What is Pathetic Fallacy?

Pathetic fallacy is the fancy name for the weather reflecting the mood of characters, such as the angry/morose character sitting in their office with a storm raging around them. It used to be a very popular technique, think of Shakespeare’s three witches in Macbeth up to no good in the middle of a storm, but fell out of favour after becoming associated with melodrama. The storm was always a popular option that tended to appear regularly in melodramas when bad things happened. This doesn’t mean it isn’t used anymore but it is often less conspicuous than witches in a storm.

One of the reasons pathetic fallacy has become less conspicuous is association, we can boil it down to good weather means good this are happening and bad weather means bad things are happening. This doesn’t mean it appears in every scene but it regularly appears in stories even if we don’t intend it. Characters in love having a romantic moment on a warm summer’s day? Pathetic fallacy. Two characters having a chilly conversation after a fight on a chilly day? Pathetic fallacy. A character marching about angrily on a windy day? Pathetic fallacy.

Despite some claims that pathetic fallacy is melodramatic or clichéd it is a perfectly valid literary technique and one that is often used without us ever intending to. This is because of association love and happiness is often associated with good weather while disastrous dangers are often associated with bad weather. In advertising, for instance, when a bad day and a good day are compared the bad day often features getting rained on while on the good day the rain mysteriously doesn’t appear. We could argue that we could still have a good day when it rains if we only had an umbrella and yet the good day is never, ‘it’s raining and I have my umbrella that hasn’t turned inside out’, though we may have, ‘it’s a bad day, it’s raining and my umbrella has just been blown inside out’. Once again this is pathetic fallacy where the character’s mood is reflected in the weather creating a negative or positive atmosphere. It’s an emotional shorthand and relatable because everyone can remember having rainy days where that happened, people have bad days on sunny days and yet the days with bad weather often appear more prominent in memories. I sometimes wonder if this is because the bad weather is the last straw but my speciality isn’t in psychology.

However, while pathetic fallacy can be evocative it doesn’t mean we need to associate the weather and the character’s mood to create atmosphere. There’s the romantic cliché of people running through the rain to each other which doesn’t relate to pathetic fallacy because in a moment of joy people don’t tend to think that freezing rain would really make the moment. And yet the image of lovers running to each other in all sorts of weather and situations is an enduring one and rarely without emotional impact, as long as readers are invested in the characters. Arguably in this case the mood of the characters is separate from the atmosphere because it’s the emotional impact of reunion that is the focus, rather than the atmosphere. If the readers are sufficiently connected to the characters the impact of their reunion should stand alone, which is why it appears in many contexts not simply the rain cliché or only in romantic relationships.

Knowing what pathetic fallacy is and how it works doesn’t mean we have to apply it to every scene or remove it from every scene it appears in.


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