The construction of literary character: A view from cognitive psychology. By: Gerrig, Richard J.,
Allbritton, David W., Style, 00394238, Fall90, Vol. 24, Issue 3


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With these words, lan Fleming introduced one of fiction's most enduring characters:

James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had
had enough, and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and
the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes. (Casino Royale 9)

These three brief sentences provide a remarkably rich portrait of Bond. Some of this richness is
due no doubt to Fleming's skill as an author. What we will focus on, however, are the ways in
which the actual cognitive processes that readers bring to the experience of literature
contribute to the appreciation of literary character. our goal will be to demonstrate the way
that authors (perhaps unwittingly) avail themselves of inherent properties of our cognitive
structures to create some striking effects.

We will also attempt to set out what is special to the experience of literary characters. The
very act, for example, of creating new personages in our heads is preeminently unspecial. In a
variety of circumstances we are called upon to create mental representations for individuals
for whom we have no direct evidence. We expect to find equivalent cognitive processes
operating when we hear a story about a colleague's distant cousin, read a biography of a
historical figure, or encounter a new character in a novel. our program, thus, will be to locate
the specialness of literary characters not in the cognitive processes that act upon our
experience of literature, but within the works of literature themselves. Since cognitive
processes evolved in response to the informational constraints provided by nonliterary life, we
will illustrate what transpires when literary information interacts with these nonliterary
processes. our discussion will incorporate the view that readers actively participate in the
construction of literary worlds, and, thus, literary characters. Rather than being passive
recipients of information, readers venture beyond the text to explain and predict aspects of
the unfolding story.

Our final aim is to expand the repertoire of psychological theory that may be applied in the
process of textual analysis. Traditional applications of, for example, Freudian or Jungian
accounts of personality processes have been marred by nagging uncertainties both about what
aspects of those theories accurately reflect psychological universals and about what constitute
""proper" readings within the boundaries of the theories (Felman). By importing only easily
recognizable and adequately documented psychological processes, we hope to motivate a new
dialogue between the disciplines of psychology and literary criticism.
Our remarks will be centered around three issues. First, we consider how authors' theories of
causality with respect to character interact with the reader's everyday preconceptions. Next,
we describe how the reader's impressions of literary characters are formed with respect to
categories and individuals. Finally, we suggest with the example of immersion how the study of
literary worlds may enhance the study of cognitive psychology and vice versa. We illustrate the
effects in each section with examples culled from two of lan Fleming's novels about James
Bond: his first, Casino Royale, and his last, The Man with the Golden Gun. Although
acknowledging that Bond, as a character, is on the borderline of what some might call literary.
we think he nonetheless provides us with excellent examples (and enjoyable reading). In all his
generic splendor Bond unflinchingly bears the brunt of our cognitive psychological analysis.


In almost every work of literature, "something happens": and the cause of whatever takes
place is attributed to either human or nonhuman agents. By inventing antecedents and
consequences, authors display their personal theories of causality.[ 1] Some do so by explicit
comment: Tolstoy used War and Peace to illustrate that situational forces outweigh human
actors as the primary craftsmen of historical events. The causal theories of most authors,
however, are only implicit in their texts. Even so, literary characters are special in this domain
because authors have total control over causality. We can look to psychological evidence to
suggest how authors' implicit theories of causal attribution may interact with the attributional
predilections of their readers. As we will see, those predilections are well documented.

The causes of observed behavior may be either internal, found within the person performing
it, or external, constrained by the situation in which the behavior takes place. In general, both
kinds of determinants are involved in producing most people's actions. At times internal
factors, such as dispositions, are the primary causes of behavior; at other times people's
actions are for the most part constrained by features of the social situation. Accurate
perception of causality would require observers to sort carefully among these types of
circumstances. Instead, people are prey to what Lee Ross entitled the Fundamental Attribution
Error when performing causal analysis of behavior, observers evidence a strong tendency to
make dispositional rather than situational attributions.

Confirmation of the Fundamental Attribution Error has two components. First, researchers
must show that some situations can, in fact, overwhelm most dispositional variation in
bringing about behavior. Second, researchers must show that--even so--observers will locate
the causes of behavior within the individual.

If we were ever to doubt the power of situations to constrain behavior, we need only turn to
the experiments of Stanley Milgram in the 1960s on obedience to authority Milgram's subjects
were told that they were participating in a study of the effects of punishment on learning and
memory. Each subject was assigned the role of"teacher" and told to deliver electric shocks of
increasing voltages to the "learner" (who was actually a confederate of the experimenter)
whenever an incorrect response was given to a question. Armed only with a lab coat and a
clipboard, the experimenter's authority was sufficient to cause all forty subjects to continue
delivering shocks even when the victim was crying out in agony and begging them to stop.
Sixty-five percent of the subjects continued obediently all the way to the final, 450-volt shock.
Despite wide replication of this finding across great variation in the "dispositions" of the
subjects, the standard response among students upon learning of the experiment is that they
never would have gone "all the way." That is the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Ross termed the error "fundamental" because it survives even in highly transparent
circumstances. In an early demonstration of this phenomenon, Edward Jones and Victor Harris
found that subjects who heard a debater's pro-Castro arguments tended to attribute pro-
Castro attitudes to him, even when the subjects were told that the position had been assigned
by the debate coach. Individuals are also liable to make misattributions about their own
behavior. Ross, Lepper, and Hubbard gave participants in one experiment false feedback about
their performance on a task. one group of subjects was arbitrarily told they had done quite
well while a second was told they had done quite poorly. Somewhat later, the subjects were
given full information about the random nature of the feedback. They were nonetheless asked
to predict how they might perform on a similar task in the future. Despite the straightforward
undermining of the earlier feedback, subjects who had received positive feedback predicted
they would do substantially better in the future than those who had received negative

We have no reason to doubt that readers bring the same type of biased analysis encoded in
the Fundamental Attribution Error to the appraisal of literary characters. The ubiquity of this
bias, for example, may add considerably to an author's ability to create the illusion that even
the most formulaic outcomes are brought about--afresh--by the internal properties of
characters. In James Bond. we find an ideal instantiation of this force at work. As Meir
Sternberg puts it (building upon an analysis by Umberto Eco):

[T]he Bond stories are characterized by a formulaic patterning of events: starting from the
disclosure of the assignment in M's office; passing through the stages of exploratory action and
clash. which usually result in Bond's being captured by his adversary; and ending in miraculous
escape and counterattack. where the battered hero fights his way to victory and sexual
reward. Indeed, one can say of Fleming--what is true of most writers including popular writers,
only at a higher level of abstraction--that he produced a single story in about a dozen
variations. (145)

The puzzle is how the reader is drawn into each successive instantiation of the same basic plot:
why doesn't knowledge of the inevitability of the events within the genre undermine any
pretense of reality? our suggestion is that readers are so solidly predisposed to find the causes
of events in the characters rather than in the circumstances that reflection upon the `'formula"
plays no role in their immediate experience of the novel: when events can be explained
satisfactorily with recourse to dispositions, we have no reason to look elsewhere. Fleming,
fortunately, gives us ample information about James Bond's character, and recourse to
character can be used to get through even some of the most awkward moments in the corpus.
Sternberg (145) nominates a moment from The Man with the Golden Gun as particularly
awkward. Bond has quite a good opportunity early in the book to eliminate his target, a
ruthless killer named Scaramanga. With an eye to "external" causation, a critic can note that
this is simply much too early in the formulaic book for the villain to die. Within the novel,
however, the narrator explains:
A mixture of reasons prevented [Bond from killing Scaramanga just then]--the itch of curiosity
an inbuilt dislike of cold murder. the feeling that this was not the predestined moment;. the
likelihood that he would have to murder the chauffeur also--these, combined with the softness
of the night and the fact that the "Sound System" was now playing a good recording of one of
his favourites. "After You've Gone". and that cicadas were singing from the lignum vitae tree,
said "No". But at that moment. as the car coasted down Love Lane towards the bright mercury
of the sea. James Bond knew that he was not only disobeying orders, or at best dodging them,
he was also being a bloody fool. (90-91)

The Fundamental Attribution Error ensures that readers will treat this causal analysis with
minimal cynicism. It is possible that an author could overwhelm even such a well-ensconced
bias--we suspect that some have tried--but within normal limits, authors can count on
considerable assistance from their readers in rejuvenating old plots through new characters.

There is some recourse, nonetheless, for authors who wish to exercise theories of causality
that are at odds with readers' predilections.[ 2] Attributions of causality can be made
somewhat malleable through manipulations of the focus of attention. Michael Storms, for
example, videotaped an interaction between two people from the perspective of one of the
participants and also from the perspective of an observer. ordinarily, the observer tended to
make more dispositional attributions for the participant s actions than did the participant
himself. However, when the participant and observer were shown the videotapes filmed from
the other's perspective, the observer's attributions were now less dispositional than those of
the participant. Apparently, both subjects made internal attributions when their attention was
focused on the person (the observer's point of view) and external attributions when their
attention was focused on the situation (the participant's point of view). What authors can
control with very little effort is the way in which readers focus their attention on a particular
set of circumstances. Through choices of narrator and point of view, authors can potentially
bring readers' causal analyses into line with their own-and potentially make the case for the
potency of particular causal antecedents and consequences. Even so, authors must take care
that a reader's appreciation of carefully crafted interrelationships among characters and
circumstances is not undermined by the most ordinary of cognitive processes.


Consider, once again, our introduction to James Bond:

James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had
had enough, and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and
the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.

One sense in which this brief description is rich is that we feel as though we have learned
enough about Bond to make predictions about his future behavior: "He always knew ..., he
always acted ...." With even this brief description, readers can initiate a process that is surely
one of the most central activities of reading a novel: they can begin to use the accumulating
information to generate expectations about what is to come. If we discover Bond in a situation
that falls into the appropriate category, we can predict exactly how he should act (and note
discrepancies to our prediction).
Expectations generated by virtue of information obtained in literary worlds are special
instances of the more general processes through which we employ what we already know to
prepare our way for the future. We make intensive use of prior knowledge and generate
detailed expectations with scanty provocation. In Casino Royale (56-67) for example, Fleming
advances his plot by having Bond and a character named Vesper Lynd engage in conversation
over a lengthy meal. The various aspects of ordering and eating a meal in the elegant
restaurant are a framework around which Fleming structures the conversation. Fleming
apparently presupposes that the coherence of this scene will arise from readers' prior
experiences in restaurants. In fact, researchers have shown readers to be in possession of a
memory structure called a script which encodes information about the typical progress of a
restaurant meal (Bower. Black, and Turner; Schank and Abelson). once Fleming invokes this
script, he need only allude to it from time to time to suggest coherent activity apart from the
static conversation:

Bond beckoned to the sommelier.

The maitre d'hotel bowed.

She took a sip of vodka.

The caviar was heaped on to their plates. and they ate for

a time in silence.

The maitre d'hotel supervised the serving of the second


Fleming is able to indicate the passage of time by engaging the readers' recollections of the
progress of this sort of meal. The readers' active participation is, thus, essential to the success
of the scene.

When generating expectations about the behavior of people rather than events, we can make
use of either category-based or person-based representations (Brewer). The major distinction
is whether we conceptualize some individual as a member of some well-defined category--and
generate expectations based on the norms of that category--or if we take the individual to be a
unique instance--and generate expectations based on our history of observation of the
individual. We will illustrate how both types of representations could influence our experience,
in this case, of James Bond.

Experience in the real world provides readers with the categories they need to begin to
generate predictions with respect to literary characters. In real life, this process of
categorization, impression-formation, acts swiftly and is resistant to correction. When we
interact with other individuals, we follow the generally useful strategy of using our first
impression as a foothold for later encounters. If, in fact, all brief samples were equally
representative of individuals' behavior, this strategy would pose no difficulty. Trouble arises
when the first impression becomes a "self-fulfilling prophecy" and distorts interpretation of
subsequent behavior (Darley and Fazio). First impressions, for example, can help determine
which aspects of situations will draw perceivers' attention (McArthur). Consequently, when a
perceiver has generated expectations about an actor's intentions, memory will be better for
actions relevant to that intention (Zadny and Gehard). Differential attention and memory go a
long way toward explaining why different people develop mutually exclusive impressions of
the same individuals. We color objectively neutral information to fit our initial hypotheses.

Often, we are able to maintain these impressions despite interactions with the actual people
(who incorporate the truth about themselves). If we believe, for example, that some individual
is shy, we know how to confirm that expectation: We might, for example, ask someone to
enumerate situations in which he or she feels ill at ease and. thus, find evidence for
introversion--in any individual (Snyder and Swann). Having observed an individual's behavior in
one instance (or having received summary information about that individual), we are inclined
to structure future interactions so that they elicit the behavior we expect. The processing bias
toward assimilating new behavior to the impression formed through initial interactions makes
it important (for most purposes) that the first impression be an accurate one.

We can imagine, thus, that the reader's act of constructing a literary character is initially one of
trying to assimilate the character to some well-known category. For example, at quite a high
level of abstraction, the division of Bond's world into "good guys" and "bad guys" strongly
shapes our interpretations of events. In particular, we know much about the moral universes
in which these types of characters operate. Consider this pronouncement:

I intend to continue attacking the sensitive parts of your body until you answer my question. I
am without mercy, and there will be no relenting.... (Casino Royale 113-14)

When Fleming puts this into the mouth of his villain, Le Chiffre, we have no doubt that the
villain will do as he says. By contrast, we could never prepare ourselves for Bond to act in a
similarly bloodthirsty fashion--because good guys do not employ torture.[ 3] There would be
little tension occasioned by Le Chiffre's threat if we believed it to be empty; there would be
little sympathy brought about by Bond's predicament if we did not believe him to be a
fundamentally different type of individual. By fleshing out the scene with this sort of category-
based information, readers contribute solidly to their own experience of the novel.

We have suggested that one of the dangers of anchoring our processing in first impressions is
that it causes us to overlook the import of evidence that is inconsistent with that impression.
The facile division into good guys and bad guys provides more than adequate evidence of the
inherent danger. Bond (and the reader) discover at the very end of Casino Royale that Vesper
Lynd has been a double agent, working both for the Russians (in the M. W. D.) and the British.
This revelation enables Bond (and perhaps less so, the reader) to reinterpret large tracts of her
behavior. Vesper, herself, provides such a reanalysis in her suicide note:

Then I was told not to stand behind you in the Casino, and to see that neither Mathis nor Leiter
did. That was why the gunman was nearly able to shoot you. Then I had to stage that
kidnapping. You may have wondered why I was so quiet in the night club, They didn't hurt me
because I was working for M. W. D. (17)
After reading this note, we are obliged to appreciate how our expectations guided the way we
encoded Vesper's earlier actions (but because Bond himself was taken in. it is hard for us to
feel chastened). Now that Fleming's tricks have become so well established, it is difficult to
read a novel of this type without some wariness about the proper distribution of characters to
the categories of good and evil. Nonetheless, our appraisal of the information at any given
time will be colored by our leading hypothesis.

"Good guy" and "bad guy" are only a first level at which characters can be differentiated.
James Bond, of course, is more than just a good guy: he is a secret agent and. thus, we are
prepared to see him perform a number of activities that would otherwise be inexplicable. For
example, Bond returns to his room and goes through a ritual that is distinctly on type:

[H]e bent down and inspected one of his own black hairs which still lay undisturbed where he
had left it before dinner, wedged into the drawer of the writing-desk.

Next he examined a faint trace of talcum powder on the inner rim of the porcelain handle of
the clothes cupboard. It appeared immaculate. He went into the bathroom, lifted the cover of
the lavatory cistern and verified the level of the water against a small scratch on the copper

Doing all this. inspecting these minute burglar-alarms. did not make him feel foolish or self-
conscious He was a secret agent, and still alive thanks to his exact attention to the derail of his
profession. (Casino Royale 14-15)

Arguably, many of our expectations for how secret agents behave are anchored in our long
experience with James Bond. Nonetheless, we believe that this type of behavior is genre
bound, more closely tied, that is, to the category "secret agent" than to the literary character
"James Bond."

We would like, thus, to delineate in what way James Bond does obtain a unique identity--and
how it is that we use that identity in experiencing his adventures. Analysis based on category
membership is perfectly sufficient-- and efficient--for many of the circumstances in which we
wish to make judgments or generate expectations about other individuals. In real life, we need
special motivation to expend the extra effort to form a person-based representation of an
individual: special involvement is necessary to cause us to see an individual as more than a
token of some category (Brewer). In particular, the shift from a category-based to a person-
based representation changes the way in which we attend to information about the individual.
In processing based on categories, we determine that someone is a good guy or bad guy and
scarcely note variations in behavior from those norms. our expectations about the future
behavior of such individuals are based on a routine assessment of how someone good or evil
would likely act. It is possible that some readers would find it unnecessary to view James Bond
as anything more than a token of his categories: "good guy"; "secret agent."

For readers who become more deeply involved, the shift to a person-based representation
requires a reorganization of memory. Rather than seeing James Bond as a member of a small
number of categories, category memberships become only a small part of the information
associated with him. In this memory organization, we start to have specific recollections of the
properties of specific individuals--and these dictate our generation of expectations. We may,
for example, examine the situation in which we currently find our hero and try to locate a
similar past experience. In our memory for that past experience, we should find fuel for our

Some expectations follow straightforwardly from well-known aspects of the character's
behavior. For example. in Casino Royale, we learn a very useful generalization from Bond
himself when he justifies his "pernickety and old maidish" attention to the minutiae of his
meals: " 'You must forgive me,' he said. 'I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It
comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from a habit of taking a lot of trouble over
details . . .'" (58-59) Here, Bond has tipped us off to one of the most dependable aspects of his
character. We also come to count on Bond's remarkable consistency with respect to women:
"Women were for recreation. on a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and
hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. one had to look out for them
and take care of them" (Casino Royale 34). Because the reader brings these certainties to the
continuing experience of Bond, Fleming need only allude to the themes of connoisseurship or
misogyny to keep his plot in motion. We would expect that readers would make a regular
practice of tracking the behavioral consistency of literary characters.

Readers may also be able to track the consistency of more implicit, psychological aspects of
literary characters because of direct access to their thoughts, through the variety of techniques
of interior monologue. In real life, we are not privy to the thoughts of others and can judge the
consistency of inner motivations only by the evidence of their words and actions; often our
assessments of those actions are shaped in accordance with our bias (i.e., the Fundamental
Attribution Error) to ignore the exigencies of the situation. In literary worlds, we have a
virtually unique opportunity to "listen in" as characters work their ways from problems to
responses. We believe, for example, that we learn most about Bond when he has resigned
himself to fate:

Well, if he had to die anyway, he might as well try it the hard waN He had no hope that Mathis
or Leiter would gel to him in time, but at least there was a chance that they would catch up
with Le Chiffre before he could get away. . It was a choice of evils; but the longer Le Chiffre
continued the torture the more likely he would be revenged. (Casino Royale 118)

Through such moments, we are able to construct a psychologically astute model of the unique
James Bond.


We have documented so far some of the ways in which knowledge of cognitive psychological
theory can influence our analyses of the experience of literary character. It is equally
important to acknowledge that the study of character can expand the range of phenomena for
which such theories must be accountable. Consider, for example? a phenomenon described by
Kendall Walton:

[S]uspense may remain a crucial clement in our response to a work?k almost no matter how
familiar we are with it. One may "worry" just as intensely about Tom and Becky while
rereading The Adventures of Tom sawyer, despite one's knowledge of the outcome, as would a
person reading it for the first time. A child listening to Jack and the Beanstalk for the
umpteenth time, long after she has memorized it word for word, may feel much the same
excitement when the giant discovers Jack and goes after him. the same gripping suspense. that
she felt when she first heard the story. (26)

We find an immediate parallel in our experience of James Bond. It is virtually a requirement of
all the novels that Bond be captured and put into some impossible situation. Any shrewd
reader should immediately recognize this regularity and find it impossible to be concerned on
Bond's behalf. But as much as we 'worry' about Tom and Becky," we "worry" about Bond:

Bond again felt puny and impotent. Nobody but an expert in ju-jitsu could have handled him
with the Corsican's economy and lack of fuss. The cold precision with which the thin man had
paid him back in his own coin had been equally unhurried, even artistic....

As he preceded the thin man over the threshold he knew that he was utterly ? and absolutely
in their power. (Casino Royale 109)

When Le Chiffre begins shortly to torture Bond, we worry indeed that Bond will not pull
through.[ 4]

This phenomenon of anomalous suspense (Gerrig "Reexperiencing" and "Suspense") suggests
how the experience (and analysis) of literary worlds can feedback into cognitive psychological
modelling. What is needed is an account of how we become immersed in literary worlds--so
that certain types of information remain excluded from our appraisal of character. Anomalous
suspense motivates a strict demarcation between information that readers apply within the
literary world and information that readers apply from outside of it a phenomenon that
psychological theories ought to capture. In this case--one among many--analysis of literary
worlds can help to set the agenda for psychological research.


We have suggested that several ordinary cognitive processes play a crucial role in the
construction of literary character: the Fundamental Attribution Error, category- and person-
based representations, and immersion. In a cognitive psychological theory of literary
character, such processes claim a central role. These processes are, nonetheless, not unique to
the experience of literature and, thus, cannot account for what is special about literary
characters. Unique to the world of literature are the types of information authors provide for
these processes to act upon. The distinctive aspects of a cognitive theory of literary character
reside not in special psychological structures, but in the operations of ordinary processes on
extraordinary literary input.


[1] Throughout this paper we will commit what has been called "the intentional fallacy"
(Wimsatt and Beardsley). our primary interest in cognitive psychology prompts us to do so with
little remorse.
[2] once again. we have in mind theories that arc left implicit in the text. Such theories may
often, in fact, be more consistent with the causal structure of real-world events, as exemplified
by Milgram's results.

[3] What is curious is that under most circumstances good guys can kill their foes- they re just
not allowed to enjoy the process.

[4] This is even truer of the Bond movies in which film conventions allow the viewer to become
even more deeply immersed in the fictional world than is the reader.

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By Richard J. Gerrig and David W. Allbritton