Pathos in Charlie Chaplin's Character, The Little Tramp

Writing for Film: PATHOS

by Waitsel Smith

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Character development, along with plot, are the two elements that make a story. Pathos - that which allows an audience to relate to and care about a character - is the most important part of character development.

Pathos is a Greek word - meaning pity, suffering or emotion - from which we get such words as sympathetic, pathetic, etc. In Art, pathos means that which inspires pity or allows the viewer to relate to a character on a human level. I heard a lot about pathos when I was studying painting and theatre in college, but I rarely hear about it in connection to film. It is an over-looked subject. Pathos is what causes an audience to care about a character so that they rejoice when he rejoices and weep when he weeps. It is a Christian quality.

I used to collect 12" figures, mostly warriors and soldiers. Often, when I would order these figures off eBay or elsewhere, they would come all dressed up - like they're on parade and putting on a show. I liked to dress them down to give them more pathos - to give them a look of vulnerability and humanity, as though you were seeing them at home, rather than in public. It was a way to really get to know them. I used these figures to help me get into a character I was painting or illustrating. Sometimes I would have to replace or repaint a head to give it the right "look," so that it had the right pathos. I wanted to be able to get into the character.

A novelist or screenwriter has to do the same thing with his characters. He has to get to know them - not just the way they look in public, but the way they look at home, as if he were their best friend or in their family. And he has to communicate that to his readers (audience). The worst thing a reader or viewer can say to a writer or filmmaker is, "I really don't feel like I knew that character." That is the kiss of death. A reader or viewer has to be shown enough of the behind-the-scenes workings of a character so that he feels he really does know him - and know him to the point of liking or disliking, even loving or hating, so that they care about what happens to him. That is what is meant by character development.

The greatest characters are those that exude the most pathos - like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, or George from It's A Wonderful Life. Who doesn't know George Bailey by the end of that movie; and how many people who have ever seen it don't care about what happens to him? He is full of pathos. Speaking of Christmas movies, what about Scrooge from A Christmas Carol? Here is a character we start out disliking and end up loving. How did Dickens accomplish this? With great character development, by giving his character a lot of pathos. We wanted to like him in the beginning. We identified with his selfishness - but we didn't agree with it. Because he had pathos - which gave him the potential to be liked - when he became likeable, we were ready to jump on board.

Pathos is what is lacking in slick filmmaking. They have the special effects, they may even have the plot, as in the movie Crash - but their characters lack pathos. What happens to them may be interesting and entertaining, but we really don't care about them. On the other hand, a production can be slick and still have pathos, as with Braveheart and Gladiator. The size of the production isn't important - the heart behind it is. When we say a movie has heart, what we're really saying is that it has plenty of pathos - plenty of reasons to make us identify with, like and care about the character(s).

One 2005 film that sorely lacked pathos was King Kong. You have to fall in love with the Beast to care about him in the end, which is the point - and, frankly, when he fell off the Empire State Building and hit the pavement below, I felt nothing - nothing! We really care what happens to Ol' Yeller or Black Beauty or National Velvet or The Black Stallion or a host of other famous animal characters. What went wrong with King Kong? No character development. All the cute little scenes with the girl - forgot her name, now - were interesting, but didn't endear us to Kong. We ooh'ed and ahh'ed at the special effects, but in the end, we didn't give a hoot about a single character in the film - not even the girl. That's not true of the original.

One of the problems with remakes is that directors think if they follow the same plot, they will have fulfilled their assignment. But they forget to develop their characters, thus leaving pathos in the dust and their audiences wondering what's missing. Story involves two things: plot plus character development. You can't have one without the other and still have story. Plot is all about building to a climax, and then tying up all the loose ends. Character development is about building the pathos of your characters. Without pathos, you've got no characters worth watching. Without character, you've got no story.

Climax < Plot < Story
Pathos < Character Development < Story
Story < Script < Film

Those are the foundation blocks upon which everything else is built.

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Another example is The Passion of the Christ. Here you have the most pathos-laden character in history. Is The Passion successful at developing character and relaying pathos, to the point that the audience cares what happens to Him? I say no, and here's why: The Passion of the Christ is not a story, it's a spectacle. What Mel Gibson has done is taken the third act of a story and made a movie out of it. Typically, the first act (which introduces the characters and the problem they face) is either the birth of Christ and his childhood, ending in His baptism by John; or, it actually begins with the baptism. The second act (which shows the journey the main characters take in solving their problem) is the teaching and healing ministry of Christ. The third act (which involves a crisis leading to a climax, and ending with a resolution) begins with the arrest in the Garden and ends with the Resurrection or the Ascension. Mel has taken that third act and made an entire movie out of it, with the focus on the climax (Christ's humiliation, beating and crucifixion). Thus, I say it is a spectacle, not a story. Mel's motivation behind making The Passion, I believe, was to show that most Christians and Hollywood had that third act wrong - that Christ suffered way more than any of us had imagined. That's fine, but that doesn't constitute a story.

Because The Passion is not a story, it doesn't contain the elements of a story: the plot is shortened to just the final act, and even the resolution (the Resurrection) is shortened to just one shot! That's the plot, such as it is. As far as character development, there is very little chance for us to get to know the main character, Christ. Why? For one thing, there is a language barrier. He's speaking in a language we don't understand. And even though there are subtitles, it's extremely difficult to warm up to a character that every word He speaks has to be translated and read. There's also the cultural barrier: why are these people doing these things? If you understand the story, especially if you're Catholic, you may know. But an overwhelming percentage of people who saw The Passion didn't have a clue what all the different symbols, ceremonies and traditions meant. And third, the character on screen is more than a person: He's an icon. When an icon dies, it's hard to know how to feel.

I think Mel was counting on most of his viewers bringing a background on the first two acts of the story and all the pathos for Christ's character to the theatre with them. That was perhaps true in the case of seasoned Christians; but, like I said, an overwhelming percentage of people didn't. So, as far as the uninitiated were concerned, The Passion was an over-the-top spectacle that made little sense. For followers, it was, for the most part, a meaningful spectacle. But for no one was it a story in and of itself, because it lacked most of the elements of a story, including pathos.

Story = Character Development + Plot
Character Development = Pathos + Change
Plot = Introduction + (Crisis + Resolution) + (Crisis + Resolution) + (Crisis + Resolution) + Crisis + Climax + Final Resolution (Denouement)


Waitsel Smith, October 30, 2006

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"I found your screenwriting posts very helpful with this rewrite I'm doing. Thank-you!" - Anita, California

"Just wanted to let you know I checked out two of your articles on screenwriting - Climax and Character [Pathos] - and thought they were excellent, informative and well done. Keep up the great work. I recommend you write more articles or blogs on film story. You have a great perspective from your experience watching Classic films, and I think that adds something very relevant to the discussion of modern film." - Tom, Florida

Text © 2006 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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