“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn’t exist.” – Berkeley Breathed
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “If only they were real!” and understood just how deep those words run. Whether we’re talking about characters from books, movies, TV shows, animes etc. at some point, as readers, we all wish that they existed. To some extent, our desire for them to be real is driven by how much we adore the universe/world they are a part of, or how much we are in love with them. To a greater extent, however, it’s because of just how real these figments of our imagination come to be, and how as people, we are able to relate to them and their story.
Just two weeks ago, before leaving for a challenging exam, I decided to catch up on one of my all-time favorite mangas “Shingeki no Kyojin” (Attack on Titan). Half an hour prior to the exam’s start, I was reduced to tears upon reading the latest chapter and facing the death of one of my favorite characters of all time. I couldn’t get it out of my head through out the exam and in the days that followed.
On Friday, I begun my obsession with an anime called NANA. After hours of practically binge-watching several episodes, I embarked on a Twitter-rant which provided as an outlet for my out-of-control emotions.
(And that’s just to name a few)
It’s two weeks past the mental funeral I’ve attended for a dear, sweet, boy, and a couple days past the emotional roller-coaster NANA put me in and I’m still mourning for these people, that by definition: are. not. real.
Am I a freak of nature? No. Is it a crime to have an intense emotional attachment to characters? No. In fact, it’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
Growing up, I related more to the people that spoke through literature, through the television screen or in my mind than those that were actually around me. During the day, I’d immerse myself in the real world but once I lost myself in the pages of a book or the colorful screen of the telly, I was whisked away to a world unlike any other. I was among friends. I was home.
That’s not to say that I love every single character I have come across. There are several I’ve come to harbor intense animosity toward, for example, Severus Snape (Harry Potter), Shou Tucker (Full Metal Alchemist), and most recently Patrick Bateman (American Psycho). I am continuously fascinated by how capable characters are of provoking a wide range of emotions from their observers which is exactly why I decided to write about it.
Why do we care?
Now I don’t want to get into the science of it, because, yes, there actually is a logical explanation as to why we got super attached to characters.
In a nutshell, the descriptive language used in a book or the images that jump out to us from the screen all light up a part of our brain that’s responsible for triggering these ideas by linking it to things we’ve already experienced. That’s why when we come across metaphors or vivid imagery in books, it’s easier for us to picture or feel what the writer is trying to deliver to us.
Personally, I believe what makes a character stand out as more ‘real’ than others would depend on the skill of the writer to engage with the reader through said character. To form the kind of bond with fictional people that normally would take years to form with those around us is a testament to how well they’re written. A prime example here would be the case of how people interpret the book version of Bella Swan versus Kristen Stewart’s rendition of her in the movie. I’m not a Twi-hard, but a lot of my friends have commented that Bella Swan in the books was way more ‘tolerable’ than the version brought to the screen.
Whether or not characters are 100% real, the relationships we form with them play a crucial role in deciding how emotionally real they can be. Don’t we look up to certain characters as role models? Don’t we take something away from every person we read or come across?
Writers create characters that are flawed. They give us the reins, as readers, to step into the shoes of different people and learn about them, learn from them as well. Haven’t you ever wondered you could read someone’s mind, know what their thinking or have an insight into their lives? With characters – that’s exactly what happens. They come to be a part of us through the little discoveries we make with every page we turn.
Why it isn’t the worst thing
Stories are fragments of the very reality we are a part of. Fiction is a mere expansion of imagination that is grounded in the real world, and in what we experience. That being said, although stories belonging to the genre of fantasy, magic realism, or adventure might not be scientifically possible, their characters are still very much real in the sense that their essence is rooted in what the writers know or have felt. These characters help us understand reality.
As a university student pursing a degree in business, the curriculum still requires it mandatory to take up English and Additional Engish (both covering Literature) as two of my subjects through out four semesters. The texts chosen range from poetry and short stories to plays and articles – but each, chosen with a purpose of enlightening us students in one way or the other. We explore characters that are suppressed because of the color of their skin or their gender. We read the impact that a partition of a country or a mass genocide can have on families, on children. And while, yes, these stories are a work of fiction, by reading about the thoughts, emotions and inner turmoils of these characters – we learn.
Those who say that ‘living in books’ or taking away learning lessons from literature is foolhardy are speaking utter hogwash. To borrow from Phoebe Buffay, what sad little lives they must lead.
Because what better way to gain wisdom than to live a thousand lives?
That’s what every character gives us: an opportunity to let go of ourselves in their reality, in their lives, and in the process come to understand our own.
The best characters are the ones that are every bit as real as us.
The best way to build a three-dimensional character is to make them realistic, and not just in the minds of the writer who is their creator and therefore, naturally, knows their in-and-outs but also to the reader. The thing that most people who frown upon us, lovers-of-fiction, don’t realize is that every character is based on someone, or something, or some iota of reality that the writer themselves draw from.
For instance, dementors in Harry Potter are actually a representation of depression. And while these soul-sucking guards of Azkaban aren’t actually going to pop out and try to kiss us (which would be the worst thing ever), the darkness they act as a symbol of is very much real. Depression is not make-believe.
“It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It’s a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.” – J.K Rowling
The characters we relate most to are believable because they are rooted from reality. As readers, we share something in common with them that way making them every bit as real, if not more, than the people around us.
Captain America (Chris Evans) visiting a children’s hospital proving that our heroes are real.
If anyone ever tries to put you down by arguing with you and telling you that these people that make you laugh, cry, feel joy or love are a waste of time – just shake your head and feel sorry for them. Because these characters they ridicule?
They are capable of inspiring and changing the lives of millions of people. They aren’t just printed text, no. They bleed through the pages and into our lives, filling the gap between reality and something more. And those who don’t feel that and condemn others that do are highly unfortunate.
So the next time you encounter someone in a book that makes you feel a whirlwind of emotions; don’t run away. Embrace them, and board the feels train. While the journey is not one that most take, it is definitely the one worth being on.