It’s a Friday night after a long day of school. You decide to reward your hard work from the week with a Netflix binge, picking up from where you left off on Grey’s Anatomy.
Approximately 45 minutes later you find yourself curled up in a ball in your bed, sobbing over the death of Dr. Derek Shepherd and internally cursing Shonda Rhimes. On some level, you feel absolutely ridiculous, aware that you are in fact mourning the death of a fictional character who does not actually exist. Still, you cannot fight the entirely too real emotions washing over you as wipe away streams of your tears.
We have all been there, whether we are mourning the death of a favorite character from a TV series or weeping over the heartbreak of the protagonist of our favorite book. Despite our knowledge that these characters are not real, their loss manages to touch us on a deeply emotional level. Why is it that these fabricated lives have the power to affect us in such real ways?
One explanation lies in the way that we begin to perceive these characters. Obviously we are all aware that characters in TV shows and movies are played by real people who are simply portraying their character. However, this is very easily forgotten once we become invested in a character and what happens to them. As we learn more and more information about a character, they begin to come to life, becoming more and more real with each detail.
This is especially true for shows that are based in reality because of the lack of a barrier between our world and theirs. Over time we begin to see the characters as actual individuals and it becomes difficult to picture the people who play them as anything but their fictionalized roles. It is not uncommon for people to see pictures of actresses such as Jennifer Aniston and automatically think, “Hey, it’s Rachel Green!”
Another explanation for our tendency to feel attachment to fictional characters is the intimacy in which we “interact” with them. Typically when we settle down to watch a TV series or crack open a book, we do so in the comfort of our own home. Sitting in our houses, snuggled up on familiar couches and surrounded by comfy blankets gives us a sense of security and intimacy that we begin to associate with these characters.
Similarity, these activities also tend to take up a lot of our time. Many TV shows today have episodes that are around 45 minutes long. When you take into account that many shows have close to twenty episodes a season and more seasons than there are days in a week, the time spent around these characters really adds up. During this time, viewers are given a glimpse into every aspect of a character’s life, much more than the majority of people they know in real life. This overflow of information can lead to a sense of closeness with the character, which in turn leads us to caring for them as we would a close friend.
Perhaps the best explanation for why we feel such powerful emotions for our favorite fictional characters is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to how another person is feeling, and for most of us we have it in bounds, living in the part of our brain known as the right supramarginal gyrus. Although most of us haven’t had to deal with the loss of our one true love like Meredith Grey, many of us have experienced heartbreak on some level. These similarities of experience allow us to relate to these characters, which in turn causes us to feel genuine emotions when something tragic happens to them.
The important thing to remember about this phenomenon is that it is completely normal. While many of us feel absolutely silly when we begin sobbing over people who don’t actually exist, the fact is that it is very common. In fact, Time even published an article explaining how such powerful emotions for fictional characters is actually very healthy. They suggest that these one-way friendships can provide the same benefits of real friendships, including self-esteem boosts, decreased loneliness and more feelings of belonging. Additionally, research has shown that watching shows that draw out these emotions can boost a person’s emotional intelligence and even make them act in ways that are kinder and more altruistic.
Crying over fictional characters is something the vast majority of us experience. At some point or another we all end up with tears streaming down our cheeks, mourning the death of someone who never really existed in the first place. So the next time you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by emotions while binge watching your favorite TV show, remember that you are neither ridiculous nor alone.