Being Pathetic

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It was a dark and stormy …

“Pathetic fallacy” is an 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 death, so the landscape looks bleak and with clouds brewing rain.

“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 of its popularity 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 cliché. For example, if your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and then they fight… 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; let the trouble come in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. If you use PF, surprise your reader with it.

Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a “pathetic fallacy” weather report. That’s the biggest cliché in the cliché box, it’s just pathetic …

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About suehealy

Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre and associate lecturer in playwriting at the universities of Lincoln and Portsmouth, Irish playwright Sue Healy’s Imaginationship premieres at the Finborough Theatre in January 2018. Cow (2017) showed at the Etcetera Theatre and Brazen (2016) ran at the King’s Head, funded by Arts Council England. Her work has been performed at the Criterion, Hackney Attic, Claremorris Festival (New Writing Award winner), Brighton Festival (the Sussex Playwrights’ Award Winner) and Sterts Theatre and has been developed by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Her nine radio-plays have broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. She has won prizes for her prose including the Molly Keane and HISSAC Awards and the Escalator Prize. A UEA Creative Writing MA alumna, Sue spent eleven years in Budapest editing Hungary A.M. She is completing a Ph.D. in Theatre history. Sue also tutors Creative Writing at CityLit. View all posts by suehealy

5 responses to “Being Pathetic

  • Roly Andrews

    Thanks for your tip / post – really useful.

  • writerlyderv

    I think a modern version of pathetic fallacy could be to have food match the characters’ emotions. There are lots of modern novels where the food the characters eat tap into their emotions, or where emotions form part of a recipe. Think of the likes of Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris or The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.

  • Paula Antonello Moore

    Wow I love the idea of turning it on its head. Thanks for that.

  • duplicatorbooks

    Nice article, Sue.

    Reading this, it strikes me that many films are guilty of (their version of) pathetic fallacy – using music to create mood in the absence of a tight plot.

    As far as place-setting goes, most modern readers – whether through media or travel – know firsthand what, for example, a moor looks like, and just want to know what happens next to the protagonist, not about the types of wildflowers and short grasses that range across the barren yada-yada… On the other hand, the ultimate destination of bare-bones writing is an extended synopsis of the novel-that-never-was.

  • claidig

    Ever since it was pointed out in a film studies class, as soon as the rumble of evil-deed thunder or everybody’s-sad-rain storm occurs, I lose all ability to take whatever I’m watching seriously.

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