Your Character Looks on the Bright Side?
“Pathetic fallacy” is the posh academic term that refers to the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects, usually to reflect a character’s mood. For example, say your protagonist falls in love; you might describe flowers laughing and trees waving their branches gleefully. Or perhaps there’s been a loss, and suddenly the landscape looks bleak and there’s rain and clouds a-brewin.
“Pathetic fallacy” was very popular with the Victorian novelists – I always think of Thomas Hardy when asked to give an example. Therein, however, lies the problem – “pathetic fallacy” is a little out of fashion nowadays. This demise is partly due to the modern attention span. If you’ve ever read novels by the Brontes, Dickens, Elliot or Hardy – you’ll know all about lengthy landscape description and frankly, how dull it can be for modern readers. If you absolutely need to say how each field in the valley looked, then spread your descriptions out over the course of your work. Above all, as Elmore Leonard wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Another reason “pathetic fallacy” is no longer de rigueur in the literary world, is that it can seem a tad cliché. For example, if your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and they fight… yawn. Your foreshadowing’s is derivative, predictable and boring.
Still, “pathetic fallacy” has its place in the literary toolbox. It can provide emphasis for mood. I suggest using it sparingly, with caution and avoid storm/argument, rain/depression, sunny days/falling-in-love clichés.
Personally, I like to turn PF on its head and have my character see beauty in rain or trouble in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. In short, my advice would be to use PF by all means, but when you do, surprise your reader.
Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a “pathetic fallacy” weather report. That’s the biggest cliché in the cliché box. I mean, it’s just pathetic : )
There's a Storm Comin'
From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022.
Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer.
Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series.
Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts).
Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm.
Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy.
An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus.
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September 5th, 2011 at 21:32
Unless the weather is part of the plot (such as attempted murder by weather control.) And cliches can also be turned on their head by recognizing them.
September 5th, 2011 at 21:35
Hi Sue Ann, absolutely true on both counts – and then they become the exceptions that prove the rule.
September 5th, 2011 at 23:13
Sounds good to me, Sue. And it’s cloudy and dark here!
September 6th, 2011 at 03:09
This post reminds me of “The Story of an Hour” by Chopin, where the character hears about her husband’s death, but then it’s a beautiful day outside.
Back in the day, I agree, it was a great tool. But it has become cliche. As bad as “On a dark and stormy night…”
September 6th, 2011 at 07:44
Hi Derek, thanks for the comment! Yes, those dang dark and stormy nights… : )
September 6th, 2011 at 14:30
Since rain is a motif running through my novel in revision, & one of my characters is more misery-ridden than a wet day in Wales, I read you & pause. (Unlike the wind outside my window.)
*Thinks* Am I writing a ‘cliché? I don’t believe so. I am writing a good deal of descriptive prose mind & can only hope it won’t be ‘…the part that readers tend to skip.’
All that apart, your words are food for thought… Chocolate I think – I’m borderline depressed now.. 😉
September 6th, 2011 at 17:10
Yikes, Carol – did not mean to depress or dishearten… and I’m sure your novel is not cliche. My only advice is to make sure you write it well and in an interesting and surprising way and make sure that your descriptions serve a purpose and aren’t just thrown at the text for the helluvit.
September 6th, 2011 at 17:23
Lol! No harm done, Sue – my tongue was very firmly in my cheek!
It is interesting though – the cliché issue. When I began writing this book I was aware that a story about rain, set in Wales, for goodness sake, is straight away asking to be questioned.
(I ate the chocolate & carried on revising… And beat the pesky WordPress widgets into submission too. So all is well.)
September 6th, 2011 at 20:13
Phew, the last thing I want to do is discourage – it’s far too difficult to keep motivated as it is, in the writing game. There are books, of course, that have done a fine job of incorporating the weather in the story – have you read Miss Smila’s Feeling For Snow? The point is that it is a main feature of the story and not flung at the piece as ‘sunny day” or ‘stormy night’ wallpaper. And eating chocolate is such a good accompaniment to revision, I’m with you all the way on that one.
September 7th, 2011 at 15:54
Love ‘Miss Smila’s Feeling For Snow.’ My rain serves the same function.
September 6th, 2011 at 18:57
Thanks for stopping by my blog and allowing me to follow you here. Nice post on a nice blog! Not to mention the picture is stunning.
I tend to use weather as an antagonist rather than a reflection of character mood. Great reminder to corral the cliches.
September 6th, 2011 at 20:09
Thanks Cat! Yes, I like to turn the cliche on its head and have contrary weather too.
September 6th, 2011 at 20:51
It’s sad that the modern attention span won’t allow for a good, artsy paragraph. Don’t get me wrong. I relish the challenge of picking one perfect phrase, and finding the perfect place to put it… but it would be nice to get away with more expansive descriptions. Hang the pace!
September 6th, 2011 at 21:01
Hi Sean, I know and appreciate what you mean. However, I have to admit, I’m guilty of skipping pars myself. We’re wired differently these days, I guess. In the nineteenth century, time moved at a different pace it seems and people could take time to appreciate the prose. If you enjoy them I think that’s a good thing.
September 7th, 2011 at 09:18
@ Sean: Yes! For me it’s about balance – the ‘perfect phrase’ AND evocative prose passages. And I think it’s possible to write the latter *with* pace.
September 7th, 2011 at 20:34
Sue: It makes the 19th century sound like an idyll. I almost want to go there, but nobody ever gains anything by going backwards. Or do they…
Carol: I think so. A good writer explores as many options as possible.
September 7th, 2011 at 02:27
It’s ironic that the very thing (communications technology) that causes us to skim articles and such (busy busy so much to read and do) are also a huge way to be seen by the masses.
September 7th, 2011 at 07:33
That’s so true.
September 8th, 2011 at 01:00
Interesting. I still like to pick up a Dickens novel once in a while. And I do think that Rosamund Pilcher is very descriptive and weather always plays a role in her books. I love her books but then her character development is wonderful, as well. Maybe I’m a fuddy-duddy but the really sparse writing in some best sellers really turns me off. But your are right, most people don’t want to read long, descrptive paragraphs anymore.
See? My comment is too long by at least 3 sentences.
September 8th, 2011 at 07:55
; ) your comment is not too long and it makes a very good point. There are, as has been said, some modern writers who wield well the PF tool, I think the key is to think carefully before you use it and never start describing how sunny the sunshine is because your character is happy – as it smacks of unoriginal and lazy writing. Rosamund Pilcher as you mention is anything but.