The Difference Between Pathos and Bathos
Most aspiring comic novelists will probably agree that they want their work to leave an emotional impression on their readers, whether it be for better or for worse. In each case, the central characters in your novel – whether likeable and endearing, or flawed and detestable – should at least aim to stir some kind of emotional reaction. In the end, no story worth its salt will make its mark without allowing a reader to find an emotional hook in order to better understand a protagonist’s motivations.
For comic fiction writers most specifically, this presents a real challenge: How can a reader anchor themselves within the consciousness of a protagonist if, for the most part, one is expected to laugh at them? How can humour be found without undermining or belittling a character’s plight to some degree? There are two specific literary devices which may help to straddle this line – Pathos and Bathos – and by understanding the difference between the two it may be possible for a writer to get the best of both worlds.
Often considered the most overt way to appeal to someone’s emotions, pathos is an effective way of building a sympathetic relationship between a reader and its subject. If your character is worthy of a reader’s sorrow or pity, such as having a backstory mired with tragic circumstances, or if their flaws continually prevent them from succeeding, invoking pathos is a must. In other words: hard-wire tragic flaws into your character; embrace ill-fated and afflictive plot points; and ensure your character laments his/her situation.
The use of pathos will make it easier for a reader to find something emotionally relatable to cling onto, not just for your character, but also for your overall story too. Even the themes in your story are open to this technique – Dylan Thomas’s famous poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ uses pathos in a thematic sense masterfully:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
All readers can relate to the subject of their own inevitable death, so Dylan Thomas’s words speak to us in a mournful, desperately melancholic sense, perhaps even more so when a reader thinks of their own loved ones they have lost. It is this sense of deep sadness which pathos aims to tap into, so the territory comic fiction writers must explore is the grey area between this and the more frivolous, some might say less significant, aspects of life.
Without beating around the bush, bathos is a literary technique which self-sabotages its own attempts to use pathos, whether deliberately or by accident. Originally considered a characteristic of bad writing, bathos can appear awkward if used mistakenly, but for humorous fiction writers, it’s pure gold-dust. It allows you to add a funny hue to the most po-faced of moments, subverting attempts to invoke sympathy, flipping it on its head to highlight the very absurdity of tribulation itself.
Bathos also enables a reader to relate to a comic protagonist or even to your story’s overall narrative voice, especially if one can flit successfully from the super-serious to the silly. In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the following passage exemplifies bathos being used to this kind of comic effect:
Why are people born? Why do they die? And why do they spend so much of the intervening time wearing digital watches?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
By alternating from deeply philosophical inquiry to an overtly trivial one, Douglas Adams finds humour by, albeit surreally, exposing the gulf between the level of importance one attributes to grand, meaningful questions and other more inconsequential, commonplace concerns. This is bathos at its most potent. Therefore, rather than being accidental, bathos can be used intentionally to allow the reader to find comedy in the most unlikely of places.
Like walking a tightrope, comic fiction writers are the trapeze artists of their profession. On the one hand, it’s important they create stories and characters which appeal to a reader’s emotions (pathos) in order to build affection, but on the other, there has to be something resonant about a personality or a struggle which keeps readers amused (bathos) without sacrificing that emotional connection in the process. It’s a hard task, but knowing the difference between pathos and bathos is important, as it will help make it more navigable for writers than it might be otherwise.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.