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The phenomenology of characterisation: From social cognition of real persons to the construction of fictional human-like figures in narrative

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The phenomenology of characterisation. From social cognition of real persons to the construction of fictional human-like figures in narrative.Ed Tan, University of Copenhagen & Katalin Bálint, University of AugsburgCharacterisation is a major instrument in the hands of skilled film storytellers. Cognitive film studies have devoted attention to the film viewer’s activities in understanding character as an aspect of recreating a narrative film’s fabula. David Bordwell (1985) argued for the view of characters as collections of traits serving a role in the comprehension of story action. Cognitive film scholars have broadened the focus of study to include viewer emotions towards characters. Murray Smith has set an example when he introduced the notion of engagement with characters (1995). Amy Coplan’s (2006) treatment of catching character emotions and Carl Plantinga’s (1999) of empathy with characters are among the studies of engagement that followed. It is fair to say that the cognitive study of character has followed the social psychological paradigm of social cognition. In this paradigm experimental study is made of the factors governing perception and understanding of real people in the real social world, and the emotions triggered by these. Social psychologists studying character in fictional narrative have modelled character engagement as perceptual, comprehension and affective responses to characters implicitly considered as real people in the real social world. Dolf Zillmann’s seminal work on the perception and liking of media characters, and empathy with them set a trend in media psychology hat goes on until today. Zillmann (1991; 1995) and followers have also identified choices made by media producers in the portrayal of media characters that set them apart as real people from other real people. The approach has created an immense insight into what features they share with real people that render characters attractive and engaging. However, it has limitations in its grasp of character engagement. It can be argued that such engagement is more than the social cognition processes identified in real human interaction, and the sum of the perceptual, cognitive and emotional responses measured in this paradigm. More in particular social cognitive models only scratch the surface of the experience of interacting with other people, and leave out the experience of fictional events and characters. We argue that they need complementing by an understanding of character engagement taken as a personal and dynamic experience with narrative and fictional human-like beings that characters really are. We propose to report on an empirical study aiming to bring to light the experience of characters reported by readers and viewers of narrative, while they reconstructed their engagement in prompted open interviews. Twenty-five participants were recruited who had a background expected to help provide us with rich descriptions of, and in-depth insight into their experiences with fictional narratives. They were asked to describe their experiences when reading story episodes of their own choice they themselves had selected as the most engaging. In a second session participants read or watched excerpts and reflected on their experience. Units were categorised as to the type of responses from social cognitive theory (e.g. perception of similarity with character, identification, or moral evaluation).We will present example quotes and analyses in our presentations. We found overall and unsolicited support for the occurrence of responses to characters as proposed by social cognitive theories in character engagement, including perception of similarity, understanding the character’s mind, embodied simulation of, wishful identification, and para-social interaction with characters. In addition, from the reports of experience at work, we could capture the complexity and dynamics of these responses, as well as their interrelatedness. This led to a more complete and detailed picture of the nature of engaged character experience than can be obtained from quantitatively measured responses or their combinatorics in a causal model. For example, we were struck by the degree of reflection on what are according to the more or less implicit or automated responses. Explicit comparison of the self with characters was found going beyond mere perceptions of likeness. Participants’ subjective reports testified of major degrees of awareness of the fictional nature of characters, and the ensuing constructive character of their understanding. Participants also tended to exhibit an explicit awareness of their own needs guiding the construals. For instance, we observed negotiations with the narrative and the narrator on the way to the best construal or explanation of feelings, motivations and intentions of characters.We conclude that character engagement is an aesthetic experience of high intensity and complexity constructed out of embodied and personally meaningful representations of fictional characters. We argue that the very fruitful successful and social cognition explanation of character engagement as modelled on social interaction in the real world needs to be extended with an explicit account of what the fictional status of personae in the story-world of film adds to real world or real person social cognition and emotion. The cognitive study of engagement with film characters has already taken up this challenge, see the work mentioned in the introduction and more recently for example Newman (2006). But there is ample room for expansion. Bordwell, D. (1985). Naration in the fiction film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Coplan, A. (2006). catching characters’ emotions: emotional contagion responses to narrative fiction film. Film Studies 8, Summer 2006, 26-38.Newman, M. (2006). Characterization as Social Cognition in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Film Studies, 8(1), 53-67.Plantinga, C. (1999). The scene of empathy and the human face on film. In C. Plantinga & G. Smth (Eds.) Passionate views: Film, cognition, and emotion, 239-255. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Smith, M., & Smith, M. (1995). Engaging characters: Fiction, emotion, and the cinema (p. 119). Oxford: Clarendon Press.Zillmann, D. (1991). Empathy: Affect from bearing witness to the emotions of others. Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction processes, Hillsdale (NJ): Erlbaum, 135-167.Zillmann, D. (1995). Mechanisms of emotional involvement with drama. Poetics, 23(1), 33-51.
Publikationsdato14 jun. 2017
Antal sider2
StatusUdgivet - 14 jun. 2017
BegivenhedSCSMI 2017 - Aalto University of the Arts, Helsinki, Finland
Varighed: 11 jun. 201714 jun. 2017


KonferenceSCSMI 2017
LokationAalto University of the Arts

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