It’s a not so secret secret: I love Dean Winchester. Not Jensen Ackles, who is a real human bean with his own family, hopes, and dreams. No, I mean Dean.
He’s my hero. I sit breathless on the edge of my seat when he’s in danger. I’ve cried for him on more than one occasion. I despaired when he became a demon because that’s literally the worst thing that could ever happen to him. Well, maybe the second worst.
Why do I care so much? How can you love someone who isn’t real? Why do I cry like a baby when Dobby dies (every time I read it)? Any one of you who are part of a fandom or are avid readers can probably understand where I’m coming from.
Being a writer, I like to examine motive. And since I’m the only person whose head I can actually be in, I have to examine my own. So, I ask myself, how can I love Dean? Not why, I know why and that’s a different conversation. But how, if he’s not “real”? The answer to that is probably far more involved than I’m about to get, but it’s how I understand what goes on in my head.
It’s been going around the internet lately that no one sees you the way you see you. Does that make sense? You look in the mirror and see yourself. But you also see inside your own head, your inner dialogue, the things that make you you. No one else can see that. In their heads, the things that make you you are very different. It’s their perception of who you are. The two of you will never have the same picture of you in their head.
Because of this, I would argue that fictional characters and actual people are kind-of on a level playing field. Especially well drawn characters. Other people, actual people, are largely a construct in your mind. And you care about them. You love them. You make memories with them, you make love with them, you make lives with them.
The biggest, most obvious difference is all the “with” in that sentence, which clearly makes the real people in your life higher up the food chain than fictional people. But that doesn’t mean the fictional people aren’t important. Thousands of people died today, I even read about a few. I don’t know them, but for the ones I read about and their families, I am saddened. I’m suggesting fictional characters are on a level with those people. In fact, our favorite characters, like Harry Potter or Dean Winchester for example, are more to us. We share their highs and lows, their triumphs and tragedies.
Don’t get me wrong, please. I am by no means trying to say those real people mean less. I am trying to illustrate why our favorite characters in fiction mean so much. Why they are elevated to practically real status. Especially for someone like me, who ever has and ever will have a rich and fulfilling imaginary life. It runs alongside my real one, and it means a great deal to me.
Now as for loving a fictional character, I’ll ask you a question. Have you ever been totally infatuated with someone who has no idea you exist? Even felt you were in love with them, although they had never so much as spoken to you? I can bet many of you have. Then, say you end up talking to or even (happy day!) dating them.
Were they just like you imagined them?
I’m going to bet on “no”. Because I’ve been there, too. I’m a bit of a romantic sad-sack when it comes to love. Things are fantastic now in that area, but damn if it didn’t take a lot of trial and error, and a healthy diet of introspection, to get there.
Did I get sidetracked?
Maybe, so let me get back on point. I imagine what other people will be like, and that’s who they are in my head. And that’s who I love. I imagine what fictional characters are like, and I love them just like real people. I have room in my head and heart for a whole world of people, so I don’t see why my imaginary friends should be any different. I cry when they do, I laugh when they do, I struggle with them, and I use their journeys to grapple with my own issues.
And as a writer, I make up stories using my own questions, my own life struggles, and have my characters work it out for me. It doesn’t have to look exactly the same as my problem in order to work, it just has to have the same flavor.
And when we go on these journeys together, we become emotionally invested in the people who went with us. Whether they are real, or “real”. I think that answers the question of how we can love them. In the end, the fictional characters we care about can be elevated to the level of real, instead of “real”, because the illusion of them is no less, nor greater, than the illusion that is our world.
Of course, that is also a conversation for another time.