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The Persistence of Character

Fictional Characters in Literary Theory — A Short History



Cette contribution à ce numéro spécial consacré à “The Persistence of Character” propose un bref historique des approches des personnages de fiction dans les études littéraires depuis l'émergence du structuralisme jusqu’aux explorations actuelles des êtres fictifs dans le contexte des sciences cognitives de type 4E. En décrivant les différentes étapes du développement de la théorie des personnages depuis le milieu du XXe siècle, l'article montre que la conception influente (post)structuraliste des personnages en tant que signes, symboles et fonctions (de l’intrigue), qui occupe encore aujourd’hui une position clé dans la recherche en littérature, ne parvient pas à rendre justice à la fascination que les personnages littéraires exercent fréquemment sur les lecteurs. En s’intéressant plus particulièrement au domaine de la narratologie, l’article retrace la manière dont cette conception « antihumaniste » (Felski) des personnages de fiction a été remise en question au cours des dernières décennies. En outre, il démontre comment les nouveaux développements théoriques dans ce domaine tendent à être étroitement liés aux développements globaux de la théorie littéraire en général.

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1. Introduction

1When Robinson Crusoe comes upon a human footprint on a sandy beach in his fifteenth year of being stranded on a desert island, this discovery triggers a whirlwind of emotions. “I stood like one thunderstruck,” the autodiegetic narrator of Defoe’s novel describes the moment of this discovery (129). Despite the relative brevity of the passage, the incident not only serves as a turning point in the story but also constitutes one of the most famous scenes in the text. Numerous film adaptations have attempted to capture the dramatic nature of this discovery, and the novel leaves no doubt about the intensity of the shock the protagonist experiences: Crusoe stumbles back into his dwelling, “terrify’d to the last degree, looking behind [him] at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man” (129). As readers follow the panic-stricken man back to his dwelling, they are left with a vivid image of the psychological impact of the footprint on his fictional mind.

  • 1 Crusoe’s panicked reaction at the sight of the print of a naked foot in the sand is not merely a ps (...)

2Literary characters have been objects of fascination for hundreds of years. “A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly,” the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once wrote, “than a great number of flesh-and-blood beings I have known” (7; cf. Felski “Identifying” 84). Correspondingly, in the attempt to analyse this fascination, generations of scholars have tried to understand why and how fictional characters such as Robinson Crusoe and their experiences can leave lasting impressions on the minds of readers. While nobody has been able to answer this question comprehensively, social psychology seems to suggest that a necessary precondition for the overall effect and memorability of the scene from Defoe’s novel mentioned above lies in the ability of readers to mentally take up its fictional character’s perspective, i.e. to imagine the effect such a discovery must have on a castaway after fifteen years of isolation. In other words, our reading of the novel is based, at least to some degree, on a processing of the text that envisions Crusoe as a lifelike human person—a person with complex emotions we can comprehend, potentially empathize with, and/or morally judge.1

3For most people not trained in literary criticism and theory, the conceptual relationship between fictional characters and real-life persons is a matter of course. Even though they are perfectly aware of the ontological difference, non-academic readers tend to treat literary characters such as Robinson Crusoe analogously to humans virtually by default—an approach that generations of teachers and university lecturers have been busily battling in classrooms around the globe for decades. The reason for this prolonged didactic effort lies in the fact that mainstream literary scholarship has been dominated by what Rita Felski has called an “antihumanist orientation” marked by a “default scepticism about the status of fictional persons” (Hooked 85) since the mid-twentieth century. In stark contrast to common non-academic reading practices, scholars have insisted that fictional characters are categorically different due to their exclusively textual nature. Accordingly, to treat them as real persons came to be seen as “the epitome of naivete or philistinism” (85). Instead, students were taught that characters need to be conceived of as ‘empty’ signifiers, textual symbols, or the embodiments of roles and plot structures.

  • 2 A resurgent interest in the (theoretical) investigation of fictional characters from different conc (...)
  • 3 For a historical investigation into the forms, functions, and theoretical conceptualisations of lit (...)

4Yet, no theoretical paradigm remains unchallenged. As the editors of this special issue point out, the past years have finally witnessed several highly visible attacks on this dominant ‘antihumanist’ approach to character within the academic study of literature. Driven by influential scholars such as Felski, a renewed interest in characterisation and the theoretical conceptualisation of fictional beings has entered the academic mainstream with the aim of triggering a general “reassessment of character in literary studies” (Anderson, Felski, and Moi 1).2 However, in the following I will show that this development has neither come out of nowhere, nor does it constitute the first attempt at reassessing dominant theoretical paradigms in this field of study. While mostly staying under the radar of mainstream scholarship and teaching, a persistent interest in the theoretical investigation of characters over the past decades, mainly in the field of narratology, has arguably prepared the ground for current developments. In order to provide both a historical and theoretical backdrop to the articles in this special issue on “The Persistence of Character”, my contribution will present a short history of recent theoretical approaches to fictional characters since the mid-twentieth century.3 In this survey I am not only going to sketch the main lines of developments in the changing theoretical treatment of literary figures; I will also demonstrate the fundamental entanglement of those treatments with overarching developments in the history of literary theory in general.

2. From Person to Construct

5The antihumanist orientation of literary theory which forms the starting point of this essay emerged out of a profound dissatisfaction with contemporary scholarly approaches in the first half of the twentieth century. A case in point is Wellek and Warren’s influential Theory of Literature (1949) which emphatically stated that “[a] character in a novel differs from a historical figure or a figure in real life” (25). Going beyond the mere assertion of the ontologically obvious, their statement served a deeply programmatic function in the late 1940s. For scholars such as Wellek and Warren the foregrounding of the strict conceptual separation of fictional characters and real persons marked a deliberate rejection of the ways in which earlier generations of academics such as the famous Shakespeare scholar A. C. Bradley (1904) had treated characters in their writings. Speaking for an emerging generation of scholars informed by structuralist thinking, they were dissatisfied with the “excessive ‘psychologizing’” of these earlier approaches which displayed “the tendency to analyze the personalities, deduce the motivations, and fill the unwritten histories of purely indeterminate, fictional entities” (Bortolussi and Dixon 134).

  • 4 For a more detailed discussion of Knights’ essay, see Britton, and Chatman (134-138).
  • 5 See Jannidis “Zu anthropologischen Aspekten” 156; Toolan 81. Despite the dominance of structuralist (...)

6While perhaps the most famous attack on such psychological approaches was L. C. Knights’ polemical essay “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” (1933),4 Wellek and Warren’s seminal work on literary theory marked a general historical turning point towards a more theoretically informed treatment of literature. This included, among other things, the trend to understand characters as textual constructs, i.e. as non-mimetic products of the specific arrangement of words and sentences in a text. However, despite being grounded in a common rejection of naïve character psychology, the structuralist and poststructuralist thinking dominating the decades after Wellek and Warren did not produce a unified theoretical concept of literary beings. Held together by the conviction that “narrative characters are not real people and formally cannot be treated as such” (Bortolussi and Dixon 134), scholars generally emphasised the textually constructed, non-mimetic, and non-representational nature of literary figures and conceived of them accordingly as “aggregate[s] of textual signs” (134), or as “paper beings” (Barthes) with various semantic and symbolic functions but no ‘life’ and ‘meaning’ of their own.5 Beyond this general stance, however, the theoretical investigation of characters was widely met with disinterest and disdain. Scholars saw it at best as a topic of little interest and at worst as a generally misguided and misleading endeavour (Harvey 192). Despite this disinterest in character theory, however, literary figures continued to be discussed, albeit often in an indirect fashion in the context of other theoretical questions.

  • 6 Propp’s The Morphology of the Folk Tale originally published in 1928 identified a sequence of thirt (...)

7Structuralist approaches in search of the deep structures of textual meaning, for example, saw literary character primarily as surface phenomenon whose ‘true’ function was to be found in the semantic or symbolic structures hidden ‘beneath’ the textual surface. A prototypical example for the belief that “narrative analysis occurs at a level below that of character and […] character type” (Buchanan 3), was the “actant model” developed by Algirdas J. Greimas. In his influential Structural Poetics (1966) Greimas programmatically replaced the analytical category of ‘characters’ with the notion of “actants” which he conceived as “an isotope of the action” (Buchanan 3). Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s (1928) seminal work on Russian folktales, he saw the analytical relevance of literary figures not in individual characteristics and/or textual strategies of characterisation but in their structural function within the plot. This attitude towards characters as products or participants of a story’s action relevant only in terms of “what they do […], not what they are” stood in a long tradition of theoretical works stretching back to Aristotle’s Poetics (Chatman 111, cf. Pfister 160). Greimas however went beyond the general analytical belief in the precedence of plot over figure inherent to this tradition. Following Propp, he attempted to describe universal mechanisms of storytelling by conceiving of “narrative characters as an expression of an underlying narrative grammar” (Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider 21). For this purpose, he developed a model that identifies six paired roles (actants) common to all stories (subject/object; sender/receiver; helper/opponent). In Greimas’ theory these actants are not necessarily embodied by a single character, since any character may perform multiple roles, and any “role may be distributed among several characters” (Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider 21).6 Individuals within the fictional personnel of a story are thus only relevant in as far as they serve as embodiments or agents of the text’s underlying narrative grammar—an approach that implicates a profound disinterest in and an analytical irrelevance of the individual traits and the mimetic dimension of fictional beings.

8However, even critics working within the structuralist paradigm repeatedly acknowledged the powerful lure of mimetic approaches (Weinsheimer 186). Rimmon-Kenan, for example, stated that characters were partly based on readers’ conceptions of people while simultaneously maintaining to define them as “nodes in the verbal design” of a text, on the one hand, and “non or (pre-) verbal abstractions, constructs” (33) in the story, on the other hand. Thus, despite brief moments of doubt, mainstream approaches generally insisted on the analytical pre-eminence of text and textual construction/deconstruction. Once we admit that literary figures are not persons, Weinsheimer explains in a discussion of the Jane Austen’s Emma, “they are absorbed into text. […] In semiotic criticism, characters dissolve and only text remains” (208). Consequently, in his opinion, “Emma Woodhouse is not a woman nor need be described as if it were” (187; see also Toolan 81).

9While poststructuralist approaches challenged and/or revised many tenets of structuralist thinking (for an introduction, see Belsey, and Barry (60-80)), they by and large retained Weinsheimer’s scholarly attitude, maintaining that “in serious literary study one must properly shift focus from mimetic to formalist or thematic concerns” (Knapp 349). Poststructuralism however also went one step further. No longer only viewing literary characters as abstract verbal constructions, poststructuralist thinkers also began to attack traditional notions of human identity and subjectivity themselves. Instead of conceiving of the human subject as an independent, autonomous entity, it came to be seen as the product of discursive forces, as a “mere tissue of textualities” lacking any inherent essence (Barry 65). From this point of view, both literary characters and the human subject, in other words, were understood as the product of a “freeplay of the world and of signs without truth and without origin” (Leitch 104). Echoing this idea in an analysis of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, for example, J. H. Miller provocatively and programmatically claimed that the novel and its characters are “nothing but a collection of signs and interpretations of signs” (100; see also Knapp 349).

3. From Construct to Cognition

10Outside the realm of literary studies, both poststructuralist notions of the “‘dissolved’ or ‘constructed’ subject” (Barry 65) and the strict conceptual separation of figure and person generally met with little response. Despite the dominance of non-mimetic approaches within literary theory, most readers “unshakably continue[d] to apprehend most novel characters as individuals” (Toolan 92). Nevertheless, it took several decades before serious theoretical resistance to the antihumanist stance of structuralism and poststructuralism started to form within academia. Only in the 1980s did a small group of scholars in the field of narratology begin to argue that non-expert reading practices were not something to be shrugged off but to be taken seriously:

Plainly speaking, I suspect that the scholars who expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs feel, like Wallace Martin, that “our sense that fictional characters are uncannily similar to people is not something to be dismissed or ridiculed, but a crucial feature of narration that requires explanation” (Margolin, “Structuralist Approaches” 10; Martin 120).

  • 7 I use the term “reader response criticism” here as an umbrella term for reader-oriented approaches (...)
  • 8 See also, for example, Pollard-Gott’s paper on attribution theory and Grabes’ article “Turning Word (...)

11Uri Margolin’s seminal article can serve as another historical landmark in the theory of character connected to a larger theoretical development in literary studies. Inspired by the ideas of the historically short-lived but influential theory school of reader response criticism,7 scholars began to insist on the importance of the reader’s role in our understanding of literary figures. Mostly associated with the writings of Wolfgang Iser, Norman Holland, Stanley Fish, David Bleich, and Hans Robert Jauss, reader response criticism had not worked within a shared theoretical framework but produced different theoretical works loosely held together by a general interest in recipients and the act of reading. While those studies had not primarily focused on literary characters themselves, they helped Margolin and a few others to develop a more balanced approach that acknowledged both the constructed nature of characters and their “uncanny similarity to people”.8

  • 9 Margolin: “Characterisation in Narrative”; “Structuralist Approaches”; “The What, the When, and the (...)

12In a series of influential articles written in the 1980s and 1990s, Margolin combined elements from structuralism, reader-response theory, and the theory of fictional worlds.9 By mapping how “[c]haracters can be approached from different theoretical perspectives, each yielding a different conception and theory of character”, he programmatically foregrounded the conceptually multifaceted nature of fictional beings (Margolin, “Character” 66). This multipronged approach “proved to be a breakthrough” (Jannidis, “Character” 33) because it allowed scholars to engage with a variety of different aspects, including the artificial status of characters and their textual construction as well as their phenomenologically lifelike qualities and their cognitive (re)construction in the mind of the reader. Especially the latter aspect, i.e. the investigation of the mental mechanisms of character construction, proved to be of particular relevance as the further development of character theory became increasingly intertwined with the emergence of cognitive approaches in the humanities.

4. Mental Files and Fictional Minds

  • 10 The U.S. government initiated a ten-year multi-institutional funding initiative to promote neurosci (...)

13Although their beginnings can be dated to the 1950s and 1960s (Miller 141), the cognitive sciences only began to attract sustained public attention in the final decades of the twentieth century. With the declaration of the 1990s as the so-called “Decade of the Brain” by U.S. Congress,10 the study of human cognition and its biological foundations not only became a subject for public and journalistic discussion, but the ideas, questions, and concepts developed in this field began to influence academic debates in many previously unconnected disciplines. In the course of this development, a small but steadily increasing number of literary scholars became interested in the cognitive architecture underlying the reading of literature. As with reader-response criticism, whose focus on the reader and the act of reading had arguably contributed to preparing the ground for the emergence of cognitive literary criticism, literary scholars in this new field did not work within a single theoretical framework. In the words of Alan Richardson, they rather formed a loosely connected group of “literary critics and theorists vitally interested in cognitive science and neuroscience, and therefore with a good deal to say to one another” (1).

14Despite the lack of a hard and fast body of shared concepts and methodologies, this “first generation” of scholars mainly worked with scientific research built on a computational model of the mind. Drawing on fields such as social psychology, cognitive linguistics, and the study of text processing, they followed the dominant conceptual paradigm of this period by metaphorically conceiving of cognition analogously to the mode of operation of a computer. For the study of character this meant that readers were now thought to form a “mental character model”, a kind of “mental file”, for each character in a text during the reading process:

Reading for character is triggered or initiated by the reader identifying in the text a referring expression and opening a mental file bearing this name in which all further information about the corresponding individual will be continuously accumulated, structured, and up-dated as one reads on, until the final product or character profile is reached at the end of the reading act. (Margolin, “Character” 76)

  • 11 See, for example, Gerrig, Psychological Foundations; Hogan; and Emmott.
  • 12 Gerrig and Allbritton; Raap, Gerrig, and Prentice; Schneider “Towards a Cognitive Theory”; Gerrig, (...)

15Adopting such a computational understanding of cognition provided a new way of thinking about characters that reflected a different approach to literature and literary theory. Based on the premise that “[t]he literary mind is not a separate kind of mind. It is our mind” (Turner v), early cognitive approaches began to investigate the cognitive architecture underlying the reading process in order to unravel the building blocks of literary comprehension and the mental construction of storyworlds.11 In this context, characters were no longer seen as a primarily textual phenomena but as the product of complex, multi-level information processing in which mental data structures are created, successively enriched, and/or modified in the course of reading a narrative text. On the basis of this understanding, scholars such as Richard Gerrig and Ralf Schneider engaged in mapping the conscious and unconscious mental processes involved in character construction.12 Drawing on psychological theories about the way humans tend to categorize other people, for example, Ralf Schneider developed a comprehensive account of the formation of mental character models and the way texts cue readers to categorize, individualize, or personalize literary figures (see “Towards a Cognitive Theory”).

16By mapping the spectrum of basic aspects of the formation of mental character models, those “early” cognitive approaches managed to compile compelling evidence that “from the perspective of human perception, literary characters and real people are processed in terms of similar sense-making strategies”, all logical and ontological differences between both “groups” notwithstanding (Bortolussi and Dixon 141). Inspired by the success of these early works, cognitive approaches gradually began to attract increased attention within the scholarly community. At the same time, a noticeable shift occurred in the subject matter of the publications in this field during the mid-2000s. In the wake of Alan Palmer’s Fictional Minds (2004) cognitive criticism began to turn from a more general investigation of various aspects of character construction towards the more specific analysis of the mental (re)construction and processing of fictional minds. In a reversal of the Aristotelian idea of the primacy of action over character, Palmer believed (modern) literary storytelling to fundamentally revolve, both structurally and emotionally, around the inner, mental lives of characters: “One of the pleasures of reading novels”, he argued, “is the pleasure of being told what a variety of fictional people are thinking. […] This is a relief from the business of real life, much of which requires the ability to decode accurately the behaviour of others.” (10). Starting from this observation, he concludes that

Narrative fiction is, in essence, the presentation of fictional mental functioning. [...] If I am right, then it follows that the study of the novel is the study of fictional mental functioning and also that the task of theorists is to make explicit the various means by which this phenomenon is studied and analyzed. (5)

  • 13 Palmer was of course not the first to question the primacy of plot. His approach resonates in parti (...)

17Palmer’s programmatic statement reflected a general trend in cognitive literary scholarship towards the study of minds, both those of readers and characters.13 Yet, while his book provided an important impulse for the development of this trend, perhaps the most influential publication was Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction (2006). In this work, the American scholar Lisa Zunshine adapted the concept of “Theory of Mind” to literary studies. Developed in social and cognitive psychology, the concept (alternatively also labelled as “mindreading” or “mentalizing”) was developed in order to study the basic human ability of ascribing mental states (i.e. beliefs and emotions) to other people:

People attribute to self and others a host of mental states, ranging from beliefs and aspirations to headaches, disappointments, and fits of anger. Other creatures undoubtedly have pains, expectations, and emotions. But having a mental state and representing another individual as having such a state are entirely different matters. The latter activity, mentalizing or mindreading, is a second-order activity: It is mind thinking about minds. It is the activity of conceptualizing other creatures (and oneself) as loci of mental life. (Goldman 3)

18Mindreading thus denotes a common everyday practice. It occurs whenever we “ascribe to a person a certain mental state on the basis of her observable action” such as seeing somebody reach for a glass of water and assuming that this person is thirsty (Zunshine 6). By the mid-2000s cognitive scientists had identified this seemingly simple but cognitively complex practice as a key component of social cognition, i.e. as an indispensable cognitive ability underlying various forms of interpersonal human interaction. Among other things, mindreading had been studied as an important step in child development, and the lack of a properly functioning Theory of Mind had been proposed as the underlying cause of severe cognitive disorders such as the autism spectrum (Gopnik; Baron-Cohen).

19Drawing on this research within the scientific community, Zunshine significantly contributed to the general emergence of Theory of Mind as a “travelling concept” across a range of disciplines in the humanities (on the notion of travelling concepts, see Bal). She took the idea of mindreading as a foundational cognitive building block for navigating the social world and applied it to the reading of fiction: in other words, to our mental navigation of figural interactions in literary storyworlds. Without the cognitive ability to identify and trace the mental states (i.e. the beliefs and emotions) of fictional beings, she suggested, reading fiction would be both impossible and pointless: “Theory of Mind is a cluster of cognitive adaptations that allows us to navigate our social world and also structures this world. Intensely social species that we are, we thus read fiction because it engages, in a variety of particularly focussed ways, our Theory of Mind.” (Zunshine 162)

  • 14 According to Zunshine, reading fictional texts, e.g., detective novels, can therefore be compared t (...)

20For Zunshine, in other words, Theory of Mind was not only an indispensable component of “our ability to make sense of fiction” (13); it was also the essential reason why we read fiction. Working with concepts from evolutionary psychology, she postulated a “cognitive reward” (17) triggered by the stimulation of the cognitive mechanisms (including Theory of Mind) necessary for reading. This cognitive reward represented, in her opinion, an evolutionary adaptation that literally ‘rewards’ the training of cognitive mechanisms necessary for survival.14 Her approach thus conceived of fictional texts as the “grist for the mills of our mind-reading adaptations” (16). Literature, put differently, provided the conceptual input the brain’s cognitive mechanisms use for their own training—the incentive for this training being an evolutionarily reward mechanism which originally evolved to improve our abilities to deal with real people (16).

  • 15 I have written elsewhere about the problems of Zunshine’s evolutionary approach (cf. Hartner Perspe (...)
  • 16 Among the publications engaging in the explicit investigation of fictional and readerly minds in th (...)

21Zunshine’s evolutionary arguments were discussed controversially in the academic community.15 Nevertheless, her book undoubtedly exerted massive influence on the development of cognitive approaches to literature. Numerous scholars took up the key concept of mentalizing and/or adopted the more general scholarly focus on the investigation of fictional and readerly minds. The book also reached a significantly wider audience than earlier cognitive works on character due to its choice of topic, i.e. the exploration of why we read fiction. In fact, neither Zunshine’s nor Alan Palmer’s books presented themselves as explicit contributions to character theory. Instead, both of them pointedly engaged with fundamental questions of reading and storytelling, thereby serving as models for a string of publications asking essential character-related questions about literature while engaging only implicitly and indirectly with theoretical accounts of literary figures. A case in point is Blakey Vermeule’s Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? (2010). This work largely followed the trajectory set by Zunshine by conceiving of characters “as tools to think with” that help us to calibrate our “emotional compasses correctly” (245, 246). Investigating “some of the hooks that literary authors use to capture our interests by appealing to our mind-reading capacities” (246), Vermeule similarly drew on a wide range of concepts including evolutionary theory in order to engage with decidedly fundamental questions about the nature of fiction.16

22Apart from the foregrounding of this kind of essential question, a second reason for the popularity of works engaging with the “intersection of storytelling and the sciences of mind” (Herman Storytelling 103) lay in the way this intersection connected to much older lines of exploration in both literature and literary criticism. The success of the cognitive study of fictional minds especially in the field of narratology, in my opinion, was directly linked to the fact that “[t]he mind as such and perception in general,” as Fludernik and Olson put it, “have of course been stock features of all narrative enquiry since the days of Henry James” (8). From the beginning of modernism onwards, in other words, the mind had always been a matter of interest for literary scholars “on account of its subjectivity, emotional quality, and its perspectivism” (Flunderik and Olsen 8).

  • 17 A good example of the longstanding interest in fictional minds in literary scholarship is Cohn’s (1 (...)

23This tentative thematic connection arguably helped cognitive literary studies to gain unprecedented popularity.17 Yet, this development also had a mixed effect on the study of character. On the one hand, it foregrounded the relevance of fictional minds; on the other hand, it also facilitated the emergence of a new paradigm that would take the field in an entirely different direction.

5. 4E Cognition and the Return of the Body

  • 18 See also Hartner, “Constructing Literary Character” for an adaptation of blending theory (Fauconnie (...)

24By the early 2010s cognitive approaches had developed from a marginal academic sideshow into an established branch of literary studies. Still lacking a clearly defined common theoretical framework, this development came with a further increased proliferation of interdisciplinary concepts, models, and approaches. For the study of character this meant that scholars not only continued with the explicit investigations of fictional minds. In addition, they continued exploring fictional beings by drawing on various theoretical concepts frequently harking back to earlier work on literary characters. Herman, for example, combined a wide set of psychological theories with more recent work on embodiment and intersubjectivity in order to investigate the reciprocal relationship between our understanding of persons and characters, which he defined as “textually grounded models of individuals-in-a-world […], or what I term model persons” (Storyworlds 193). Strasen and Vaeßen attempted to update reader-response theory by discussing models of culturally shared knowledge; and Eder presented a heuristic model, the “clock of character” (16), which differentiates between different ontological and methodological levels of figural analysis in film (characters as fictional beings, artefacts, symbols, and symptoms).18

25While the study of character in those works was still largely grounded in the general conceptual frameworks introduced by Margolin and Palmer, the 2010s also saw the emergence of a new school of theories calling for a fundamental reorientation in the field of cognitive approaches. In 2014, Karin Kukkonen and Marco Caracciolo (“Introduction”) became the spokespersons for a general dissatisfaction with cognitive models in literary theory based on conceptual and/or computational understandings of the mind. As far back as the 1980s Lakoff and Johnson had shown the limitations of conceiving of cognition in terms of information processing, by demonstrating the constitutive role of the body in complex mental operations such as metaphorical thinking. Their work reflected a growing acknowledgement in the cognitive sciences suggesting that our bodies are not disconnected from our minds but effectively contribute to shaping the way we think. Building on this basic assumption, the following decades saw researchers beginning to address the entangled nature of mind, body, and environment in what has been called the “second cognitive revolution” (cf. Herman “Narrative Theory”).

  • 19 On 4E Cognition, see Rowland; and the contributions in Newen, de Bruin, and Gallagher.

26Inspired by this development in the sciences, Kukkonen and Caracciolo called for a similar reorientation in cognitive literary studies. Under the label of a “second generation”, they proposed a new research paradigm moving away from traditional work building on models of information processing and mental representation. This new paradigm, also known as 4E Cognition, is based on the view that studies relying on concepts such as Theory of Mind or Blending overemphasise the conceptual dimension of reading and fail to consider that there can be no strict separation between brain and body, between cognition and emotion, and between the body and the objects the body is handling. Instead, cognition is seen as “variously embodied, embedded, enacted, or extended by way of extra-cranial processes and structures” (Carney 77).19 In other words, cognition is not (only?) computational, and it does not happen exclusively in our heads; it rather involves our corporal materiality, which in turn is always entangled with its environment—all of which comes with fundamental consequences for the study of literature and narrative. Accordingly, Caracciolo and Kukkonen claimed that

the embodied mind informs narrative on a fundamental level, dovetailing with all the main concerns of narrative theory, from the author-reader relationship to questions of narration and focalization, as well as the dynamics of time, space, and plot in storytelling. The embodiment of human cognition has enormous ramifications on the forms of narrative and their reception […]. (With Bodies 9)

27Once we accept the embodied and entangled nature of the mind in general, Caracciolo and Kukkonen suggest, we also need to acknowledge that “our engagement with narrative representation is channelled through imaginative and affective dynamics that are embodied through and through” (10). Embodiment (and to a lesser extent embedded, enacted, and extended cognition) thus turns into a new pre-eminent analytical and theoretical paradigm that replaces the field’s earlier fascination with fictional minds.

28Unsurprisingly, not everybody agrees with (all) the far-reaching claims made by proponents of 4E cognition (see Carney; Schneider “Embodiment”). Nevertheless, the impact of this new fascination with the body obviously has important ramifications for the study of fictional characters as it potentially opens up entirely new areas of investigation. Building on the science of mirror neurons and other neurological brain-body networks, for example, Wojciehowski and Gallese propose a theory of embodied simulation. They take as their starting point the neurological premise that reading hinges on the mental capability of embodied simulation which they define as “the recall of the implicit bodily knowledge we acquire during our life experiences.” (63) This knowledge is accumulated in many different moments over the course of our lives:

We recruit this knowledge in several different situations, such as when mapping events within our peripersonal space, when confronting manipulable objects, when witnessing others’ actions, emotions and sensory experiences, as well as when remembering past experiences, planning future actions, and when engaging in fictional experiences. (63)

29Since, from a neurological perspective, the entirety of our experiences is mediated by our body in one way or another, Wojciehowski and Gallese conceive of our engagement with literary characters as “cognitively—and bodily—premediated […] by our life engagement which provides the basic framing to navigate the world of fiction” (63). In other words, our accumulated embodied experiences of the material and social world, including other bodies and our own body, provide the conceptual and emotional framework for mentally projecting and emotionally responding to literary figures. “At the same time, however, fiction premediates life experience, as our engagement with fictional characters provide[s] clues and perspectives that can affect how we cope with life’s challenges.” (63)

30While Wojciehowski and Gallese explicitly address conceptualisations of character, many works in the field repeat an already familiar pattern from first-generation cognitive approaches. They engage with topics directly or indirectly relevant for the theoretical conceptualisation of characters without framing their studies as an explicit contribution to character theory. Thus, the recent book by Caracciolo and Kukkonen (With Bodies), for example, makes interesting observations about characters in the context of other theoretical questions. In the second chapter of their study, for instance, they discuss the way in which authors, narrators and characters can emerge as embodied fictional entities in the minds of readers by degree, thus presenting an approach that overcomes the clear-cut categorizations of different types of characters and narrators established by classical narratology.

31All in all, second-generation approaches have certainly exerted a considerable general influence on contemporary (cognitive) literary theory over the past decade. At present, however, the study of character from the perspective of 4E cognition still appears to be in its infancy. No study or monograph presenting a comprehensive theoretical account of fictional characters from the point of view of this new paradigm has been published, nor has the call for a systematic (re)integration of first-generation approaches into this field of research been satisfactorily answered. “Not everything the first generation of cognitive approaches suggested about text understanding and the role of knowledge was utterly wrong, after all, in spite of an undue dissociation of mind and body […].” (Schneider, “Embodiment” 6). Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that 4E approaches will continue to shape both the fields of cognitive criticism and character theory for some time. And again, the success of this paradigm of research appears to be at least partially due to its general connection to a much older tradition of research in literary studies, especially in the branches of cultural studies and gender studies. After all, the emphatic focus on embodiment in second-generation approaches clearly resonates with decades of scholarship concerned with the “construction and manipulation of the meanings that surround the human body” which includes, for instance, works on power structures (Foucault) and the bodily performance of gender (Butler; Kukkonen and Caracciolo “Introduction” 267).

6. Conclusion

  • 20 Numerous scholarly works and important fields of investigation had to be omitted in this short hist (...)

32This article has been written in view of the recent general “reassessment of character in literary studies” (Anderson, Felski, and Moy 1) addressed by this special issue on “The Persistence of Character”. In this context, it has attempted to sketch a brief (and therefore necessarily incomplete) history of approaches to fictional characters in literary studies from the emergence of structuralism to current explorations of fictional beings in the context of 4E cognition.20 My account has focused on the field of narratology, whose work has traditionally often remained under the radar of mainstream literary scholarship. In this way, I have tried to illustrate that antihumanist approaches to character, despite their continued reign in much of literary scholarship and teaching since the mid-twentieth century, have failed to do justice to the fascination literary figures such as Robinson Crusoe have exerted on readers over centuries. In this context, I have shown that cognitive approaches in the wake of reader response theory have been challenging (post)structuralist treatments of characters for more than three decades. They have been driven by the desire to form a better theoretical understanding of the way recipients can be captivated by the experiences of fictional beings and how they can envision such figures as Crusoe as lifelike human persons with complex emotions.

33By sketching the different stages in the development of character theory, I have aimed to make several interrelated points. First and foremost, my article hopes to provide a general historical and theoretical backdrop to the contributions in this special issue. In this context, my historical sketch furthermore illustrates that the highly visible contemporary interest in characterisation and the theoretical conceptualisation of fictional beings by such prominent scholars as Felski has not come out of nowhere. It has rather been prepared by a continued theoretical investigation of characters, mostly by scholars involved in the study of narrative whose works have arguably prepared the ground for current developments. Despite the ostensible dominance of (post)structuralist conceptions of characters as signs, symbols, and (plot) functions, the critical academic discussion of fictional beings has in fact never entirely come to a halt. The work of scholars interested in this topic may have attracted less popular attention than books published in other prominent fields of research such as postmodernism, gender studies, postcolonialism, or ecocriticism, to name just a few examples. Nevertheless, there has been a persistent scholarly interest in conceptualisation of fictional characters that has yielded a considerable body of publications over the years. In this context, I have also shown that the theoretical development in the treatment of characters has always been intertwined with overarching developments in literary theory in general—in recent years, particularly with the succession of different “generations” of approaches in cognitive literary studies. With regard to the latter field of research, I have also suggested that the general popularity of concepts and theories in this special branch of scholarship appear to be directly related to their ability to connect to more traditional concerns in the wider fields of literary and cultural research.

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1 Crusoe’s panicked reaction at the sight of the print of a naked foot in the sand is not merely a psychological effect of his prolonged isolation; it becomes clear in the novel that his terror is largely due to an unquestioned racist worldview that assumes by default that all native inhabitants in this region of the world are bloodthirsty “savages” trying to kill him. On racial ideology in Defoe’s novel, see for instance Wheeler.

2 A resurgent interest in the (theoretical) investigation of fictional characters from different conceptual angles is visible in a variety of recent publications, including, for example, monographs by Felski, Battista, Varotsi, and Garber.

3 For a historical investigation into the forms, functions, and theoretical conceptualisations of literary characters before the advent of structuralist theory, see Koch (13-152). For an excellent thematic survey of the research on characters in general, see the article by Heidbrink and the introduction to the volume Characters in Fictional Worlds, edited by Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider.

4 For a more detailed discussion of Knights’ essay, see Britton, and Chatman (134-138).

5 See Jannidis “Zu anthropologischen Aspekten” 156; Toolan 81. Despite the dominance of structuralist and poststructuralist conceptions of character since the mid-twentieth century, psychological readings of literary figures have never entirely vanished. This applies, in particular, to psychoanalytical criticism in the wake of Freud and Lacan. While psychoanalysis has never been a dominant approach in the field of character theory, it has continued to influence the theoretical work of individual scholars throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For examples, see Frow, Paris and Champion.

6 Propp’s The Morphology of the Folk Tale originally published in 1928 identified a sequence of thirty-one character functions and seven basic character types/roles: opponent; donor; helper; princess (and her father); dispatcher; hero (seeker or victim); false hero. For an introductory discussion of Propp and Greimas’s approaches, see Toolan (17-22; 82-86). On Aristotle’s theory of character and its relationship to formalist and structuralist approaches, see Chatman (108-113).

7 I use the term “reader response criticism” here as an umbrella term for reader-oriented approaches forming a counter-current to the academic theoretical mainstream in literary studies during the 1970s and 1980s, including “reception theory” and “reception aesthetics”. For introductions, see Freund; Tyson 169-207; and Holub.

8 See also, for example, Pollard-Gott’s paper on attribution theory and Grabes’ article “Turning Words on the Page into Real People“, originally published in German in 1978.

9 Margolin: “Characterisation in Narrative”; “Structuralist Approaches”; “The What, the When, and the How”; “Individuals in Narrative Worlds”; “Characters in Literary Narrative”.

10 The U.S. government initiated a ten-year multi-institutional funding initiative to promote neuroscience and, in this context, proclaimed the 1990s as the “Decade of the Brain” with the goal "to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research” (Bush).

11 See, for example, Gerrig, Psychological Foundations; Hogan; and Emmott.

12 Gerrig and Allbritton; Raap, Gerrig, and Prentice; Schneider “Towards a Cognitive Theory”; Gerrig, “A Moment-by-Moment Perspective”; Schneider, Grundriss einer Theorie. For an introduction to the study of character from an empirical perspective, see also Bortolussi and Dixon (133-165). On language and characterization from the perspective of cognitive stylistics, see Culpeper.

13 Palmer was of course not the first to question the primacy of plot. His approach resonates in particular with Fludernik’s influential theoretical work on “natural narratology” in which she defines narrative not along the traditional lines with reference to story and plot, but with reference to what she calls “human experientiality”. (311). For a critical discussion of the concept, see Caracciolo (“Experientiality”).

14 According to Zunshine, reading fictional texts, e.g., detective novels, can therefore be compared to “lifting weights at the gym” (123) because both activities represent different manifestations of the exercise and training of general abilities highly relevant for human evolution (i.e. musculature and social cognition).

15 I have written elsewhere about the problems of Zunshine’s evolutionary approach (cf. Hartner Perspektivische Interaktion 33-38). For a critical evaluation see also the review of her book by Boyd.

16 Among the publications engaging in the explicit investigation of fictional and readerly minds in the wake of Zunshine are the studies by Vermeule and Pagan, and the edited volumes by Leverage et al.; Bernaerts et al.; and Hatavara et al. For a diachronic perspective, see also the contributions in Herman, Emergence of Mind.

17 A good example of the longstanding interest in fictional minds in literary scholarship is Cohn’s (1978) classic study on the techniques of (re)presenting consciousness in narrative fiction.

18 See also Hartner, “Constructing Literary Character” for an adaptation of blending theory (Fauconnier and Turner) to the study of character and character interaction. For a metahermeneutic and phenomenological study of “strange” first-person narrators/characters, see also Caracciolo (Strange Narrators); and for a comprehensive overview of research on characters up to 2010, see the contributions in Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider.

19 On 4E Cognition, see Rowland; and the contributions in Newen, de Bruin, and Gallagher.

20 Numerous scholarly works and important fields of investigation had to be omitted in this short history. This includes, for example, areas of research such as the long-standing philosophical inquiry into (the ontology of) characters (cf. Reicher), the investigation of character from the point of view of creative writing (cf. Varotsi), or the important discussion of media specific aspects of characters and characterisation (cf. Kunz and Wilde; see also the contributions in Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider [Part II: p. 157-356]).

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Bielefeld University
Marcus Hartner is Senior Lecturer in English literature at Bielefeld University, Germany. His main areas of expertise are (cognitive) narratology, the study of character, and early modern English travel literature. He is currently finalising a book manuscript on early modern English captivity narratives. Among his recent publications are a co-edited volume (with Nadine Böhm-Schnitker) on Comparative Practices: Literature, Language, and Culture in Britain’s Long Eighteenth Century (transcript 2022). Other current projects include a co-edited volume (with Susanne Gruß) on Practices and Narratives of Piracy: Connecting the Early Modern Seas (Amsterdam University Press) and the Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (de Gruyter, also co-edited with Nadine Böhm-Schnitker).
Marcus Hartner est Maître de conférences en littérature anglaise à l’Université de Bielefeld, Allemagne. Ses principaux domaines d'expertise sont la narratologie (cognitive), l’étude des personnages et la littérature de voyage anglaise du début de l’époque moderne. Il finalise actuellement le manuscrit d’un livre sur les premiers récits de captivité anglais du début de l’époque moderne. Parmi ses publications récentes figure un volume co-édité (avec Nadine Böhm-Schnitker) sur Comparative Practices: Literature, Language, and Culture in Britain’s Long Eighteenth Century (transcript 2022). D’autres projets en cours incluent un volume co-édité (avec Susanne Gruß) sur Practices and Narratives of Piracy: Connecting the Early Modern Seas (Amsterdam University Press) et le Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (de Gruyter, également co-édité avec Nadine Böhm-Schnitker).

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