offers this.

While a riveting story may engage logos and ethos, logic and ethics (over simplified), these things hardly constitute the core of what makes a story so engaging. Everything starts with the characters, their journey through the world they reside in, and most important, the emotions this does or does not invoke in the audience.

I should emphasize, the character’s emotions vs the audience’s. They are not the same. A character could experience joy, while the pathos used evokes rage in the audience, such as the villain rejoicing in the defeat of the protagonist, before the protagonist’s eventual success through the hero’s journey. The key isn’t the character’s emotions however, it is evocation of an emotion in the audience, that draws them into the story, invests them in the characters and the world, and engages their ability to suspend disbelief, laying the firm groundwork for logos and ethos to play their part in the art of story telling.

This can sometimes be considered as plucking the audience’s heart strings. And can have a negative connotation. But the negative sentiment does not come from the use of pathos, but the misuse of it. Forcing emotional situations into the narrative is not the same as building to and evoking them in the audience. The translation between what the audience sees and hears and what they feel is not one to one. In visual story telling, a common cliche used to try and cement user investment in characters is romance and loss. These two concepts get used poorly and with great effect, depending on how they are employed.

But when the pathos is the foundation of what is being experienced by the audience, it is much harder to build an experience that the audience isn’t able to connect to. Issues seem to come about when pathos is overlooked in favor of logos or ethos first, and added in later for reasons like ‘making the characters more believable’.

Pathos steps beyond our boundaries

There is a universality to the use of pathos. We all, humans, feel, and share much of our social, familial, and sensory experiences with the rest of the world. The differences come about in higher areas, where logos and ethos would apply.

Pathos gives the ability to feel for and with characters beyond cultural and linguistic limitations. This goes far beyond characters speaking another language in another culture still being relatable on screen. This extends to worlds far beyond anything we could experience or perceive. Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, can all be enhanced with the foundational application of pathos. Superheroes are hardly relatable if we cannot connect to them in an emotional capacity.

Throughout the history of cinema there are great examples of pathos overriding barriers to a story and making something larger audiences, the global audience, can appreciate or connect to. Films such as 7 Samurai, where the characters are all diversely different, but so very human, were able to transcend language and cultural barriers, and even decades and decades after release are seen as must see classics. This is not a coincidence. I have never been a feudal farmer in ancient Japan, and I cannot speak that language either. Outside of the country of origin, language, local symbology, attire, moral codes, religion, can all be lost in translation or unattractive to audiences unfamiliar. But if the characters are able to instill emotions in the audience that draw them into the world the audience is seeing, the story becomes more real, more believable, and details that might remove the audience from successfully suspending disbelief about the story melt away.

For Consideration: Doom Patrol

At the time of my writing this, the TV show Doom Patrol, based on a DC superhero comic book series, embraces the use of pathos in story telling and is a far better show because of it.

The characters are flawed. This is established in the opening scenes and throughout the show. The audience is reminded of these flaws and experiences them alongside the characters. The characters frustrations with their own flaws and each other’s flaws are apparent and never hidden from the audience. This might seem unattractive, and that is because it is. But seeing someone struggle with their identity, or their ability to connect with another person emotionally is the point. An audience that believes themselves to be perfect in their heart of hearts does not exist. We are all of flawed, whether we hide it or not. Seeing characters be flawed, seeing them hide their flaws, struggle with their flaws, grow around these flaws, all serve to convey something beyond a story, the emotion of empathy. We fell for these characters, even if we don’t necessarily like them all.

The characters of Doom Patrol and their ability to evoke emotions in the audience go beyond their flaws. They are all broken yes, but they are also living and feeling their brokenness. It is clear, even though he has no physical facial emotions, that the robot Cliff is trying to cope with the loss of his body, his family, and the slow realization of who he really was before he became a robotic man. The premise is absurd from the perspective of logos, but because he lives in this world, his emotions and experiences, along with the other members, serve as the foundation of the story. The show does not shy away from sadness, anger, and instead uses them to remind everyone watching that super powers are not what makes these people special, it is their personalities, their struggles, their journey.

Final Thoughts

Showing the audience how it feels to go on this journey is using pathos to invest the audience, but also to give the audience what they want, entertainment. For entertainment is not explosions or tense standoffs with the villain, entertainment is becoming invested in the story and the characters. It is the manipulation of emotions with consent, the audience embracing the sadness, rage, lust, joy, the story conveys to them, and it is a beautiful thing to share and experience.