Why We Get So Attached To Fictional Characters

Photo: Chris Haston/NBC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
If you've ever gotten so into a movie or TV show and its characters that you turned to Reddit theories because you couldn't get enough, you definitely get what it's like to be wrapped up in a fictional world. And if you haven't, it might be hard to understand why some fans are just so passionate.
Karen-Dill-Shackleford, PhD, a media psychologist based in Santa Barbara, CA, says that while some people who are more casual fans might think it's strange to be so attached to fictional characters, it's actually natural to find these characters important.
She says that because storytelling is a way to touch on ideas that are important to us, connecting to a story and its characters is important — and often, we might even feel more empathy for a story than we do for things and people in our daily lives.
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Dr. Dill-Shackleford describes our relationships to characters as parasocial relationships, or one-sided relationships that we have with the media that we consume. Even if a character can't talk back to you or otherwise engage with you, it makes sense that if you get home at night and spend an hour or two (or more, we don't judge) watching a TV show, you might get really attached to them because they bring you joy or cheer you up after a rough day. And feeling so much affection for these characters could be a sign that you're capable of a lot of empathy.
"You have to engage in a real human way in order to feel that connection," Dr. Dill-Shackleford says. "That’s probably a sign that you are capable of certain social things that you are willing to let yourself go and really feel something in the story."
There's not a lot of hard science out there to explain why some people tend to be incredibly passionate fans while others are more casual (i.e., Westworld Reddit theorists vs. people who prefer to just watch the show and let it unfold), but Debra Kissen, PhD, a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, says it might have something to do with how deeply we probe into things in our lives in general.

You have to engage in a real human way in order to feel that connection.

Karen Dill-Shackleford, PhD
"People who have more of a tendency to dive deep into things might have more of a tendency to be specialists and dive deep while others take more of a wide view," she says. "Part of that would then show up in anything you do — you do it fully and thoroughly."
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But even if you're not the all-or-nothing type, Dr. Dill-Shackleford says that characters are often avatars for us, and we let ourselves feel feelings through them even if we can't relate to everything they're going through.
That attachment and parasocial relationship can also happen with celebrities, who, in a way, are arguably fictional characters to us: We know the image they present in public, which may or may not 100% align with who they really are, and we guess at the rest.
"[With] someone who you’ve followed over a career or long periods of your life, you do feel like you know them," Dr. Dill-Shackleford says. "You see them in these intimate situations and they’re probably already a beautiful person because they’re an actor, and they’re compelling."
And, well, the power of attraction is strong.
"You can’t underestimate the fact that these stars are very attractive," she adds. "Most people, unless you live in Hollywood or something, you don’t see that level of physical attractiveness. Like Chris Hemsworth, he's like a god. So of course it's a biological cue to us, we’re supposed to find someone to mate with, and it’s a message to us that this person is really valuable because they’re that attractive."
So it's normal to be extremely attached to a fictional character or celebrity, so long as it doesn't become an obsession that takes over your life. If, say, you spend so long thinking about Chris Hemsworth that you're not dating anyone else because of that attraction, that's when it might be unhealthy. For the most part, though, Dr. Dill-Shackleford says that most people probably aren't obsessed to that degree.
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