What do characters do?

I have a new piece out in the Journal of Computational Literary Studies that studies the behavior of fictional characters.

This paper uses machine learning to provide the first ever large-scale estimates of the distribution of actions of literary characters. Looking at over 15 Million unique character actions in both contemporary and historical fiction, I find that there is a striking investment in embodied behavior when it comes to fictional characters. Prior research has emphasized fiction’s capacity to promote ”social cognition” (i.e. Theory of Mind) on the part of readers, where the complex cognitive states of literary characters are thought to facilitate deeper reasoning about human motivations and behavior. The data and models used here add an important dimension to this theory by highlighting how the actions that have increasingly distinguished fictional characters from their non-fictional counterparts over time entail forms of embodiment rather than explicit invocations of cognitive or emotional behavior. The graph below should give a pretty clear picture of this differential emphasis.

The aim of the paper is to get us to think more deeply about the value and function of embodied for the representation of imaginary personhood. What good does this emphasis on sensorimotor experience do? As I write in my new book on the subject, literary characters seem to be training grounds not (just) for theory of mind, but for reasoning through our bodies.