Can You Really Fall In Love With a Fictional Character?
The word “love” has a variety of meanings. A person can say “I love my mom,” “I love my sister,” “I love my fiancé,” and “I love my cat” and mean something different each time. Merriam-Webster also has a separate definition for affection for impersonal things like music, food, or favorite places to be.
Fans of fiction (including books, movies, television shows, etc.) take that last definition even further. They say “I love Kaylee Frye (from Firefly and Serenity),” “I love Mr. Darcy (from Pride & Prejudice),” or “I love Hiccup (from How to Train Your Dragon 2).” These fictional characters are technically impersonal things because they are only ideas, but people’s affections for them can feel very personal. Is this an impersonal love? Is it any different from love for the story? If it can’t be reciprocated, can it be anything like the “real” love people feel for family, friends, and significant others? And what would the implications be if it were real?
How Many Ways to Say I Love You?
To determine if love for fictional characters can be real, it helps to determine what “love” means. The Greeks went even further than Merriam-Webster. They had at least seven different words that translate to love in English, each with different applications.
Philautia is self-love; that definitely does not apply to love between real people and fictional characters. Pragma is love based on reason and external factors like arranged marriages or public appearances. Real people aren’t put in arranged relationships with fictional characters, so that term is out, too. Ludus is the version of love people feel in “no strings attached” relationships. As Psychology Today puts it, “ludus works best when both parties are self-sufficient.” Fictional characters do not meet that criterion (they are dependent on writers for their existence), so their real-world lovers probably don’t feel ludus.
Eros is close enough to ludus that the latter is sometimes mistaken for the former. It is the Greek term for physical attraction that drives people to make love and sometimes more eccentric demonstrations of their passion.
When fans speak of their love for fictional characters, a common assumption is they are physically attracted to the actors portraying them in movies or television shows. It’s not Sherlock Holmes, Loki, and the Doctor they love, for example, but Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, and David Tennant.
Even when the character originally comes from a book, if an adaptation exists, that is the version that appears in the posters and life-size cardboard cutouts. Thus, say the observers, fans feel eros for the actors, not the characters. However, some fans describe feeling physically attracted to animated characters. The voices provided by real people may be part of the reason, but they cannot account for all of the flattering fan art.
Which characters become the objects of a fan’s eros is largely determined by subjective taste, just like who finds whom attractive in real life. However, a character can be cast, costumed, and/or animated in specific ways to elicit physical attraction. This is sometimes called fan service. It draws attention to the shallowness of eros and calls into question how genuine this kind of love is.
Philia is also known as platonic friend-love. Eros is physical lust, whereas philia is a desire for understanding. As Aristotle described it, philia is based on the belief that the one you love is useful, likable, or virtuous. Real people can seek to better understand their favorite fictional characters by reading more, watching more, or coming up with their own ideas. Authors and show-runners give their characters development for that very purpose.
As Aristotle described it, philia is based on the belief that the person you love is useful, likable, or virtuous. This description is especially appropriate because fictional characters often have many distinct qualities worthy of platonic admiration. In a similar way, fans say they hate the characters they find distinctly non-virtuous or unlikable. If a fan’s significant other is abusive or otherwise unpleasant, that fan may be particularly drawn to heroes with kind hearts. This situation and many others like it are philia at work.
Storge is familial love. People develop it for other real people through familiarity; young children learn to love their families not because of physical attraction (despite what Freud might say), but because they grow up together. Admiration (philia) is often part of it, but it usually comes after storge. Fans may develop storge for fictional characters that they “grew up with” or otherwise spent a lot of time reading about or watching. Psychology Today points out that storge can be “unilateral or asymmetrical,” so it seems a good fit for what fans call love of characters that cannot reciprocate.
Storge is most relevant when a character dies or otherwise leaves the story. Fans may feel levels of loss “normally” reserved for family members and very close friends. Authors even have this feeling for characters they create; J.K. Rowling has admitted to crying when she found herself forced to kill her characters in the Harry Potter series.
Last but not least, agape is the word for the altruistic or selfless love people have for strangers. Not everyone embodies agape for their fellow non-fictional people, but fans may feel a genuine desire for their favorite fictional characters’ best interests. If it is love, it is indeed a selfless love, as the object of the fans’ affection cannot do anything in return.
Again, which fictional characters receive agape is up to the individual fan. The seemingly random connection some fans feel for short-lived characters in horror stories may not feel like love, but it is technically agape. Perhaps it is the relatable characters or simply the tragic, sympathetic ones we develop this altruistic love for. Some fans develop agape for fictional characters specifically because they enjoy the story containing those characters; maybe it’s a chicken-egg question of which affectionate feelings came first.
So there are four possible meanings for a fan saying “I love Aladdin.” It could mean “I am physically attracted to this cartoon drawing” (Eros), “I find this person likable and virtuous and I want to learn more about him” (Philia), “I have developed a fondness for this person over the years” (Storge), or “I have altruistic concern for the best interests of this person” (Agape). Most likely it is some combination of these feelings. It seems there is much more to be explored simply in defining what love means in this context, not even considering the implications.
If Loving You is Wrong…
The author of “Ask Anne” says this about feeling love for fictional characters: “People do this all the time. Love at first sight is love of the visual appearance of a person combined with love of a fiction.” This is what makes eros work in general. This fact can lessen the concern that fictional characters cannot return the affections of their fans. It should be no more concerning than a celebrity crush. Affection for real-life famous people is based on their visual appearance (eros) and what fans imagine their personalities to be. The only difference with fictional characters is fans are told what to imagine about their personalities by the writers and sometimes the actors behind the characters.
As Anne goes on to say, affection for fictional characters becomes problematic when we prefer our chosen fiction to relationships with real people. It seems similar to the problem with pornography; porn is made specifically for people to feel eros for a fantasy, a fictitious person, and those who fall for its allure run the risk of dampening their affection for real people. It is easier to avoid this danger with movies and television shows that aren’t porn, but fans should still beware that their reason for “loving” a fictional character may really be lust. In this way, feelings of eros for fictional characters can put strain on romantic relationships between real people. A fan may develop unreasonable standards for their real-life significant other, hoping he/she will look or act more like the object of a fictional crush. These fans may struggle to keep or find significant others. Feelings of storge for fictional characters may lead to a similar problem; fans risk losing affection for the real people they should feel familiarity and love for.
The good news is, despite the worries of many fans, there does not seem to be evidence that feeling overly attached to fictional characters is a sign of a mental disorder (assuming fans understand that fictional characters are, in fact, fictional). If it were a symptom of something, it would be especially difficult to stop, and real-life relationships would be in big trouble. But fans can rest easy knowing that affection for characters will not irrevocably damage their ability to feel things for real people.
Meanwhile, agape and philia are actually admirable in this circumstance. Caring for a character’s best interests and wanting to learn more about them can be constructive. This is good practice for empathy. For example, authors often make the love interests of their protagonists and narrators attractive, drawing attention to their admirable characteristics to make it clear why the main characters are falling in love with them. When fans feel similar affection for these characters, they can empathize.
Some people struggle with connecting to people and empathy in general. Well-told stories help fans understand and connect with characters through means other than familiarity and attraction to visual appearance. This can be surprisingly helpful for people with “emotional deficits.” The additional advantage of practicing emotional connection on fictional characters is there are less strings attached. As Will Grayson said in the John Green/David Levithan novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, “You like someone who can’t like you back because unrequited love can be survived in a way that once-requited love cannot.” Again, as long as the fans understand that their fictional crushes are fictional, they won’t be badly hurt when nothing comes of these feelings.
Many real-life relationships start with attraction to physical apperance (eros). Over time, hopefully, the lover will develop philia (admiration for the other person’s good qualities) and agape (selfless caring for their well-being). It is certainly possible to feel these kinds of love for fictional characters. These pseudo-relationships can become fond memories when fans move on to a real-life love story. And the characters will always be there when they need them.
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