It turns out that writers have some of the same experience as readers, of finding that their characters do things that seem appropriate, but without the writer having—as it were—to pull the strings. Marjorie Taylor, Sara Hodges & Adèle Kohányi (2002-2003) published a study based on interviews with 50 fiction writers to explore this question. The writers were recruited by advertisements and word of mouth. They ranged from professional writers to people who had not yet published anything. All but four of them reported some experience of characters exhibiting apparently autonomous agency. Writers who had published their work had more frequent and more detailed reports of the phenomenon, which suggests that it is associated with expertise. As compared with the normal population, writers were more likely to have had imaginary companions as children, and they also scored higher on tests of empathy.
Taylor et al.'s conclusion about expertise is also supported by our analyses of 52 Paris Review interviews with very distinguished writers, including 14 Nobel Prize winners (Oatley & Djikic, 2008). We found that 30 of the 33 Paris Review interviewees who were asked a question about whether they made new discoveries in the course of writing said that they did, and these discoveries included characters behaving in ways the writers had not expected.
Taylor et al. cite E. M. Forster's (1927) Aspects of the novel (see our list of books with micro-reviews by clicking here). Forster had this to say:
The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have these numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They “run away,” they “get out of hand”: they are creations inside of a creation, and often inharmonious towards it; if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces, and if they are kept too sternly in check, they revenge themselves by dying, and destroy it by intestinal decay (p. 64).What this means for theory of mind and fiction could be something like this. It is not just that we readers imagine ourselves into the minds of characters as we run the simulation which is the literary story. Writers do something of the same, and the possibilities suggested by the contexts of action take precedence over other forces in how the writer imagines the character. Our theory of mind, in other words, is theory-of-mind-in-certain-compelling-social-situations.
Taylor, M., Hodges, S., & Kohányi, A. (2002-2003). The illusion of independent agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 22, 361-380.
Oatley, K. & Djikic, M. (2008) Writing as thinking. Review of General Psychology, 12, 9-27.