The Reality in Fiction

Why do we get so attached to fictional characters?

This is a question I’ve asked myself a lot. For me, in particular, it’s because many of the most formative, influential people in my life are not physical, in-the-flesh beings, but fictional constructs, whether written down on the page, drawn, or portrayed by an actor/actress in a TV show or movie. Anybody who knows me, in particular, knows that I have a particular attachment to two characters especially: Captain America and Daenerys Targaryen. They aren’t the only two who I feel have been formative in my life, obviously; Daenerys didn’t exist until I was in my college years. But they are the two I would say I feel the most attachment to in recent years – to the point where I have a tattoo signifying Captain America on my left shoulder, and I’m planning a Targaryen crest on my right.

Partially, it comes down to actual science (I know, right?); to a certain degree, parts of our brains don’t distinguish between a real person and a fictional character, much like if you read Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, you discover that the reason we get a rush when we accomplish something and get a reward in a video game, it’s the same feeling as receiving an actual, physical reward because our brains just don’t differentiate. While the rational parts of our brain can tell us that these characters just aren’t real, the more emotional areas of the brain don’t distinguish between real and fictional – a fictional character can be just as close to us as a trusted friend or a beloved family member.

This also happens because, through fiction, we often get a direct line to a character’s inner thoughts and reasoning that we don’t normally get in real life. Creators of fiction have to explain why bizarre things are the way they are, because anything too unrealistic and we will stop caring, while reality is under no such constraints. So, in the case of my two example character above, we can read comics and get a look into Captain America’s thinking, much the ways we can see the thought process inside Daenerys Targaryen’s head in her viewpoint chapters. When these characters are then portrayed on the big screen, whether television or movie, we also tend to get some of this, though not direct thoughts, but often characters will take time to explain their actions or motives so that we, as the audience, can understand.

Bring together the fact that our brains, on some level, view these characters as real, and that we get a feeling of knowing them personally (which is helped along by media portrayals, as the actors chosen for the roles are often very attractive, and we as a species just tend to innately trust attractive people), and we begin to develop empathy for these characters. We see the things they go through, and we feel sorrow when they suffer, joy when they overcome, and the whole gamut of emotions in between. We feel like we are right by their side, like we are with friends or family, when they are having their most important, intimate moments. We feel for them, and the feelings are genuine, though the characters are fictional.

This connection only grows through time; much like the ‘real’ people in our lives, time apart brings distance, but time together – watching them on screen, reading about them in books or comics, playing them in video games – brings us closer. We may never be able to reach out and touch these characters, to form a bond through contact that produces oxytocin like a genuine hug, but the longer we are with them, the closer we tend to feel to them. And, of course, the degree of closeness varies from person to person; some people may never think of characters as real at all, while others might become dangerously obsessed with the characters, to the point where they stalk the actors/actresses who portray them or the writers who write them.

It’s important to be able to differentiate; I think that’s a sign of a healthy mind. I like Daenerys Targaryen, and I feel she’s been a powerful female force on a show dominated by men in Game of Thrones, but I also know that Emilia Clarke, the actress who plays the role, isn’t Daenerys, though she may project parts of her personality into the character, or take parts of the character into herself. Similarly, I know Chris Evans, as Captain America-like as he may act in social media, is not, in fact, a super soldier, just a talented actor who did the role justice.

I’m writing this mostly because right now I am in a strange place regarding these two characters. Captain America, at least as portrayed on-screen by Chris Evans, has finished his story, and passed on his legacy, and I feel that the build-up and resolution of his character arc was a great story, to say nothing of how all the other character arcs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe intertwine in a way nobody would have thought possible had you described it a decade ago. Captain America will continue on in the comics, but the shield will be taken up by a new person on-screen. I felt sad, but also an immense sense of satisfaction with how the character’s story resolved.

At the same time, I feel much more conflicted regarding Daenerys Targaryen. Built up over 7 seasons of beautiful, superbly-acted television, the character was, while on occasional brutal and ruthless, also someone who genuinely wanted to make the world a better place, to free the slaves of the world and lift up the downtrodden, as well as being a powerful woman who didn’t require the affirmations of men to succeed. In this final season, though, she has been changed, and did something horrible which I don’t think had been adequately justified on-screen, while being betrayed by every man in her life (many of whom called her crazed even before she did anything terrible) and suffering tremendous loss. The build-up of her character seemed to have been thrown away for the sake of hitting a single, specific plot point, and once that was achieved she was no longer necessary to the story and was killed off. In the 5th episode of the final season, I did feel a sense of betrayal, of horror, but not because of the character, but rather because I don’t think the character’s previous actions had shown the necessary work to get to where she ended. Fiction, unlike reality, needs to show us how characters get to where they are, and I don’t feel like it did, and because the series is now over that is where the story ends.

These two are by no means the only characters I feel have been real in the past to me, and have helped shape the direction of my life; you have only to see the characters I feel were largest in my mind – Sturm Brightblade of the Dragonlance Chronicles; Paksenarrion of the Deed of Paksenarrion; Picard and Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation; Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in Star Wars; Beowulf; Michael Carpenter in the Dresden Files; Superman and Captain America; Eric Draven from the movie The Crow, one of my all-time favorites – to see the directions in which my mind goes, morally and emotionally. I have formed attachments to all of these characters and more, and seen them all as friends and valued comrades; I cried when Mordin Solus gave his life for others in Mass Effect 3, and cheered when Captain America picked up Mjolnir in Avengers: Endgame. I’ll likely continue to form attachments to characters, though the personas of Captain America and Daenerys will loom larger because of their reminders on my skin.

We form attachments – we CARE – about these characters because in a very concrete sense, they are real to us.