Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Power Of Pity and Fear

As I mentioned before, I started studying Aristotle's Poetics this weekend. The first half of this work discusses the art of writing tragedy, and one of the things Aristotle stresses is that all tragedy should evoke both pity and fear.

The concept of having both of these emotions at play in a story was eye-opening for me. Aristotle argued that pity was important because it resulted from readers sympathizing with the character. Fear, on the other hand, results from readers putting themselves in the character's place and worrying about themselves.

For me, what's powerful about this idea is that a writer who evokes both pity and fear has engaged their reader on two levels. And these two levels work on two different planes, one "inside" the story, relating to the character, and another "outside."

I imagine the two emotions don't have to be only pity and fear. For those writers who aren't working on Tragedy, the concept of getting readers to feel emotions for both the character and for themselves still applies. It seems like sympathy for the character applies to every genre. But, the pairing with that sympathy might be desire in the case of romance, or joy in the case of comedy. I'm honestly not sure. But, either way, this allows us to transcend the world of our book into real life.

So, has anyone been able to create these two levels of emotions in their writing? If so, do you have tips on how you did it?


  1. I wonder if the story has to end in tragedy for this to work. I would say that A Christmas Carol operates on the same two emotions. As we are shown Scrooge's past -- his lonely childhood, his lost opportunity for love -- and his future -- unloved, unmourned -- we begin to pity more than despise him. And it is this that really brings the reader to fear the ways we might be like Scrooge. For as long as we merely despise rich people, we secretly envy them.

  2. That's a great point, Tara Maya. As I was thinking of what other emotions might come into play, I actually kept coming back to pity and fear. I think if there's conflict in a story, combined with characters that are at least a little sympathetic, then pity and fear will both apply.

  3. Tara's example is dead on. 'nough said.

  4. As a writer of tragedy, I have some experience with this.
    In classical tragedies, the reader is made aware of the potential for disaster coming down on the protagonist, shown how the protagonist fails to avert that disaster, and then we are shown the disaster itself. Greek tragedy was sort of about the inexorable hand of fate. Elizabethan tragedy was sort of about flawed romantic characters with skewed ideas of their own identity. Modern tragedy looks a lot like self-sacrifice and noble suffering. My stuff works along Elizabethan lines, I think.

    But hey, you asked a question! I think a better way of talking about "fear" is to maybe say that the reader identifies with a character and then is afraid if it looks like something will happen to that character that the reader wouldn't want to happen to himself. Or perhaps we see the protagonist about to make what we think is a mistake--possibly a fatal one--and we want to yell at the character to Stop and Not Open That Door or whatever.

    Anyway, that's the way I deal with the idea of Aristotle's "fear" in my own books. Most of it turns out to be nothing more than dramatic irony, where the reader knows Harry should never turn his back on Cruella, but Harry does it anyway. I don't know how well I do any of this, but it's what I'm aiming for.

  5. I know I feel pity and fear for my own characters. Fear of what they are going to do to themselves and pity of the same. I see things coming when they don't and I want to scream at them to be careful but they don't listen. I don't know though how much of this is felt by the reader.

  6. Does Aristotle have anything to say about Comedy? Does that operate with a different set of emotions?

  7. Crimey, thanks!

    Scott, I need to learn about those different types of Tragedy. It's interesting to me. Only recently have I started to pay attention to Tragedy more seriously, even though I think my writing has always drifted towards it. You're right about the fear in the first part of your second paragraph, at least how Ari talks about it. He suggests that readers should see the same flaws in themselves as the characters have, and then the reader worries that these shared flaws will lead them down the same path.

    Taryn, I'm not sure how much the reader feels in my work either. I guess we may never know, but we can try our best to engage them.

    Tara Maya, I am still studying the first half of Poetics, so I'm not sure if he gets into comedy, but I don't think so.

  8. Ahh the riddle of the Sphynx. I do try and attempt these two feats. I feel they are best achieved through voice and circumstance and that is like telling you the most basic directives on how to build an atom bomb. I really don't know.

  9. I just finished reading The Hunger Games (yes, I know....two years later than the rest of the world) and I think the author (Suzanne Collins) did an amazing job of making me feel at first pity for the protagonist (Gee, I am glad I'm not her...what a crap life) then fear (Geez, there's a lot at stake for this character....yikes!) then admiration for coming through it all (yay!)

    I think the important thing in writing is to garner some type of feeling in your reader....except for annoyance.

    That would be bad.


  10. T. Anne, That's interesting that you say it's a matter of voice. I'll have to think about that. For me that would have not been a suspect, but then I don't know what my suspects would have been!

    Storyqueen, I don't mean this sarcastically at all, but I hate that annoying people aren't sympathetic. For some reason I keep writing about annoying people. They capture my attention...probably because they are annoying. :P For years I never considered whether or not my character was sympathetic. I just wrote about people that interested me. Now, I still write about those same people, but I work harder to uncover them.

  11. Davin, I agree....characters can be annoying and still compelling, still sympathetic. I guess I was trying to say that if the feeling the writing creates in the reader is one of annoyance, then most likely the reader is more annoyed with the author than the character.

    Does that make any sense.

    (And it could be argued that annoyance is still far more powerful a feeling than boredom.)


  12. Sorry I just now got to this post, Davin. It's been a busy day!

    I think I've reached this with Cinders, but I have no idea how I did it. Maybe I haven't, I don't know. I'm way too tired to think more deeply about this. :(

    However, I do think this is a great springboard for another post I might do later! ...when I have more of a brain.


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