Don’t be pathetic!

It was a dark and stormy night...

“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 : )


About suehealy

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. TV 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. Stage 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). Radio Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. Prose 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. View all posts by suehealy

17 responses to “Don’t be pathetic!

  • Don’t be pathetic! | A Writer's Notepad |

    […] Don’t be pathetic! “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 protag… Source: […]

  • 4amWriter

    Great post. Like you, I turn the tables on weather or landscape reflecting moods and try to do the unexpected with it. Definitely requires me to be more crafty than usual, but the result is generally worth it.

  • marculyseas

    Cliches smothered in chocolate sauce…nice piece 🙂

  • lenleatherwood

    Very helpful, Sue. Thanks for sharing!

  • SusanWritesPrecise

    Interesting post with valuable information. Thanks!

  • Nicole Marie

    Love this post! Great advice to come by, especially as I am so deep in the second week of NaNoWriMo. I also like to “turn PF on its head”. Makes things more interesting, and a bit more morbid, in a way. I mean, who can find something sinister in a ray of sunshine?

    I read a tip on Twitter the other day, that also relates to turning a style of writing on its head; it said something like, “Instead of making your character do something, make her NOT do something.” The example was: “She took a cigarette from the pack, not lighting it.”

    I suppose it could be worked a little better, but I did like the idea.

    Thanks for the advice! 🙂

  • redjim99

    I come to visit, I learn, I leave realising how much I don’t really know about all this. Ah well,


  • amyleebell

    I love this post. I can totally see how PF could help you set a mood, and I think I would really use it a lot if it weren’t so out of fashion. I love the idea of turning it around though. Give the reader something they’re not expecting. Who wants to read a novel if they can guess how it turns out – or even a scene for that matter? Keep them guessing, and keep them turning pages. Love it!

  • rbs

    I agree. Thomas Hardy has to be the PF KING! Reading his landscape descriptions turned my sunny days into dismal and depressing ones. Great advice! R.

  • somebody

    I think rain aways got a raw deal in music and literature. You can get heatstroke in the sun pretty quick. What’s so happy about that?

  • JamJam

    Thought provoking post. Have you heard about “rain pain”? There was an article on this in the paper today. The weather does have a direct relation to how people feel (physically and emotionally). And how people feel affects what they do. So is it a cliche, or a common device because it represents something that is real? I agree, it can be cookie-cutter predictable. Even that can have an irony to it. I say, write what you write and then read later to see if it’s honest. If it’s just a device, ditch it.

  • clara

    Hi, thanks for visiting my blog. I’m glad to have discovered your blog, I’m trying to get more into writing and your blog has some very helpful tips!

  • Edward Fraser

    Great post. I use the PF very sparingly, but think that it remains a powerful tool if used correctly. I completely agree that a PF like the cliche summer evening falling in love should be avoided almost at all costs. Unfortunately for me the way the scenes form in my head often follow along the lines of the cliches I have read / seen in the past. Sometimes it requires a lot of work to get the image out of my head!

    • JamJam

      I know I’m a doof for saying so, and it is a film, but for the sake of argument, could the love scene in The Sound of Music have been so sublime if it had not taken place on a summer night?

  • thorsaurus

    I believe it was Hemingway that said he didn’t view weather as an element of setting, but rather as a character.For some reason, that tack speaks to me.

  • namelessneed

    another POV{ sometimes hooking up “human-ness” w/ inanimate objects (also which just may further show workings of us more animate objects, with less reporting descriptive details I’m thinking that metaphor is at the core of poetry

    maybe I’m offbase here but I felt the need to include something from years ago

    W O R D M A T H S

    “as I sleep
    the deep green seas tore at the shore.”
    In my defence
    I’m sure it’s
    that most wordsmiths
    have worked the Earth;
    its life..its weather
    in metaphors galore.
    This sun so that moon arise. A Rose.
    the cliff gales, what the dark knows,
    poorly lit paths,
    the sway of mayhem—
    the sweet wordmaths
    configuring out

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