Award Date

May 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Committee Member

David E. Copeland

Second Committee Member

Mark H. Ashcraft

Third Committee Member

Murray G. Millar

Fourth Committee Member

CarolAnne M. Kardash

Number of Pages



When people read a story, they often form a highly detailed representation known as a situation model. The event-indexing model (Zwaan, Langston, & Graesser, 1995) proposes that situation models are constructed along several indices, one of which is protagonist or character. While much research has been devoted to the study of tracking and forming trait-based models of fictional characters, little attention has been paid to the representation of characters’ external attributes. In Experiment 1, participants read a short story containing various characters and their attributes. Participants were then asked to recall the characters and their attributes, either according to their memory of the text or their imagined mental representation. Comparisons were also made across several types of cues (i.e., free recall, cued recall, multiple-choice). The results showed that when participants were explicitly probed for certain attributes, they were generally able to follow instructions; the memory group made fewer contradictions and elaborations than the imagination group in both the cued recall and multiple-choice conditions. Moreover, when characters were not well-described – as was the case with the minor characters – participants readily generated elaborations for the missing attributes. In Experiment 2, participants read new versions of the same story, this time with greater experimental control over the distribution of attributes among the characters. Again, comparisons were made across recall instruction condition (i.e., memory vs. imagination) and cue type (i.e., free recall, cued recall, multiple-choice). As in Experiment 1, participants showed an ability to differentiate between textual information and imagined traits, with the memory group producing fewer elaborations. Additionally, a strong preference for the principal/major characters was observed; participants were most accurate for those characters, regardless of description level, and elaborations were highest in the stories in which those characters were less than fully described. Taken together, the results from these two experiments suggest that readers may be constructing mental representations of characters on two levels: one sourced from the text and one embellished by the reader’s imagination. Additionally, the evidence suggests that elaboration is a natural process occurring whenever characters are not completely described, though there appears to be a bias towards principal/major characters over lesser characters.


Character traits; Elaboration; Narrative; Situation model


Cognitive Psychology

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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