Did Elizabeth Bennet Sleep With Mr. Darcy Before They Were Married?
I am reading Why We Read Fiction by Lisa Zunshine (Greg Feeley recommended it because he thought I would like it and I very much do.) It’s a book about how our mind takes the abbreviated information encoded on a page and reads into it the complexity we read in people’s behaviors. In one part, she talks about how we don’t believe that the characters in books are real, but some part of our brain behaves as if we do believe they are real.
She talks about how instructors work so hard to illuminate the intricacy of the artifice of a work of fiction and then the students get caught up in a debate about whether or not Elizabeth Bennet slept with Mr. Darcy before they got married.
It seems to me that our unease on this occasion stems from our intuitive realization that on some level our evolved cognitive architecture indeed does not fully distinguish between real and fictional people. Faced with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, our Theory of Mind jumps at the opportunity (so to speak) to speculate about their past, present and future states of mind, even as we realize that these “airy forms [and] phantoms of imagination”* do not deserve such treatment.Why We Read Fiction, p.19
As a writer I am always astonished at how little it takes to evoke character. At how far we will go with a single strong detail. At how much agreement you can get from readers about a character’s motivation.
It’s quite an interesting book.
*Henry Fielding, Tom Jones.