• University of Nottingham

How to Read a Mind: an Introduction to Understanding Literary Characters

How do we read and model fictional minds? Introducing cognitive poetics: the application of cognitive science to literary reading.

39,768 enrolled on this course

How to Read a Mind course image
  • Duration

    2 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours

This free online course offers an introduction to the field known as cognitive poetics – applying cognitive science (the study of the mind and its processes) to how we read literature.

Understand cognitive poetics: what happens in our minds when we read

Taking our best current knowledge of how our minds and language work, we will ask some key questions about reading literature:

  • Why do we feel anything for fictional characters?
  • Why do we get angry, moved, irritated, annoyed or sentimental about imaginary people in imaginary worlds?
  • And why do the lives of fictional characters matter so much to readers?

The answers to these questions are surprising and empowering, and as we explore each, we will introduce you to some key concepts from psychology, linguistics and philosophy.

In advance of the course starting you can join the conversation using #FLread or follow lead educator @PeterJStockwell on Twitter.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds Welcome to the University of Nottingham. I’m Peter Stockwell, Professor of Literary Linguistics in the School of English. In everyday life, sadly, we don’t have telepathy. We don’t have a voice in our heads telling us what other people think and feel and see. In literary fiction, though, sometimes it is as if we have this ability. We know what fictional characters think and feel and believe. Sometimes this relationship gets so rich that it’s almost real. We get upset with people, we dislike them, they make us cry, they make us laugh. Sometimes the loss of them makes us grieve. It’s as if they take on a life of their own. It’s almost as if they’re as real as real people.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds How can this be? Fictional minds and real minds and your mind are not so different. We deal with all people in more or less the same way, and that includes ourselves, and it includes fictional minds, and it even includes animal minds and the way we deal with inanimate objects. Do you talk to your cat or your dog? Have you ever shouted at your car or your computer? Do you talk to yourself? We’re going to discover how all this works. We’ll use our current best knowledge of language and mind to explain how we make characters real and how we are immersed, absorbed into literary worlds.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds We’ll discover that a little knowledge about cognition and about linguistics can take us a long way, and we’ll understand a little more fully how to read fiction, how to read people, including ourselves, and, really, how to read a mind.

What topics will you cover?

  • the application of cognitive science in understanding literary reading
  • Theory of Mind, characterisation and empathy
  • building a fictional world, using text world theory
  • prototypicality, and the richness of fictional people
  • the nature of fictional minds and real minds
  • the experience of engaging with fictional people
  • understanding literary immersion, distraction and transportation
  • the textual patterns that help to achieve effective fictional characters

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explore the literary creation of fictional minds
  • Compare different readerly realisations of characters
  • Explain the conceptual mechanisms involved in fiction
  • Discuss comparable experiences of immersion
  • Evaluate the use of cognitive science in literary experience

Who is the course for?

There are no previous requirements needed to take part in this course.

Who will you learn with?

Professor Peter Stockwell is a researcher in cognition, linguistics and literature at the University of Nottingham.
Twitter: @PeterJStockwell

Who developed the course?

The University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham is committed to providing a truly international education, inspiring students with world-leading research and benefitting communities all around the world.

Learning on FutureLearn

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  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

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You can use the hashtag #FLread to talk about this course on social media.