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On Fandoms and Fictional Characters

May 12, 2015
Last week's episode of Supernatural, "Dark Dynasty" broke a lot of hearts. We lost a beloved character in what feels like a very pointless way, and the Supernatural fandom is at the same time grieving and in denial. These words, spoken to people who do not become invested in television shows, cartoons, comic books, etc., might sound a bit dramatic. I understand their perspective, it seems that there are more important things in life than getting invested in things that are not "real". Which really got me thinking...

Why do we become so attached to fandoms and fictional characters?

The power of fandom should not be underestimated. One study of fandoms suggested that identification with a fandom and engagement in fandom activities is related to prosocial values. I've seen this in my personal experience being part of the Homestuck fandom. Besides organizing meetups, the Homestuck fandom in San Diego has been known for organizing to collect donations for those who need them.

What exactly IS a fandom?

A fandom, put simply, is a group of individuals sharing a common interest. It is a group of people who have found that they can identify with one another, sometimes on multiple levels, based on a shared love of something. You can be a fan of something if you like it a little, or if you absolutely love it. When you invest time in a television show, you become engrossed in the narrative, it pulls you in for a little while, and you become emotionally invested. As someone who is "on the outside looking in" into the story, you start getting to know the characters, and you start understanding the way they work in a way that you can't really do easily with people in the "real world," as you have the ability to get inside the mind of the character.

As you get to know the fictional characters and start to understand why they do certain things, their actions might even become predictable to you because you understand them so well. You start to like or dislike them, love them or hate them, and you start identifying with aspects of the character that you see in yourself. You start looking up to characters that possess traits or characteristics that you admire.

Fictional characters are a representation of a person's set of values, beliefs, mannerisms, and thought processes. Although they are fictional, they come to represent parts of us because we identify with them, sometimes on a level at which we cannot identify with a person in our immediate physical environment. They can become parts of us.

This is not inherently pathological. Coming to identify with and favor a fictional character is one way of connecting with the world. It shows capacity for empathy, sympathy, and reciprocity. It shows an ability to care. It requires a tolerance of unpredictability, as you never know when the writers will decide to off your favorite character.

It allows us to connect with others. When we log on to online forums, attend a book signing, join the queue for the midnight release of the latest expansion, or cosplay, we are sending the message, "I, too, am a fan of this. We have this in common. It is okay to talk to me about this." It sets a common ground for others to approach and talk to us. Think about what you feel when you find that you have something in common with a complete stranger. Isn't that pretty cool? When you are part of a fandom, you can access this feeling any time.

The feeling of identifying with and being part of a group is very powerful. Studies on group membership have suggested that some people tend to feel an increased sense of self esteem when they engage in their fandom, when they cosplay, or when they wear garments that identify them as being part of a fandom (i.e., wearing a jersey of your favorite sports team). And yes, fandoms can also provide a way to avoid undesirable situations for a short while.

People in fandoms can also develop their own culture. The fandom is a world they know well, a world in which they feel welcome. They support each other, develop their own lingo, inside jokes, and even in-group conflict. Such conflict can range from disagreements over the interpretation of a scene or text, to "shipping wars" (disagreements over which characters should/shouldn't be involved in a relationship). The latter might seem silly to some, but people tend to feel strongly about this. If you are in a fandom, you know well the benefits and the negative aspects of belonging to one, and you know well that shipping wars are no trivial matter, and that it's possibly best to steer clear of one!

Why do people belong to fandoms if there is an actual "real world" here?

People have an innate need to belong, and this isn't always easy to accomplish in the "real world." People who belong to fandoms and develop deep connections with fictional characters are not "delusional," they do have the capacity for reality testing and for making fun of themselves! But a thing can feel real even if it not "real." Belonging to a fandom fulfills many, very real needs, and developing emotions about a fictional character shows that we have the capacity to develop emotions for real people. Sometimes, it is just easier to get to know and develop a connection with fictional characters.

It feels nice to belong somewhere.

2 comments on "On Fandoms and Fictional Characters"
  1. Love this post! :)
    Ecspecially the last words. "It feels nice to belong somewhere."
    So true!

    1. It totally does! And it's not a feeling that should be taken for granted. Thank you for your comment :D