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Beyond Other Minds: Fictional Characters, Mental Simulation, and “Unnatural” Experiences

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 29-53 | 10.1353/jnt.2014.0005



My essay joins the contemporary cognitive-narratological debate on whether readers bring to bear on fictional characters the folk psychology that they apply to real people. While arguing for a continuity in readers’ engagement with real and fictional minds, I point out that some literary techniques harness our imaginative, empathic skills to a greater degree than is likely in real life. Specifically, internally focalized texts encourage readers to simulate characters’ experiences in a first-person way, going beyond our usual second- or third-person stance towards other minds. This can create the illusion that we penetrate more deeply into the mental life of characters than we could ever penetrate into that of real people. In the second part of the essay, I use a short story by Julio Cortázar as case study for arguing that readers’ first-person involvement with characters can also explain the unsettling effect of texts evoking non-ordinary or impossible mental states and experiences. The thrust of this article is that the narratorial function of “authentication” (in Lubomír Doležel’s term) is crucial in creating an empathic bond between readers and characters: since in some situations the narrator’s statements about the mental states of a character cannot be falsified, they are taken to be direct reflections of the character’s experience, thereby inviting readers to adopt an empathic mode of engagement.

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