Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Challenge of Ethos

Of the three points of Aristotle's triangle of rhetoric, I tend to be an ethos-heavy writer. That doesn’t mean that I don’t make logical sense or never appeal to emotion, just that my subject matter and “punchlines” (the sentences in a blog post, essay, or story that I spend extra time crafting and drive a point home) are often character/ethics centered.

When I learned about Aristotle’s triangle of rhetoric in high school, my teacher had us write a personal essay that emphasized one of the three points. He ended with a brief warning: “Most students stay away from ethos. That one’s really hard to do gracefully.”

You are seventeen-year-old Amy. What do you do?

Yep. Take that as a challenge and focus on ethos. I had no idea how to do that, really, but I thought I'd give it a try. My essay was about how I thought the select choir group at our school was made up of arrogant divas…until I became a part of it and experienced what it was like to be treated like an arrogant diva.

When my teacher graded it, this is what he said at the end. “At first, I was skeptical and felt like you were being a bit judgmental…and then you turned it around on yourself. And suddenly, everything worked.”

I had unknowingly stumbled onto one of the keys to using ethos gracefully: be a relatable character.

The way I see it, you really have two options as far as the credibility part of ethos. You can either present yourself in a way that people will say, “This is a genuinely good person” (this works really well in stories of overcoming and persevering through adversity), or “This is a complete idiot who’s learning things.”

I tend to be an idiot a lot. This gives me an endless amount of material.

When writing fiction, the same is true of your characters. They’re probably going to be a mix of those two strategies—having some admirable traits and learning others through stupid mistakes. They can’t be perfect, but they should probably be someone the reader doesn’t hate, at least.

(There’s a whole discussion about anti-heroes that I don’t want to get into except to say that even if you’re pulling a move of literary brilliance with your seriously flawed, angsty anti-hero, readers still won’t care about a protagonist they don’t at least find interesting, if not relatable.)

The wrong way to use ethos is by simply telling people what they're doing wrong, or telling them to change to your ethical point of view. It's seating yourself on the moral high ground and subtly sneering at the readers below you. It's always needing to be right, assuming readers need you to spell out the lesson they're supposed to learn from your story, and not giving the best arguments from the other side.

Ethos gives you permission to be honest and gracious, but also requires you to be humble. It means writing about hard things, making characters who struggle, and deciding what you think about how often good triumphs over evil, and how to make an ending satisfying if evil wins, or appears to win.

And (speaking with a little bit of personal bias here), it’s also a lot of fun. Take the challenge. Write with a strong sense of ethos.

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