Date of Award

Fall 1998

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Edward J O'Brien


Current theories of narrative comprehension assume that readers attend to information about the protagonist, including his/her goals, location, and emotions. However, such a Limited view of narrative comprehension does not adequately address the complexity of text. Typically, the reader is exposed to an array of important secondary characters and their relations to the protagonist(s) in narratives. Also included in this story dynamic may be the beliefs or opinions of the secondary character(s) regarding the protagonist.

Three experiments were conducted to examine the effects of character prominence and perspective on reading comprehension for narratives. The prominence distinction between two characters, a protagonist and secondary character, was established by controlling the order of mention and the number of references to each character by proper name and pronoun. Character perspective was introduced into the narratives by describing the beliefs of the secondary character regarding the protagonist. The effects of such belief-based descriptions on comprehension were compared to other protagonist descriptions that were asserted as true from an omniscient narrator's perspective.

Reading time results showed that the beliefs of the secondary character regarding the protagonist were used to update the reader's mental representation of the protagonist. When the beliefs of the secondary character were inconsistent with a later action performed by the protagonist, readers experienced comprehension difficulty. However, this difficulty was delayed (i.e., observed on the second target sentence) relative to when that action was inconsistent with a previous description which was stated as true of the protagonist from the narrator's perspective (Experiment 1). Further, the effects of the second character's beliefs on reading comprehension were affected by the second character's location in the target action scene (Experiment 3). The comprehension difficulty observed when the second character was present in the target action scene was not observed when the second character was removed from that scene. These results contribute to the limited research on the role of secondary characters in narrative comprehension.