I spend a lot of my non-work time watching and reading stories. Experience a reality that doesn’t exist. Fall in love with everything that is not real. When I finish a story, I spend time fantasizing about it and its characters. Time, many would tell me I’d rather spend pursuing a more practical hobby. It’s like talking to a real person and connecting with them.
I know they are also sensible plans – I’m not unreasonable. But you see, my interactions with fictional characters help my relationships. These characters allow me to navigate the complexities of life by allowing me to live a life that I may actually never be able to live.
Literature is an excellent way for us to learn about the experiences of others, to empathize with them, and to understand them. There is a long history of exposing people to fiction to instill empathy for others. We incorporate novels into school curricula and prison libraries, and require reading lists in college applications to give them a human-like approach to representation. Aristotle was probably one of the first to talk about the moral values embodied in fiction. David Foster Wallace said, “Fiction is one of the few experiences that both confronts and alleviates loneliness.”
Fictional scenarios of fictional characters often provide me with a davenport that addresses my fears, thinks about my problems and suggests solutions for them. Something that helped me find my restless self.
When a story is compelling, I spend a lot of time, energy, energy and emotion in it, in its characters. You see, fictional characters have a charisma of their own; a charisma that is hard to replace by real people. Interactions with fictional characters are complete, not interactions with real people, where we can barely get a complete picture of their character traits. You are always in quicksand with real people. I’d love to blame the pandemic for dramatically reducing my time with real friends and significantly increasing my screen time, but my reliance on fictional characters predates it.
I’m not one to read self-help books. But because of reading novels, I enjoy the benefits of self-improvement. Or watch it. Explore the world and its people that live only in the mind. Spending time with these characters provided me with a much-needed period of creative incubation, allowing me to approach real-life scenarios in unexplored ways. Kathryn Beckett taught me more about being a strong, independent person than most of my superficial gender studies courses. Before feminism was widely used and misunderstood, Hermione taught me what it means to be a feminist and to acknowledge and own my strengths and weaknesses. Samwise Gamgee told me that you don’t need to be the center of attention to be valuable, and Samwell Tarly told me that putting others down doesn’t elevate you.
These roles are constructed through the interplay between the top-down knowledge in the reader’s head and the bottom-up knowledge of the text, and they have their own agency, desire, and conflict, independent of the other roles. These arrays of fully realized, multi-emotional 3D characters offer a lot more than most real existing characters. A product of linguistics and cognition, these characters are not only comfortable companions for you, they also create a safe space for you—one where you don’t have to worry about how they perceive you.
Many studies have addressed the dangers of developing quasi-social relationships with inhabitants of fictional worlds. Many people close to me have pointed out that investing in fictional characters offers little return, even based on a real person who is far from them. But isn’t the identity of the real person also an exact portrayal of that person? Rather, it is a partial presentation formed in contextual communication, shaped by specific goals, social forces, belief systems, and many other factors. Equating fictional characters with mere imagination runs the risk of making it difficult to understand the roles of real people in different situations.
As someone who struggles with social anxiety, once I’ve had conversations with fictional people, I’ve found interacting with real people less intimidating. The fictional realm and its characters and situations provide me with a mechanism to deal with real-world challenges without burdening someone with my emotional burden. Fortunately, while I have enough real people around me to share my fears, I prefer to work with my fictional friends to ease them first.
Priya Singh is a researcher and accumulator of oppositionists.
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