Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Psychology of Writing: What Aristotle can Teach Us about Writing Fiction

When you write fiction, you write an argument.

When I say “argument,” I am not referring to a “battle of wits,” wherein you try to out-smart and out-talk the opposing viewpoint. I use the word “argument” here to mean “an effort through which you strive to prove a point.”

No matter what genre of fiction you write, you write for a reason. This reason may be any manner of things—from self-discovery, to expounding some great truth, to simply entertaining your readers. Regardless of the reason that lies at the heart of your fiction, you must understand that, when you write a story, you write an argument. You write to prove a point.

So, then, this begs the question: how can I prove my point to my readers?

Let us take a moment to look into the research of Greek philosopher Aristotle—one of the earliest researchers of human communication. Through his observations, Aristotle was able to make significant discoveries about the power of an orator’s argument and its effect upon the audience. These same findings can be utilized and applied to fictional writing in order to “prove the point” that you strive to make to your readers.

Logos—the Power of Logic and Consistency
Strong arguments are filled with logos, or the ability to apply logic effectively. When you write fiction, keep your characters and world in mind. Is it natural for your regularly dead-pan character to break out laughing at the telling of some know-it-all joke? Most likely not. But if this is indeed what happens in your story, ask yourself why your character is reacting this way. There may be a perfectly good reason for it, in which case you should strive to logically explain the odd behavior. Maybe the character recently experienced a great fortune and is unusually giddy. Maybe they suffer from a psychological condition which gives them an optimistic “high” at unexpected times. If, however, you decide that the reaction is misplaced, take it out of the story and replace it with something true to the character.
Logos is vital to your fictional world as well. If your story takes place in a realistic, Earth-centered environment, be sure to keep that in mind. Your readers will be more likely to expect a logical approach from such a setting because they are more familiar with it than they would be with, say, Middle Earth or some other fantastical place. But if your story does take place in a made-up world of your own imagining, logos still applies. Keep the natural rules and laws of your fictional world in mind. If the land is governed by a “magic system,” for example, don’t break the laws of the magic you have created. Even in the most obscure fantasy worlds, some stream of logic must prevail, even if that stream of logic means that there is no logic at all.

Consistency is equally as important to logos. Ensure that your characters and world follow the rules that you have laid down for them. Anything “out of the ordinary” will be noticed by your readers, and even the smallest inconsistencies will be picked out by those who read carefully. If your character suffers a head injury in chapter seven, but no mention of this injury’s effects on the character are made afterwards, your readers may begin to question the logic and realism of the story you are telling.

Having strong logos means focusing on the small things, as well as the prominent ones. If your story is a chair-gripper, your supporting cast lively and unforgettable, and your dialogue placed perfectly, that’s all well-and-good. But if, at the same time, your main character’s backstory has a detail or two that doesn’t make reasonable sense, it will harm the over-all effect of your story. As a rule of thumb, negative messages tend to linger longer in the mind than positive ones. A little illogical fiction can cause a lot of disenchantment. Give extra caution to all aspects of your story—from the over-arching plot, to the color of your character’s eyes—and ensure that the facts are both consistent and reasonable (if not altogether believable). You want to keep your reader immersed in your tale, so don’t give them any reason to question your reasoning. A logical story—a logical argument—makes for a satisfied reader.

Pathos—the Power of Emotion and Being Relatable
Some are governed by their heads. Others are led by their hearts. While logos focuses on what is believable and mentally acceptable, pathos reaches out to the feelings inside us.

The key to having strong pathos in your writing is generating genuine emotions through your words, characters, and plot. You clearly love your fictional world and the fictional population that inhabits it. You care about your story because it is born from your deepest passions—your beliefs, hopes, dreams, and experiences. Take hold of this passion that you have, and convey it to your readers. The famous saying “Write your first draft with your heart, but edit it with your head” is especially true of pathos. Passion and emotion are catchy things, and if you express joy and excitement through the pages of your fiction—if you pour your heart into your words—your readers will feel those emotions as well. What is written with passion is read with enjoyment.

Be mindful of the pathos you create scene-by-scene and character-by-character. Ask yourself: “what emotions are being portrayed here?” Follow this by asking yourself, “What emotions do I want to portray here?” By ensuring that both questions have consistent answers, you are taking the first step towards achieving successful pathos.

But pathos, like logos, is not something you can simply put your finger on. There are thousands of ways to successfully achieve genuine emotion. One effective way is to make your reader understand your characters’ hearts. What drives your characters? Why do they feel the way they do? Why should your reader care enough to read your story and learn about them?

I find that putting bits of personal experience into my stories helps me express emotion better. If you have been through a frightening car wreck, or experienced the death of a pet, you fully understand what it’s like to experience these traumas. You can write about them from your heart and bring a realistic edge to your writing. Of course, you don’t have to have personal experience in order to write effective pathos, but it can none-the-less be very beneficial to achieving heart-felt emotion.

To sum pathos up in one word, pathos is “care.” It is why your readers should care enough to feel what you want them to feel. Use pathos to guide your readers. Reveal to them who they should care about (or feel positive pathos towards) and who they should not care about (or feel negative pathos towards). Negative and positive pathos work together to guide the reader’s feelings. The stronger the darker feelings are (loss, sorrow, anger, hatred, fear) the more emphasis your lighter feelings (hope, joy, love, celebration) will receive. Balance your pathos and use them to build your story and characters!

Ethos—the Power of Credibility and Fact
Lastly, to truly convince your readers of your “argument,” you must utilize the power of ethos—or thorough knowledge about that which you write.

If your story takes place in medieval England, the NASA space station, or the Prohibition era, be certain that you know your facts. Even if your story is fictional, it is important to have a historically, and culturally, accurate portrayal of your subject matter. Do your homework! Double-check that the facts you use are, indeed, facts. If NASA was founded on July 29th, 1958, don’t make the mistake of writing that it was founded on July 20th, 1958. Most readers may not catch the inaccuracy, but some will. These inaccuracies might, in turn, cause readers to cast doubt on your work, and wonder if other facts in your story might be inaccurate. As a result, they will likely take the rest of your tale with a grain of salt. This harms the overall believability and credibility that you hoped to achieve.

Even in fantasy, you must be cautious with ethos. For example, if you character has a sword and shield made of gold, be sure to do a little research on gold and its uses in battle. You may be shocked to discover that gold is actually quite heavy, malleable, and easier to pierce than other metals. This would make it poor material for a sword and shield, indeed.

The reader’s perception of your writing is another key aspect of ethos. As a writer, you should have your reader’s interests in mind. Write for yourself, but write to them as well. Challenge them. Dare to grow them as individuals. Strive to entertain them. Readers like to feel rewarded when they complete a book. Be sure that you keep your promises to them. If you continuously hint that something terrible will happen in the next chapter, be sure that you fulfill that hinted promise with full vigor. If you claim that your villain is the most evil, selfish pirate to ever sail the Seven Seas, you had better keep that promise to your reader but showing him off in all his evil selfishness.

A promise isn’t usually something that you alright state to your reader. It is something that you hint at through your plot, characters, and dialogue. Most importantly, though, don’t let your readers down. Fulfill their expectations and exceed them if you can. It will keep them coming back for more, and you will have gained their respect for having their best interests in mind.

Summing It All Up
The key to making a truly remarkable argument through your fiction is not to master one element, but to utilize all three. Fill your stories with logos to give them consistency and logic, mark your pages with pathos to generate emotion and feelings, and finalize it all with ethos to prove the weight of your words.

And, lastly, thank Aristotle for all of his research. His studies were powerful enough to survive over twenty-five hundred years. I think it’s safe to say he proved his point.

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