Mourning Fictional Characters Does Not Make You Crazy

Fictional characters help remind us what it means to be human. And even though they're not real, they lessons you learn as a result of knowing them certainly are.

June 23, 2015
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I get really attached to fiction.

I felt deep, impending dread (*spoiler alert*) as Gus rapidly declines in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I was a weeping willow when Ronnie’s ailing father writes her a final letter in Nicholas Sparks’ The Last Song. And I also seriously sat in a puddle of my own tears when Henry dies in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

And it’s not just books. It’s TV shows and movies, too. Just within the past month I had a serious scare… I’d finally recovered from losing Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Monica back in ’04 when a couple similar rom-com-ish comedies popped up in 2012. So when FOX cancelled my favorite one, The Mindy Project, this season? Let’s just say that I held my breath for days until Hulu picked it up.

Grieving fictional characters isn’t uncommon — whether it’s their passing within the context of a show or book, or simply when their storylines up and end. Psychologists have found that, following these sorts of conclusions, people are often faced with an identity crisis: What now? How do I fill this hole in my life?

When Lost ended back in 2010, I suddenly had to fill that weekly timeslot and the hours and hours I spent post-airing dissecting the nuances and deeper meaning of every episode’s plot. When I was just a silly teenager, I may or may not have read and re-read the Twilight series because I couldn’t stand the thought of life without Edward Cullen. (Little misguided, yes, I will admit, but… ah, nostalgia.)

Researchers from American University discovered that TV megafans struggle in the wake of such fictional losses. “Fans who have come to really love and care for their ‘friends’ on TV experience their loss is just like real-life breakups,” explains researcher Cristel Russell. “This loss is dealt with in ways that are similar to physical loss by seeking others who feel the same way and finding ways to remember the good times they had when the show was alive.”

Sometimes you need to cry, sometimes you binge read or binge watch other stuff to fill the time, and sometimes you endlessly discuss the past with your fellow fangirls (or guys). All are acceptable. Some hardened folks might call people who lament the losses of fictional characters totally ridiculous. But personally, I think it’s perfectly okay.

Back in college, as an English major, I studied novels solely for their literary merit. I spent hours upon hours analyzing what messages could be gleaned from a single word in a story, or specific arrangement of sentences. We were taught to dissect the text line by line, aiming to understand how the language enhanced meaning or created mood.

I learned there was no room for emotional connection in great literature. But I was a bad student.

If a book doesn’t cause me to feel something in my chest or gut, somewhere down in my core, no matter what standing it occupies among my professors and other literary critics, I pretty much toss it on the trash heap. I couldn’t tell you where I was, what I felt or what I thought while reading any book or watching any TV show or film — unless it moved me, caused me to consider or tugged at my heartstrings.

I remember sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car as I closed Pride & Prejudice, realizing happily that I was a little headstrong like Elizabeth Bennett. I remember tearing up at the conclusion of Friends with my mom, as we watched the final shot of the gang exiting an empty apartment. And I remember walking out of the theater after the final Harry Potter film, thinking that my childhood had officially ended. It was sad. But it was also great.

Fiction should move you, making you think or feel or act. And there is nothing wrong with connecting to the human experience, fictional or real —  which is why you should never apologize for breaking down into tears at the end of a great work of art.

Good fiction accomplishes a range of outcomes, from considering deep philosophical questions to making you feel less alone in your experiences. You invest. You come to know the characters, you see the world from their perspective.

It’s a special form of connection, and the closest thing you’ll get to mind-reading: you see inside a character’s thoughts. It’s sort of like Atticus tells Scout early in To Kill a Mockingbird, something she only fully understands at the conclusion while standing on Boo Radley’s porch in the novel’s final moments. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Which is kind of amazing. Really.

Fictional characters help remind us what it means to be human. And even though they’re not real, they lessons you learn as a result of knowing them certainly are.

So, you just cry it out. And then appreciate what that book (or movie or show) gave you.

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