One of my favourite shirts has a caption on it that says ‘I am overly attached to fictional characters’. I often get called a nerd because of it, to which I respond by saying that ‘geek’ is actually more technically correct (which in itself is completely dorky, but I digress) but it’s not just traditional geeks that get attached to fictional characters.
Think about it – have you ever watched a movie or read a book where you ended up crying because one of the characters died or suffered in some way? Have you ever cheered along when one of your favourite characters kicked butt or stuck it to the man? Have you ever walked in the door after a crappy day and immediately felt cheered just by switching on a great show? If you’ve experienced any of this, then congratulations, you’re switching on your anterior insular cortex, the place in your brain where your empathy lives!
Empathy is ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of others’ (Oxford Languages) and those ‘others’ don’t actually have to be real people, they can be fictional characters. When we form a connection to a fictional character we are building a parasocial relationship, which means it’s all one sided on our part but our brains don’t understand that the person we are invested in isn’t real. We empathise with their situation, understand their pain, and experience the emotional highs and lows in much the same way that we do with our very real friends and family.
Given that narration gives us an insight into a character’s inner thoughts, their motivations, and their thought processes, it’s sometimes easier to empathise and connect with fictional characters than it is with real people. How often do you know everything about a friend, or wonder at their motivation behind something? Probably quite often but with fictional characters you have that information at your fingertips.
Great writing leads us to be invested in characters and we often find ourselves ‘filling in the blanks’. In Fanfiction circles this is called creating a ‘headcanon’ which means it hasn’t happened in the book or movie but the audience take what they know of the character and then extrapolate from that to come up with their own beliefs about what a character would or wouldn’t do in a given situation. For example, a popular Harry Potter headcanon is that Hermione, who is a naturally gifted student especially at potions, cannot cook to save her life. The people who came up with this most likely resonated with Hermione, added in a small quirk of their own, and their emotional connection to the character got even deeper because of it. These headcanons build on that connection we have with the characters and lead to an even deeper attachment.
This emotional investment in fictional characters isn’t a dangerous thing, unless of course it becomes obsessive behaviour. While the character may not be real, the emotions associated with them are very much so, and this can lead to loneliness being alleviated, reduced stress levels, and can help people develop their sense of self identity. So if you find yourself an emotional wreck after finishing that last novel, don’t stress – it’s perfectly normal!