I’m Here For an Argument, Part 5: Ethos

This will be a short one, I think. In the broader subject of rhetoric, there are five canons, one of which is the systematic search for argument, the Inventio. The subject of stasis, which I discussed last time, comes out of the Inventio. So does the subject of ethos, which I’ll talk about today.

These two subjects represent, to my mind, the main points of taking the audience into account when deciding what arguments to make. In terms of stasis, this was a matter of trying to figure out to what extent the audience would agree with you, so you know what points to argue. Ethos, on the other hand, is trying to figure out to what extent the audience trusts you, so you know how strenuously you need to argue those points.


This is the question of the trust the audience has in the arguer: is this writer fair? Honest? Honorable? Ethos is in many ways a shortcut: we believe the arguments of an ethical person with less persuasion than we need from a less ethical person. Writers who are perceived as honest, or intelligent, or as having good hair get the benefit of the doubt to a greater extent than does Richard Nixon. Ad hominem attacks (which I’ll get to later) try to tear down the opponent’s reputation, and are often — but not always! — logical fallacies.

I think that ethos figures into fiction according to the dimensions of argument I discussed earlier: in terms of portraying the world and characters. Terry Pratchett always sticks out to me as being fundamentally respectful of his characters. Very few of them are treated without respect, even if they happen to be unintelligent, mendacious, or otherwise objectionable. Even Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler is treated with a certain respect and dignity. So when Pratchett puts forward an argument about, say, ethnic tension and the nature of closed societies, I tend to believe him without as much persuasion. That’s not to say that he’s nice to his characters, only that he treats them with respect whilst throwing rocks at them.

On the flip side, I tend to consider Ayn Rand as having much less ethos: the characters in her stories who embody, say, socialism, are shown as pure evil. They are portrayed as having no redeeming virtues, and are shown little respect. (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether this attitude was confined to her fiction) When I read her books, she has to do a lot more persuading to get her point across to me.

In terms of portraying the world, this comes out a little differently. I’ve mentioned earlier in the comments that as an expert in one or two subject matters, nothing throws me out of a story like finding an error of fact. After that, I just lose faith that I’m being told the truth in the factual details of the story: it’s not personal or even necessarily moral, just a matter that the author has proven unreliable. The author then has a much harder time making an argument with me; I require more persuasion.

My favorite case of this is from a non-fiction book, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue about the history of the English language. It’s a wonderful book in many ways, but I linked to the Amazon page so you could look at the reviews. He makes a LOT of factual errors… about languages other than English. You could make the case that they are irrelevant, that those details are only there to entertain, but when a reader stumbles upon a mistake, that opens up the question “What else did Bryson get wrong?” and Bryson has to work ten times as hard to persuade. Those reviews tend to say that same thing: “I saw he got this wrong, and it ruined my enjoyment of the book.”

Gun and horse enthusiasts are probably nodding right now: those are the two subjects that writers just get horribly wrong. Guns are physical devices with model-specific designs that work in particular ways. Horses are not meat motorcycles. When those facts are forgotten, it throws those readers right out of the story, and it also ruins the writer’s credibility when making an argument. It’s not directly related to the point you’re making, but looking like an intellectual slob means that you need to work harder to make that point.

Arguments can be made without building one’s ethos. Some evidence is so persuasive that the benefit of the doubt is not needed. If you pull it off, making the point despite yourself, the persuasion can be more powerful. Chuck Wendig uses this technique on his blog Terrible Minds a lot: he says, in effect (and sometimes verbatim), “I’m an asshole and no expert, but here’s what I think and here’s why you should believe me.” In fiction, the unreliable narrator can be a similar tactic of deliberately discarding ethos.

You could also see this kind of explicit or implicit disclaimer as building ethos by alternate means: if you lack authority, as I do in writing these posts about rhetoric and argument, carefully scrubbing oneself of the trappings of authority (e.g. authoritative or confident language) can be a way of not just keeping oneself honest but publicly so. Of course, by saying so, I pretty much wrecked it for myself. 😉

I think that it’s plain that the perception of ethos can vary dramatically from reader to reader. Jack London probably gets a lot of the benefit of the doubt just because he’s not talking about something that’s super-important to most people. Speculative fiction authors, I think, get a lot of that as well, but maybe only from habitual spec-fic readers: there’s the assumption that some or all of this needs to be invented from whole cloth. Genre conventions too help give you a pass, as with the utterly ridiculous “stand up and narrate the solution” trope at the end of a number of Golden Age mysteries. As with stasis, you play the numbers a bit, but ethos is something that you have control over to a much greater extent: Check your facts. Use the correct jargon. Do your research. Don’t present two-dimensional characters. The nice thing about ethos is that by and large, good storytelling practices help build reader trust — I don’t think you really need to do anything extra.

Finally, I think this factors in at a meta-level. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers. We judge them by their typesetting, spelling, and grammar. A professional-looking book gets professional-level respect from the first page; it has an edge to lose. An amateur-looking book gets… rather less respect; it has an up-hill battle from the first word (assuming anyone even starts it) with ground lost at every verbal infelicity. Be nice to the people you work with in the publishing industry: they make you look smarter, cooler, and more professional than you are. If you’re self-publishing, Chuck Wendig (who I mentioned above) has a few words of advice for you.

OK, I lied about this one being short. I have no ethos. In the next part I think I’m going to briefly (actually briefly) discuss the timeliness of an argument (kairos) then I’ll move on to the parts of an argument.

4 thoughts on “I’m Here For an Argument, Part 5: Ethos

  1. On the flipside, authors who include TOO much detail, too much information, also get written off, at least by me. I think that as dangerous as being ignorant is, being a know it all is perhaps as deadly. I don’t need to know the exact trigger mechanism of the gun. I don’t need the bloodline. If you include some telling details, but not too many, I will be happy to believe you.

    1. This reminds me of the advice I got when taking my qualifying exam: say only what you need, and no more. When you say more you a) get the examiners off track (or irritate them!), and b) expose yourself to making unnecessary mistakes, even if you know the material.

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