Many writers say they can actually hear the voices of their characters – here’s why


John Foxwell, Durham University

Many famous writers claim it’s the characters who actually drive the plot, create the dialogue, and essentially “do their own thing” in the novels they write.

To investigate this phenomenon, we ran a survey at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014 and 2018, asking writers how they experienced their characters. Over 60% of the 181 participants said they heard their characters’ voices, and over 60% said their characters sometimes acted of their own accord. Some authors even said they could enter into dialogue with their characters and that their characters sometimes “talked back” and argued with them.

These writers were often fairly explicit that all of these experiences were imaginary. But writers also talked about being “surprised” by what their characters said and did – even sometimes laughing because of the jokes their characters told. This brings up questions around control and “agency”, since these writers did not always feel as if they were consciously deciding what happened in the narrative.

Who’s talking?

This experience is often explained by the suggestion that writers are somehow special or different, and that their imaginings are more “vivid” or “powerful”. But in our study, there was a much greater degree of variation than such theories account for. Indeed, there was a significant minority of writers who did not report the experience of their characters having agency.

But recent studies on “inner speech” may help to explain writers’ experiences of their characters in a different way. Inner speech is the inner monologue and or dialogue that most of us have when we think verbally. It can vary a great deal from person to person. For instance, some people are aware of hearing their inner speech most of the time, and some are barely conscious of it at all.

Some people, for example, experience their inner speech more as a monologue, while for others it is more of a dialogue. People can also be aware of having the voices of “other people” in their inner speech – for instance, hearing the voice of one of their parents giving them a piece of advice or criticism.

In much the same way, we might also imagine hearing the voices of other people when we do things like think about how an argument might have gone differently, or how someone we know is likely to respond to the news we’re about to give them.

It’s not unreasonable then to question the extent to which we’re aware of actually controlling these imaginary versions of real people. After all, the feeling that a friend or family member is more likely to say one thing than another isn’t usually something that’s consciously decided or laboriously worked out through reasoning. Usually it’s immediate and intuitive, at least when we know that person well. And this is different again from simply deciding to imagine them responding the way we want them to.

A matter of contrast

According to this line of thinking, most of us actually have independent and agentive “characters” and hear their voices – it’s just that these characters have the same identities as the people we know in the real world.

Indeed, some of the writers in our survey explicitly compared hearing their characters to the “other people” in their inner speech:

It’s like when you see a dress in a shop window and you hear your mum’s voice saying ‘it won’t wash [well]’ in your mind. It’s involuntary but not intrusive.

So perhaps it isn’t so much a question of how writers have these experiences of independent characters. Instead, it might be more a question of why the agency of fictional characters is so much more noticeable (and therefore more noteworthy). One possible explanation lies in the way this experience of characters’ agency relates to other experiences, both real and imaginary.

Young pensive woman sitting at desk.
We found the majority of writers hear voices of their characters and can enter into dialogue with them.

On the one hand, there is a contrast that emerges because of how the characters develop over time. First, there are the initial stages where the writer consciously determines what the characters do and say. Yet after a certain point, the writer’s greater familiarity with the characters provides the same kind of immediate and intuitive sense of what they would do or say that often applies to our imaginings of real people.

On the other hand, there is a contrast which usually pertains to our imaginings of real people: the contrast between our imaginings of what they will do and what they actually do in the world. But of course, fictional characters do not have a counterpart out there that has conspicuously more independence and agency. In other words, those qualities aren’t being constantly “overshadowed” by the real-life versions.

These theories may go some way towards explaining some of the broader aspects of what’s going on. Yet the more researchers delve into thought and imagination, the more difficult it is to say exactly how much control over our thoughts and actions any of us actually have – and to what extent the control we feel we have is an illusion.The Conversation

John Foxwell, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of English, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Charles Dickens: using data analysis to shed new light on old characters

Illustration from Our Mutual Friend by Marcus Stone. Wood engraving by Dalziel.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham

Michaela Mahlberg, University of Birmingham and Viola Wiegand, University of Birmingham

Dickens created some of the best-known characters in fiction. The likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are still well-remembered, 150 years after his death – and are regularly updated through new stage and screen adaptions. One of the reasons why his characters have become part of popular culture is Dickens’s ability to exaggerate and caricature but at the same time also deeply understand human character.

Behaviours that he describes in his novels still resonate today, as in a recent comment by a political editor who describes a lack of decisive action on coronavirus as a “Micawberish conviction in government that something would turn up”, in reference to Dickens’s memorable comic hero and unshakeable optimist in David Copperfield.

Read more:
David Copperfield on screen: Charles Dickens’ masterpiece is a celebration of everyday heroes

The striking and individualising features of his characters have received much critical and popular attention. Yet, crucial to Dickens’s authorial techniques – and hence the public’s love of his characters – is also the description of conventional ways of behaving. Common features make fictional people more like normal people. As with anything in life, we don’t quite notice what’s “normal” until it isn’t any more.

This is where digital methods come in. Treating Dickens’s novels as a dataset makes it possible to identify patterns based on formal repetitions and frequencies – the type of information we are not consciously aware of when we a read a novel.

A common stance

Analysing Dickens’s novels as one single dataset (or “corpus”) shows us that, as in normal life, a type of common behaviour is that people often have or put their hands in their pockets, as Fledgeby in Our Mutual Friend.

‘But why’, said Fledgeby, putting his hands in his pockets and counterfeiting deep meditation, ‘why Riah should have started up, when I told him that the Lammles entreated him to hold over a Bill of Sale has has on all their effects.’

When we read a novel, such a description can easily go unnoticed. Why would we pay particular attention to what people do with their hands – unless it is clearly meaningful.

It’s the same in real life – we would not normally pick up on body language, unless it strikes us as unusual and unfamiliar. But looking at several novels at the same time makes patterns of repeated and commonly occurring behaviours more clearly visible.

This can be achieved with the help of a “concordance” tool that displays all occurrences of a word or phrase with a specified amount of context to the left and right. Below is a sample from a concordance for the phrase “his hands in his pockets” in Dickens’s novels, retrieved with the free web application CLiC.

Sample of ‘his hands in his pockets’ in different contexts across Dickens’s novels.
[CLiC](, Author provided

Importantly, it is not only Dickens who depicts such everyday behaviour. We find examples in other 19th-century fiction, too:

Mr. Earnshaw vouchsafed no answer. He walked up and down, with his hands in his pockets, apparently quite forgetting my presence; and his abstraction was evidently so deep, and his whole aspect so misanthropical.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

He sauntered on, with his hands in his pockets, humming the chorus of a comic song.
Wilkie Collins, Armadale

While such phrases often appear circumstantial rather than central to plot or character, they fulfil important functions in drawing the reader into the text. The description of conventional behaviour makes fictional people more like real people, subtly creating a link between what the reader knows about how people “normally” behave or how fictional people are generally depicted across novels.

What, however, is the norm that we measure fictional characters against? Behaviours and body language change over time. So it is little surprise that in the 19th century it was mainly men who were described with their hands in their pockets.

Depicting power

Exploiting conventions and subtleties also enabled Dickens to draw attention to exceptional behaviours. Another common pattern of body language that occurs across 19th-century fiction is men standing with their back to the fire, a pose connected to power and confidence of the man of the house.

In Dickens, we also find a woman, Mrs Pipchin (in Dombey and Son), who is depicted in a situation where she stands with her back to the fire. This is no coincidence. As a widow, Mrs Pipchin looks after herself, and the way in which she runs her boarding house for children does not show her to be a character who displays stereotypical, female qualities.

… and Mrs Pipchin, with her back to the fire, stood, reviewing the new-comers, like an old soldier.
Dombey and Son

The interplay of norms and deviations from norms also becomes apparent in the wide range of body language references that Dickens uses. References to eyes are generally common in fiction, as can be shown with frequency data retrieved by tools like CLiC. Typical patterns we find in Dickens (and elsewhere) concern the direction and duration of gaze.

‘And what’, said Mr Pecksniff, turning his eyes on Tom Pinch, even more placidly and gently than before, ‘what have YOU been doing, Thomas, humph?’
Martin Chuzzlewit

Body parts that are less frequent are teeth. So using teeth in a similar way to eyes makes these body parts a more strikingly characterising feature.

‘May I be allowed, Madam,’ said Carker, turning his white teeth on Mrs Skewton like a light – ‘a lady of your excellent sense and quick feeling will give me credit.’
Dombey and Son

With Dickens’s ability to both create individualised, memorable characters as well as subtly connect to our experience of encountering people more generally, his novels still speak to readers today.

The contexts in which modern readers interact with the texts have changed, and in today’s digital world we can draw on new tools to view and understand the people Dickens has given us. After 150 years, we not only remember Dickens’s fictional characters, but we can still find out more about them.The Conversation

Michaela Mahlberg, Professor of Corpus Linguistics, University of Birmingham and Viola Wiegand, Research Fellow, Department of English Language and Linguistics, University of Birmingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Missing your friends? Rereading Harry Potter might be the next best thing

Unsplash, CC BY

Elaine Reese, University of Otago

Humans are innately social creatures. But as we stay home to limit the spread of COVID-19, video calls only go so far to satisfy our need for connection.

The good news is the relationships we have with fictional characters from books, TV shows, movies, and video games – called parasocial relationships – serve many of the same functions as our friendships with real people, without the infection risks.

Read more:
Say what? How to improve virtual catch-ups, book groups and wine nights

Time spent in fictional worlds

Some of us already spend vast swathes of time with our heads in fictional worlds.

Psychologist and novelist Jennifer Lynn Barnes estimated that across the globe, people have collectively spent 235,000 years engaging with Harry Potter books and movies alone. And that was a conservative estimate, based on a reading speed of three hours per book and no rereading of books or rewatching of movies.

This human predilection for becoming attached to fictional characters is lifelong, or at least from the time toddlers begin to engage in pretend play. About half of all children create an imaginary friend (think comic strip Calvin’s tiger pal Hobbes).

Preschool children often form attachments to media characters and believe these parasocial friendships are reciprocal — asserting that the character (even an animated one) can hear what they say and know what they feel.

Younger children form easy relationships with fictional heroes.
Photo by Josh Applegate/Unsplash, CC BY

Older children and adults, of course, know that book and TV characters do not actually exist. But our knowledge of that reality doesn’t stop us from feeling these relationships are real, or that they could be reciprocal.

When we finish a beloved book or television series and continue to think about what the characters will do next, or what they could have done differently, we are having a parasocial interaction. Often, we entertain these thoughts and feelings to cope with the sadness — even grief — that we feel at the end of a book or series.

The still lively Game of Thrones discussion threads or social media reaction to the death of Patrick on Offspring a few years back show many people experience this.

Some people sustain these relationships by writing new adventures in the form of fan fiction for their favourite characters after a popular series has ended. Not surprisingly, Harry Potter is one of the most popular fanfic topics. And steamy blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey began as fan fiction for the Twilight series.

As good as the real thing?

So, imaginary friendships are common even among adults. But are they good for us? Or are they a sign we’re losing our grip on reality?

The evidence so far shows these imaginary friendships are a sign of well-being, not dysfunction, and that they can be good for us in many of the same ways that real friendships are good for us. Young children with imaginary friends show more creativity in their storytelling, and higher levels of empathy compared to children without imaginary friends. Older children who create whole imaginary worlds (called paracosms) are more creative in dealing with social situations, and may be better problem-solvers when faced with a stressful event.

As adults, we can turn to parasocial relationships with fictional characters to feel less lonely and boost our mood when we’re feeling low.

As a bonus, reading fiction, watching high-quality television shows, and playing pro-social video games have all been shown to boost empathy and may decrease prejudice.

Collectively, humans have spent more than an estimated 200,000 years in the world of Harry Potter. And that’s not counting rereading or rewatching.

Get by with a little help

We need our fictional friends more than ever right now as we endure weeks in isolation. When we do venture outside for a walk or to go the supermarket and someone avoids us, it feels like social rejection, even though we know physical distancing is recommended. Engaging with familiar TV or book characters is one way to rejuvenate our sense of connection.

Plus, parasocial relationships are enjoyable and, as American literature professor Patricia Meyer Spacks noted in On Rereading, revisiting fictional friends might tell us more about ourselves than the book.

So cuddle up on the couch in your comfiest clothes and devote some time to your fictional friendships. Reread an old favourite – even one from your childhood. Revisiting a familiar fictional world creates a sense of nostalgia, which is another way to feel less lonely and bored.

Read more:
Couch culture – six months’ worth of expert picks for what to watch, read and listen to in isolation

Take turns reading the Harry Potter series aloud with your family or housemates, or watch a TV series together and bond over which characters you love the most. (I recommend Gilmore Girls for all mothers marooned with teenage daughters.)

Fostering fictional friendships together can strengthen real-life relationships. So as we stay home and save lives, we can be cementing the familial and parasocial relationships that will shape us – and our children – for life.The Conversation

Elaine Reese, Professor of Psychology, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With a limited on-screen presence, autistic characters have emerged in another medium: fan fiction

Jonathan Alexander, University of California, Irvine and Rebecca Black, University of California, Irvine

In one Harry Potter fan fiction story, Hermione Granger anxiously awaits the results from a recent test.

It isn’t her performance on an exam in a potions course that she’s concerned about. Instead, the higher-ups at Hogwarts had ordered she undergo some psychological tests. They had noticed how quickly she talked, along with her nervous tics.

Hermione eventually sees the results: “I stared at my parents, blinking my eyes. I knew the results would be here today, but I didn’t think the outcome would be like this. Asperger, the paper said.”

In this piece of fan fiction, Hermione Granger has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

As scholars of fan fiction and young adult literature, we started noticing how some fan fiction authors were incorporating autism into their stories – sometimes through new characters and other times by rewriting existing ones.

Since then we’ve been collecting and analyzing fan fictions in which young writers have created characters with autism.

These amateur writers seem to be eager to create the kinds of characters they aren’t regularly seeing in the media. The Harry Potter universe, in particular, has emerged as a popular setting.

The importance of autistic characters

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with autism, a word that covers a spectrum of conditions that psychologists refer to as autism spectrum disorder.

How autism manifests can vary greatly from person to person. Some experience significant disability, while others experience milder forms of cognitive difference and social discomfort.

But one thing is clear: Diagnoses have increased in the past 20 years, with the National Autism Association identifying autism as the “fastest growing development disorder.”

At the same time – outside of a couple of notable examples, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” and Julia from “Sesame Street” – there continues to be a dearth of autistic characters in books, television shows and films.

Yet these media portrayals are extremely important: Accurate portrayals of autism can help people understand the complexities of this condition. Nonexistent depictions – not to mention misleading ones – foster misinformation and bias.

In 2015, Sonya Freeman Loftis, an assistant professor of English at Morehouse College, published “Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum,” one of the few academic studies to take up the representation of autism in fiction.

Loftis critiques stereotypical depictions of autism in a range of fictional narratives, such as the character of Lennie in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” a figure whose disability is linked to sexual violence.

But she also points out that positive representations of autism spectrum disorder can actually highlight some of the strengths that those with autism possess: attention to detail, high levels of concentration, forthrightness, dedication and strong memory skills.

Activists and scholars like Loftis have argued that people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder should be more justly and accurately understood as “neurodiverse”: If neurological faculties exist on a continuum, theirs could simply be thought of as “different” from the statistical norm.

Young writers take the lead

If major studios and publishing companies express little interest in telling stories about people with autism, who can fill the void?

Fan fictions and other forms of do-it-yourself media-making are an outlet for people to explore issues that are often missing from mass market and popular entertainment.

Some of the most famous examples from fan fiction take place in the Star Trek universe, particularly those that imagine a gay relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. In doing so, fans were able to integrate queer plots and themes into Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction universe at a time when few gay relationships were appearing on TV.

Given the paucity of mass media representation of autism, we wondered if young people might be using fan fiction to explore this complex topic.

Beginning in 2016 – and working with University of California, Irvine graduate student Vicky Chen – we started analyzing the writings that have appeared on a hugely popular fan fiction clearinghouse.

After selecting for categories such as “neurodiverse” and “differabilities,” we noticed that a number of stories set in the Harry Potter universe seemed to have autistic or neurodiverse characters. We collected and coded these stories, and are set to publish our findings in a forthcoming essay in the Journal of Literacy Research.

Most of the stories were written by young people who have siblings, relatives or friends with autism spectrum disorder. We concluded that, while some of these characters occasionally slip into stereotypes, most of them affirm the ability of people with autism spectrum disorder to confront bigotry and speak about their own conditions.

By extension, the stories promote an understanding of autism as something that isn’t scary or horrific.

In one story, for instance, the writer creates a new character, Albus Potter, the son of Harry Potter, who is autistic and newly enrolled in Hogwarts. In the story, Albus initially has difficulty forming relationships. But he ultimately finds friends in houses as diverse as Gryffindor and Slytherin.

His overprotective mother tries to shield him from ridicule by students and even some biased faculty. But she’s challenged by others, including her husband, who suggests that “Albus can do a great many things that people have said he couldn’t.”

The ‘magic’ of autism

Why the Harry Potter universe?

We reasoned that many of these young writers are still in school and likely huge fans of Harry Potter, so the choice of Hogwarts as a common setting isn’t surprising.

But many of the young authors also linked autism to a kind of “magic” or ability that could be understood at Hogwarts as special – even advantageous – in ways that “muggles,” or normal people, wouldn’t see. In all of the stories we analyzed, everyone with autism also has magical abilities.

In other cases, autism isn’t depicted as an impairment or a challenge to overcome. Instead, it simply appears as a “difference” – a portrayal that’s aligned with the goals of those who argue that autism should be thought of as a form of neurodiversity, not as an illness or disability.

Perhaps most significantly, this research points to the ways in which young people can craft complex representations of autism that the media shies away from.

We can’t say when positive representations of autism will move from fandom to the mainstream.

But until then, these young writers are quietly doing the work to help dispel stereotypes and generate understanding – perhaps even appreciation.The Conversation

Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English and Gender & Sexuality Studies, University of California, Irvine and Rebecca Black, Associate Professor of Education, University of California, Irvine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why there need to be more autistic characters in children’s books

File 20180123 33538 1la00lk.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Autistic characters in children’s books are few and far between.

Shalini Vohra, Sheffield Hallam University

The children’s writer Michael Morpurgo has written a new novel inspired by his autistic grandson, which is set to be published later this year. Flamingo Boy is set in the Camargue in the south of France during World War II and features a boy who “sees the world differently”.

Morpurgo explained how it didn’t occur to him to write a book about autism until his grandson was born, which isn’t totally surprising – as autistic characters in books are few and far between.

Fiction plays a significant role in shaping how people understand and respond to autism. And in this way, books are often used by both schools and parents to help children and young people understand more about autism.

But the limited and skewed portrayal of autism means it is often
misrepresented rather than represented in fiction. For an autistic child or young person this can be extremely isolating and they are often unable to find a version of “themselves” in a book.

There aren’t many autistic characters in children’s books.

The sad reality is many authors and publishers – perhaps from fear of causing offence – appear to steer clear of autistic characters in their narrative. As a consequence, books with autistic characters are either tucked away in the special section of bookshops and libraries, or absent altogether.

Writing together

My research looks at the role fiction plays in creating awareness and acceptance of autism among children, as well as how the portrayal of autism in children’s books shapes how autism is understood and responded to. As part of the research, I recently put on an interactive discussion at the Festival of Social Science around the topic of how autism is portrayed in children’s fiction.

The panel included Vicky Martin, writer of M is for autism and M in the middle, and Amanda Lillywhite, writer and illustrator of picture books including Friends, written for the Neuro Foundation which works to improve the lives of those affected by neurofibromatosis – a genetic condition caused by a mutation in one of their genes. On the panel was also Elaine Bousfield, founder of new publishing house Zuntold. And the audience consisted of autistic children, young people and adults. As well as parents of autistic children, secondary school teachers, academics and the general public.

One of the key topics discussed at the event was around the idea of “co-production”. This is where books are written in collaboration with autistic children and young people – much like the M in the Middle series, which was authored by Martin, but written jointly with girls of Limpsfield Grange, a school for autistic girls.

Making magic happen

The story of M has captured the hearts of readers and already resulted in a sequel to the first book. The girls of Limpsefield Grange have also featured in an ITV documentary Girls with autism. Why? Because M is the story of an autistic teenage girl who is interesting, endearing and real.

She’s written and created with a group of teenage autistic girls. Big chunks of the book is written verbatim, with their very words, and the rest is heavily edited by them. It doesn’t get more real than that. M is the one girl they all created together.

With younger children, drawing or comic workshops might be a more accessible way of getting them to think about characters.

Similarly, as a part of her book for the Neuro Foundation, Lillywhite spent time with children with neurofibromatosis. They spoke about themselves and their experiences of things that matter not just to them but also to many other children, such as bullying. And while all the characters in the book have the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis, the stories aren’t about that and are just as relevant for every child.

Getting heard

Autism is extremely diverse and perhaps the only way to have a good representation of it in fiction is by having lots of autistic characters – in comics, in picture books and in novels.

Publishers too have an important role to play in garnering collaborations and bringing work co-produced with autistic children and young people to market – much as in the M books. Publishing house Zuntold, for example, has an interactive novel writing project which encourages people to write the next piece.

Ultimately, every story – whether in life or fiction – has characters, and all characters are different. So given that autism affects more than one in 100 people, there needs to be more done to represent the outside world inside story books.

The ConversationMillions of people have a relative on the autism spectrum. And it is only by making autistic characters a part of mainstream books that we can hope for widespread understanding and acceptance of autism.

Shalini Vohra, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, Sheffield Hallam University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Infographic: The Stephen King Universe Flow Chart

The link below is to an infographic on characters in Stephen king books and how they relate to one another.

For more visit:

Book Review: Currently Reading – Print is Dead, by Jeff Gomez

I have been reading ‘Print is Dead – Books in our Digital Age,’ by Jeff Gomez and have now reached ‘Writers in a Digital Future.’ Here Gomez explores the possibilities for authors, possibilities that weren’t available in the past. Some attempts at interactive narrative have appeared prior to the digital world, but the opportunities for experimentation are now seemingly endless. As I have mentioned before, the possibilities now exist for the inclusion of various media, such as pictures, music, video, etc. Hyperlinks to other features can now be included in ebooks, allowing in-depth studies of characters for novel writers/readers, treatments of historical events at length and so on. There is just so much room for experimentation in the digital world for authors of all genres, even in ways perhaps not yet imagined.

There is however more opportunity for the digital author, for he/she is now able to interact with the reader via means other than the actual ebook being read. The opportunity exists for collaborative websites, forum and chat room interaction, live video interviews and so many other avenues to interact with fans and readers of his/her material. Of course social networks like Facebook and MySpace provide the means for setting up fan pages and the like also.

So the digital world offers many opportunites and the possibilities for a brave new world of literature are there waiting to be seized. Sooner, rather than later, the digital future will arrive in a big way and authors/publishers need to be ready to meet the online demand that will surely come.

See also: (Website of Jeff Gomez)
Podcast (Excerpts from the Book)
Google Books