We recognize Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver by his commanding presence, his stoicism and the absence of his left leg, cut off below the hip. Although we think we know the roguish Silver, characters such as he are not of this world, as Stevenson himself admitted in Longman’s Magazine in 1884. He described fictional characters as being like circles—abstractions. Scientists use circles to solve problems in physics, and writers and readers likewise use fictional characters to think about people in the social world.
Psychologists once scoffed at fiction as a way of understanding people because—well—it’s made up. But in the past 25 years cognitive psychologists have developed a new appreciation for the significance of stories. Just as computer simulations have helped us understand perception, learning and thinking, stories are simulations of a kind that can help readers understand not just the characters in books but human character in general. In 1986 psychologist Jerome Bruner, now at New York University School of Law, argued persuasively that narrative is a distinctive and important mode of thought. It elaborates our conceptions of human or humanlike agents and explores how their intentions collide with reality.