Loving fictional characters, for real?

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Illustration by Tara Peak

Loving fictional characters you say? Let’s dive right in. I think I can confidently say that we’ve all had that moment while watching something or reading a book when we can’t help but cry a little. And we’ve also all had that moment when we think ‘that character is cute’ or ‘if this character existed, we’d be best friends for ever’.

We all do it to some extent, but if you google ‘attachment to fictional characters’ it doesn’t take long to realise this is a serious problem for some people. It seems like sometimes animations, films and books are much more than just works of fiction.

There are countless cases where people report falling deeply in love with a fictional character, to the point where they’re not able to cope. While It’s interesting to read, it’s also very informative, it seems people do get real happiness and feelings of connectedness from fictional characters. What makes it unsettling for them is the obvious realisation that these characters aren’t real something their family and loved ones might not understand.

It may seem like some people take it too far, but the mechanism that makes it possible to fall in love with a fictional character is the same one that makes us shed a tear or two when watching something sad. There’ve been many interesting discussions on the function works of fiction play in our lives. But one thing is certain, they affect us on a real level.

There’s a reason

Imagine the delicious smell of freshly brewed coffee, for instance. Scientists have found that when we do that, the part of our brain that deals with smell lights up in the same way it does when we actually can smell coffee. On a larger scale, this is what happens when we are watching or reading something. If we’re truly absorbed by the story, we experience emotions in a very real way even though we know the film, animation or book is fictional. 

A philosopher called Tamar Gendler has coined a term that may explain why this happens: ‘alief’. A belief is a conscious response to how we think things really are. An alief is a response to how things seem. You can believe one thing, while alieving another.

An experiment by the psychologist Paul Rozin can illustrate this. He asked educated adults to eat chocolate fudge that was shaped like dog faeces. The other option was to eat soup from a pristine, brand new bedpan. People knew the fudge was real fudge and the bedpan was clean (it would be deeply unethical if wasn’t!) But many people refused.

They believed the food was clean but they ‘alieved’ it wasn’t. This could be what happens when you watch a horror movie. You know you’re safe, you don’t really believe the monster will come out of the screen and harm you. But it still seems like it could. You just ‘alieve’ it will. The feeling experienced is still very real.

It feels like real life

Sometimes a character is so well written, or so in tune with what we experience in our own lives, they seem like they could be real. People can end up identifying with a character, feeling like they know them and end up ‘alieving’ the character is a real friend. So, no wonder we end up having strong, ‘real’ feelings when something happens to them in the story.

So, it may be a funny situation when someone falls in love with a fictional character. But next time you see a group of teenagers obsessing over Edward Cullen or even a character from an animated series, don’t look at them with utter confusion. Just imagine if you’d have been able to eat that fudge. Probably not.

On that note, we wish you a lovely Valentine’s!

by Marina Brunale

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