If you’re a filmmaker, you no doubt have had many moments in your work in which you wonder whether what you were trying to do comes across to the audience. Do they think it’s funny? Do they think it’s sad? Do they understand this plot point? Did I establish the MacGuffin well enough?
Well rejoice, ye craftsmen of cinema, for there is at least one certainty in how all films are perceived by their audiences. Pathos, or as Dictionary.com says, “the quality or power in an actual life experience or in literature, music, speech, or other forms of expression, of evoking a feeling of pity or compassion.”
Chaplin was a master of evoking pathos, as were many of the silent filmmakers. They relied on it because they knew it can be one of the most powerful tools to hook your audience into your story. They couldn’t rely on fancy dialogue or a sweeping score (early screenings typically just had a pianist playing classical tunes behind the screen).
What they learned and demonstrated was that pathos is not a choice for the audience. When you watch a Chaplin film, you can’t help but absolutely love the Little Tramp. And what is the very first thing Chaplin did in every single Little Tramp movie? He showed him down and out, oppressed, chased by police or abused by street folk.
Our species has evolved from primates to have altruistic tendencies toward one another. I submit that outside of psychopaths and the occasional Wall Street executive, human beings are incapable of watching other human beings be treated badly without feeling empathy.
One of my favorite movies is Paul Leni’s 1923 silent film The Man Who Laughs. And how does that movie begin? The very first scene has a nobleman being held captive by King James II in the year 1690.
Here is another lesson: Human beings will always inherently root for the submissive in a situation in which the hero and villain are not directly specified. If your football team didn’t make it to the Super Bowl in 2009, most likely you went for the New Orleans Saints because they had never won a Super Bowl before, whereas their opponent, the Indianapolis Colts, have won two.
Who is the submissive in the opening scene from Laughs? The nobleman. So, we will empathize with him without the storyteller telling us to do so. In fact, sometimes, the storyteller can insult his audience’s intelligence by over-articulating who they should root for, instead of allowing human nature to run its course.
One scene later, we are introduced to the protagonist, Gwynplaine, the young son of the nobleman from the first scene. He has been disfigured – he lives with an eternal grim, Carnival freak-like grin on his face, carved by the King’s surgeons as further punishment for the nobleman. Not only that, but he has been left to die in a blizzard.
He has been abused. Without knowing anything else about the character or the movie, we already feel sorry for Gwynplaine and wish justice and catharsis for him. We feel like this is a choice we are making, but again, as a storyteller, you must understand that it is no choice at all.
To use Chaplin as an example, take the opening scene of his masterpiece City Lights, in which the mayor of the city is holding a presentation to unveil a new monument. When they pull the curtain to reveal it, the Little Tramp is found sleeping on it. We don’t need to be told why he’s sleeping on it – there’s only one reason someone would sleep in public – he’s homeless. Pathos is achieved.
But now, he’s woken up in front of practically an entire city of people, all shouting, laughing, and jeering at him. He is embarrassed, apologizes, and tries to get down. Who reading this has never been embarrassed in public before? We immediately project our own memories and nightmares of embarrassment onto his and feel for him. We also laugh, of course, for as Uta Hagen says, comedy comes from recognizing one’s self.
A more modern example: The Big Lebowski. What’s the first scene? The Dude is comically abused by thugs in his own home. Pathos. We may be laughing at him, but want to see him succeed in the end. Or take Avatar, now the highest-grossing film of all time. The first time we see the protagonist in Avatar, we notice he is disabled and gets around in a wheelchair. He’s down and out. Another lesson: Human beings will never root against a disabled character unless he’s a total prick… like Jeffrey Lebowski in The Big Lebowski.
Of course, pathos is by no means the only way to get your audience rooting for your protagonist. There is also admiration. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the first scene with our protagonist shows him pulling off daring, high risk cons on entire towns by bringing in a “captured” wanted bandit only to collect the reward and break him out again at the last second. I’m tempted to assert that admiration isn’t a choice, either. You can’t help but admire the hell outta this guy. You may not agree with his ethics, but you cannot watch him pull this feat off and not root for him.
But although admiration may not be a choice, it isn’t as simply achieved as pathos. To achieve pathos, all you need to show is your main character being down and out. To achieve admiration, well, you have to somehow give us a reason to admire the character, and that can take some additional craftsmanship, especially for an anti-hero like Clint Eastwood’s character in Ugly. One of the ways to achieve admiration is articulated in the late Blake Snyder’s controversial book Save the Cat, in which he asserts you should literally have your character save something or someone or perform a good deed in the opening scene to make the audience root for him. Personally, I don’t think this is enough. I think it can be used beautifully in addition to pathos, as it is used in The Man Who Laughs when the cold, starving, deformed Gwynplaine saves a freezing infant from the blizzard in his first scene. We already feel sorry for him and he’s thinking of others?
What’s the lesson you can take from all of this? What’s the lesson I’m taking? I guess it’s just to trust in human nature. When you tell a story, know that human nature is your eternal collaborator. Trust that if you show your character being down and out the audience will root for him. Trust that if you show your protagonist wanting something but obstructed from achieving it, the audience will inherently project its own desires onto the boon and wish your hero to obtain it.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with writer/director Shane Black in which he said that all a storyteller has to do to make his audience feel for a character is have him say, “I’m scared” (Shane was using this as part of a larger point about creating sympathetic antagonists, which is another angle you can go with pathos that is of particular interest. A hero will always be more interesting if you give him a dark side, and a villain will always be more interesting if you give him a heart).
Now, what you do with your characters in Act Two after you’ve made us feel for them… well, that’s the $64,000 question. Go study McKee.