Skip to main content
Book your ticket!

22 April 2024 - 22 April 2024

5:00PM - 7:00PM

TLC113, Teaching and Learning Centre • Durham University

  • FREE

Share page:

Daniel A. Newman offers a talk titled 'Character and Action', followed by a talk by Sean Yeager, titled 'Aesthetic Kinship'.

This is the image alt text

Characters and Cognition

Fictional characters and fictional minds are foundational to our drive and attachment to fictional storytelling and storyworlds. There is no unified theory of characters and characterization partly because the population of fictional characters is vast and growing as life itself. Interdisciplinary approaches to what fictional characters are and how they work on us - and with us - as readers are particularly welcome, given the elusive nature of fictional beings. Join us for a late afternoon dedicated to characters: their cognitive workings as fictional minds and agents, and readers’ cognitive relationship with them.

In this interdisciplinary double-act, Daniel A. Newman will present for the Science on Narrative // Narrative on Science series.

The talk will focus on a strange form of “action at a distance” that can help us examine the relation between character and action in order to get a better sense of what character is and how it functions in narratives. The first part of the talk will explain this strange idea with reference to the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s notion of “extended phenotypes,” which explains a wide range of biological and ecological phenomena (from symptoms of viral infection to the built environment behind a beaver dam) as indirect effects of an organism’s (the virus, the beaver) genes. The second part briefly examines two novels that foreground “action at a distance” by extended characters: Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation and Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, both of which foreground the idea of “action at a distance” by extended characters.

Next, Sean Yeager (a physicist turned narrative theorist), will give a Passport Talk reflecting on how autistic readers might find kinship in fictional characters with familiar traits.

Countless readers – whether autistic or allistic, academic or lay – have at some point described a fictional character as autistic. Sean Yeager asks: Why is this “diagnosis game” so easy to play? They are particularly interested in "aesthetic kinship", a term they adapt from Julia Miele Rodas to describe the phenomenon of autistic readers finding kinship with fictional characters who are not explicitly named as “autistic” by their narrative. Though such kinship claims are sometimes problematic, autistic readers use these acts of literary recognition to articulate issues faced by real world autistics. They consider, for instance, what it means for non-speaking autistic Tito Mukhopadhyay to align himself with the white whale, claiming that “the Moby Dick of disorders swims within you… [autism] is the hidden image that lurks in the sea.” The ubiquity of potentially autistic tropes throughout literature implies that autistics have always existed, and have always had an outsized impact on literary culture.


About the authors:


Daniel Aureliano Newman is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Graduate Writing Support at the University of Toronto. A former biologist, he studies intersections between science and experimental fiction, scientific models and literary-narrative forms, and narrative theory and technical writing in the life and physical sciences. His research has appeared in journals including Configurations, Journal of Narrative Theory, Partial Answers, Style, and American Journal of Botany, and in a book, Modernist Life Histories (Edinburgh UP 2019).


Sean Yeager is a PhD candidate in English at The Ohio State University and a former Assistant Professor of Physics at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Their data-driven visualizations of narratological temporal structures received the Paul Fourtier Prize for best paper by an emerging scholar at the 2019 Digital Humanities Conference. Sean studies contemporary literature through the lenses of narratology, digital humanities, and neuroqueer theory.


This hybrid event is brought to you by the Narrative and Cognition Lab in the Discovery Research Platform for Medical Humanities. If you have any queries about the event or the work of the Narrative and Cognition Lab, please contact Marco Bernini.