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Goldsmiths - University of London

When readers talk about characters as if they were real, how do they talk about them?

Laffer, Alexander. 2019. When readers talk about characters as if they were real, how do they talk about them? Poetics, ISSN 0304-422X [Article] (Submitted)

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Abstract or Description

This article interrogates the often-repeated claim that readers talk about fictional characters as if they were real. To find evidence for this claim and to understand how it is performed, the discussions of five reading groups talking about a novel, The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, were analysed.

Building on reception research, reading group discourse was used as a situated and contextualised response to a text, allowing for an empirical examination of actual accounts of readers engaged in a naturally occurring reading event. The analysis follows a discourse dynamic approach (Cameron, 2010), which views interaction as a process within a dynamic system (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008), connected and influenced by socio-cultural and personal variables and subject to shifts and stabilisations in the flow of conversation.

The discussion of fictional characters as if they were real was framed as gossip, with readers engaged in the evaluation of character behaviour based on textual details and extensions of the text, alongside personal experience and mobilisations of social norms. The evaluation was facilitated through a selection of processes linked to empathy: automatic empathy, attribution, positioning, mediation and synechdochal interpretation. It was also found that readers used multiple perspectives to evaluate character behaviour and that the discussion of fictional characters afforded reflection on readers’ own perspectives and attitudes towards real social groups.

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


13 June 2019Submitted

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Date Deposited:

06 Nov 2019 15:38

Last Modified:

06 Nov 2019 15:38

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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