Thousands of years ago, Aristoteles probably took a look at the people attending the theater during the Dionysian festival. He saw them cry and scream and gasp during the three days dedicated exclusively to watching tragedies. And -- as Greek philosophers do with everything — he decided to give their experience a name.
Nowadays, if you read a book, watch a movie, or listen to a song, you will likely face the Three Elements Of Tragedy. However, it is not exclusive to tragic pieces anymore. Due to the way it affects readers, I prefer to call it “The Mirroring Process”. Audiences all around the world encounter this exercise, and it is as relevant today as it was back in the Hellenic period.
Throughout this article, I will use the myth of Orpheus as an example. During the myth, Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus dies due to a snakebite. He loses himself to grief and ends up in the Underworld. His music skill is such, that he charms both Cerberus and Charon. Hades himself lets Orpheus go back to the mortal world with Eurydice, as long as none of them look back before leaving the Underworld. But Orpheus does look back; to show his wife how marvelous the sun is. Eurydice disappears, and he plays a song so desperate, so melancholic, that the gods show him compassion and turn him into the constellation of his instrument: the lyre.
Phase One - In Your Shoes
The first part of the process is called Eleos. It is the moment where the audience feels compassion for the character. You are not only reading about them, you are becoming them. You can picture their experiences and their perspective, and you are forming an empathic bond. Readers understand the myth of Orpheus from his perspective. The myth holds his grief, his longing, and his desperation for the readers to appreciate and relate to.
Phase Two - That’s Actually Messed Up
What do you fear? Aristoteles named this phase “Phobos”. While reading, people fear that whatever happened to the character might also happen to themselves. Perhaps it is not the exact same thing, but the concept the piece upholds. Fear is one of the engines of humanity, and so it moves readers beyond compassion, and into understanding. Readers now connect the events the character goes through to their own lives. In Orpheus, the audience fears losing a loved one. Being so close and still failing. Fear is raw, deep, and dangerous.
Phase Three - Our Essence
And finally, the catharsis. It is a teaching, but not the moral of a story. During the catharsis, people learn about the nature of human beings. Our reasons, our maybes, our mistakes. This is the purification of feelings. The hope is that, once you close the book or leave the theater, you will be changed. In Orpheus, we learn that innocent mistakes cost us too. As humans, yearning for the warmth of the sun might bring darkness right back.
Eleos, phobos, catharsis. The Mirroring Process, because through it, characters reflect on us, and we reflect on them.
"As artists, we create the elements of the process. As readers, we experience it."