Humans consume and produce narratives to make sense of the world; stories are crucial to how we perceive ourselves and others. The strengthening of ties between neuroscience and literary studies in the last few decades has reinforced this idea, particularly when it comes to how people may cognitively perceive elements in the world, be they fictional/constructed or existing in reality.
Maria Lindgren Leavenworth and Van Leavenworth explore this idea by focusing on fictional characters, and in particular how readers perceive characters. Of particular importance to their project is Theory of Mind (ToM) as it has been applied by theorists such as Alan Palmer (Fictional Minds 2004), Blakey Vermeule (Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? 2010), and Lisa Zunshine (Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel 2006). ToM refers to the cognitive abilities that enable humans to infer other people's thoughts, goals, desires and beliefs beyond what is explicitly stated. This cognitive process of inference works the same when characters are encountered in fiction: readers and viewers assemble what is perceived of as 'complete minds,' or 'whole characters,' on the basis of limited information. Today, media consumers have many and varied online possibilities for communicating their impressions of the fictional works they encounter and the results of their interpretations are often presented as new narratives: as fan fiction, fan films, games and art. In Lindgren Leavenworth's and Leavenworth's ongoing research, analyses of such products leads to knowledge about individual and shared investment in fiction, about levels of cognitive engagement, about processes of text comprehension, and about the relevance and function storytelling has today. As examples of this approach from previous research, see "A Truth Universally Acknowledged?: Pride and Prejudice and Mind-Reading Fans" (Lindgren Leavenworth 2015) and "Fragmented Fiction: Storyworld Construction and the Quest for Meaning in Justin Cronin's The Passage" (Lindgren Leavenworth and Leavenworth, 2017).
Lindgren Leavenworth, Maria. "A Truth Universally Acknowledged?: Pride and Prejudice and Mind-Reading Fans." Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2015, pp. 93-110.
Lindgren Leavenworth, Maria, and Van Leavenworth. "Fragmented Fiction: Storyworld Construction and the Quest for Meaning in Justin Cronin's The Passage." Fafnir: Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research, vol. 4, no. 2, 2017, pp. 22-33.
Palmer, Alan. Fictional Minds. U of Nebraska P, 2004.
Vermeule, Blakey. Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? Johns Hopkins UP, 2010.
Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Ohio State UP, 2006.