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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Can a person fall in love with a fictional character?

I say stuff like that a lot: “Oh, I’m madly in love with the Doctor!” But I don’t mean that as, you know, for real. I think it’s a good metaphor for describing how big an impact fiction can have on us, and it’s also perfect for encapsulating how intimate filmed entertainment (TV and movies) can be, how they do make us feel like we know people who don’t know (and who don’t even really exist!).

But apparently this is becoming a real issue — maybe even a problem — for some actual humans (as detailed at PSFK):

This week, we came across the NYT Magazine article uncovering the growing subculture of “2-D Lovers“, grown adults in Japan that have found romantic love with their favorite characters from anime, manga, and video games. The article considers the possible cultural forces propelling the trend – namely, “the difficulty many young Japanese have in navigating modern romantic life”. The article reports that more than a quarter of Japanese between 30 and 34 are virgins while 50 percent of men and women don’t even have opposite sex friends. For some, it seems 2-D love may be the only way to experience romantic (and sexual) pleasure.

The article was followed by a Scientific American story published a few days later, reporting on another separate yet related phenomenon: social surrogacy. The article discusses the findings of new research that suggests watching your favorite TV shows can alleviate loneliness and provide a sense of belonging just as effectively as true interpersonal interaction. The study showed that individuals found a similar sense of comfort when ’spending time with’ (watching) their favorite tv show characters as if they were real-life friends. Watchers would even grieve when losing their ’social surrogates’ (due to a show cancellation, for example), experiencing the same despair and longing as they would with a true friend.

(Go to PSFK for links to the original New York Times and Scientific American stories, as well as a bit of analysis about and extrapolation from the trend.)

Is this just a bizarre aberration of our cultural struggles to come to terms with new forms of communication and entertainment? Or is this the start of something that will be truly enduring? I don’t mean, Will we have to extend marriage benefits to people and the fictional characters they love, but will this become a kind of fantasy that will eventually be prominent enough that we won’t be able to just dismiss is with a laugh?

Can a person fall in love with a fictional character?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • LaSargenta

    I think people do all the time. What else are all those celebrity mags for, if not for people who are “in love” with someone who is essentially a character?

    Having a doll to take around is almost a logical extension.

    I don’t dismiss it with a laugh. I know too many people who cannot talk about much else except the “person” they follow. Or people who eschew actual human contact to be able to watch movies/shows with said “character” in it. There is a point where fanfic ceases to be a creative (and often effectively collaborative) exploration of a character and a world and instead becomes a creation of a world the writer can intersect with and join the character.

    I dunno. This is a jumble of ramdom thoughts; but, Yes, I think people can do this and I’m not sure what its implications are for the societies at large.

  • Well, I think we should be able to dismiss it with a laugh! It is scary to think otherwise.

    I’ve definitely had crushes on characters or the actors playing the character. When I was single, I fantasized running away with Ciaran Hinds or John Cusak. (Ciaran Hinds for his portrayal of Rochester in Jane Eyre and John Cusack for being John Cusack.) But I still dated other men when I could =0).

    But are crushes or infatuations love?

  • Listy

    I don’t dismiss it lightly. We can get pretty attached to fictional characters. I know I have. They really can be like friends.

    Through high-school and part of college I was quite infatuated with a 2-D character. Like, cry because we couldn’t really be together infatuated. But then I met a real-life boy and that relationship was so much more fulfilling than the imaginary one that there wasn’t really any comparison!

    Since, I have cared very deeply for other fictional characters (and definitely crushed on a few), and though they can be quite comforting at times, I know now that they are nothing like the real thing, Baby.

  • Chuck

    For me it’s Rose, maybe we can double date!

    Seriously though, why wouldn’t someone fall in love with a fictional character. They are partially creations of our own mind. Even the characters bad habits can be endearing.

    The reality of a fictional character is fully in the viewers/readers head, the bit and pieces that the writer has not given you are filled in by you. The characters can’t help but be what you need them to be.

    I am sure somewhere there are women swooning over Dexter, not relising that the first time they ask Dex to take out the trash, the real Dexter is likely to put their pieces in a black trash bag and send them to the bottom of the ocean.

  • amanohyo

    When I was in middle school, I had a crush on Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice. I think that it’s perfectly natural to feel a personal connection to a fictional character. However, it’s also important to concurrently develop the ability to interact with real people, including people who have a very different outlook on life than your own.

    The danger I see with the Japanese phenomenon is that the characters that they “fall in love” with often resemble underage sexdolls more than complicated human beings (in some cases, they are quite literally dolls). A real relationship involves compromise and an exchange of ideas in order to develop genuine intimacy. If someone immerses themselves in their imaginary harem of childlike sex-puppets for too long (there’s even a well known genre of anime that involves a single male character and a harem of girls who are all infatuated with him), then the experience of meeting an actual woman who has thoughts and desires and needs of her own becomes frightening.

    Most japanese video games, manga, and pornography (In 90% of the Japanese porn I’ve seen, grown women pretend to have the voice of an eight year old… huuuge turn off) cater to this obsession with cutsey childlike sexdoll characters which doesn’t help matters. It’s not surprising that more and more Japanese women are choosing to stay single (American women as well, but the trend is not as pronounced here… yet).

    I suppose that similar “romantic” attachments occur with many older American women who become addicted to their soaps, but at least the characters that they are infatuated with are crude facsimiles of rational, independent adults. While videogames and manga often have women in powerful roles, they usually pay for this privilege by being hypersexualized and stripped of the ability for mature thought or agency. I know that there are many exceptions to my broad characterization of otaku culture, but I’m speaking about the mainstream movement, not the fringes. Go to any site that sells japanese figures, and you’ll see that there’s definitely something unsettling about this “hobby” of falling in love with dolls.

  • I fell in love with Clarice the first time I read Fahrenheit 451. Admittedly, I was 14… but the character still affects me to this day, despite the fact that crushed up dead leaves do not smell like cinnamon.

  • doa766

    yes, I’ve done it many times, the latest one was Clemence Poesy in In Bruges

  • i think we fall in love with certain fictional characters who reflect — or perhaps influence — the characteristics we want in real mates, or real friends.

    i know my expectations for the kind of man i would find attractive were developed very early on from many different sources — books, mostly, but also tv shows and movies. i think that kind of being “in love” with a character is no worse than “fairy tales” setting our expectations for life.

    i still fall in love with certain characters, or parts of them anyway, because now they reflect not only what i’d like for a mature relationship, but also for what i’d like my own life to be like.

  • CoriAnn

    It seems to me the answer to that question depends so much on one’s definition of love. I’ll admit I get extremely immersed in the fictional worlds I visit, whether they be in books, on television, or in movies. But I could never classify my feelings for any of those characters as more than infatuation. To me a huge part of being in love involves actual interaction with the person you love. I couldn’t imagine actually falling in love with someone without having experienced his reactions to to me and my thoughts and my reactions to those reactions, etc.

    I mean, even in real life, with actual people, I don’t think there can be actual love without interaction. I pined over many guys throughout my school years and while I often enjoyed the feelings of infatuation, either they faded away with time due to me never actually interacting with that person, or when interaction did start to exist between us, I realized that my feelings were based on who I thought that person was, not who that actual person was. Which, I think, is the crux of the issue. These people falling “in love” with fictional characters are in love with who they think that person is and how they think that person might interact with them. But without any solid actual interaction, it is just an ideal, and love, real, true, solid, love, is hardly an ideal creature.

    I can say this much, no crush or infatuation I have ever had on any person, real or fictional, has ever come close to the feelings I have for and when I am with my husband–and that includes the crush I had on him before we started dating.

    Okay, so yeah, back to my corner now.

  • Who you callin’ fictional, girl? (See The Velveteen Rabbit if you haven’t already read it long ago.)

    I spent the best part of my high school years with my best friends, Sherlock Holmes and Gandalf. And trust me, Sherlock is NOT the misogynist Watson portrayed him as. He just needed to meet the right woman. And the sights I saw in Middle Earth, travelling with that wonderful old wizard, me and my Irish Setter…ah, good times.

    The Doctor? Well. Goes without saying. He stopped being fictional long ago. He’s been so loved for so long by so many people. (See, again, the link above.)

  • From my perspective, the question is “Would you love this character if he/she was real?” If the answer is yes, then you feel love. Of course the character doesn’t love you back because…you know…not real.

    But people have been falling for fictional characters long before television and movies. Books, plays, operas, serialized newspaper and magazine stories, radio dramas, etc.

  • Victor Plenty

    Seems to me two wildly different questions are being asked here. The “2-D Lovers” trend is little more than a sickly shadow of our age old capacity to feel deep connections to literary figures.

    Since the beginning of storytelling, even before the invention of writing, people have been able to “fall in love” with fictional characters. The key has always been the storyteller’s ability to make their characters fully three dimensional. To imbue them with some quality very similar to real life.

    When readers or listeners fall in love with a character like that, what they long for is a fulfilled relationship with a living being who shares the same admirable human qualities.

    What’s happening now is very different. People are starting to have physical relationships with life size plastic dolls, or other artificial constructs, which they find desirable precisely because sex toys never ask for the rights, privileges, or consideration a human being needs and deserves. In other words, because they are NOT like real living beings.

    That may not be exactly the opposite of a fully human relationship, but it’s damn far away from a healthy one.

  • Jolly

    The key has always been the storyteller’s ability to make their characters fully three dimensional. To imbue them with some quality very similar to real life.

    Storytelling is an interactive process, with a lot depending on the imagination of the audience. Fictional characters take on different dimensions in the minds of different readers/viewers. What people are presumably falling in love with are partly beings of their own creation. Which I suspect is not always so different from what happens when we fall in love with “real-life” people.

  • Victor Plenty

    Jolly, I hope you’ll forgive me if this reflects a misunderstanding of your point, but I’m feeling quoted out of context here.

    The interactive relationship between artist and audience is a fascinating topic in its own right, and one I did not intend to disparage. My main point is the same whether we see the author as the character’s sole creator, or look at the storyteller and audience as creating the character together interactively.

    In either case, what makes a character capable of evoking our admiration is some lifelike quality. The more fully alive and three dimensional a character seems, the more likely we are to “fall in love” or feel a deep attachment. And it seems to me this is healthy, because it can help us to value and respect the independence of others in our real world relationships.

    This is not the pattern in the “2-D Lover” trend. There it’s the opposite. People are becoming attracted to characters who are less and less alive, and seeking out some form of relationship with them because they are less than alive.

  • Jolly

    People are becoming attracted to characters who are less and less alive, and seeking out some form of relationship with them because they are less than alive.

    But without being able to share in the imaginary life of the “lovers,” how can you comment on how life-like the “beloved” are? The original article suggests that at some level, these relationships provide the same pay-offs as real-life interactions.

    In either case, what makes a character capable of evoking our admiration is some lifelike quality.

    I’m not familiar with manga, so I can’t really comment on the “quality” of the characters. In any case, I can’t help but feel there is a certain amount of snobbery here regarding particular media. I’d argue that Alyx from “Half Life 2” is as well-developed as the majority of movie characters.

  • Victor Plenty

    The original NYT article states that the reasons people value their “2-D” relationships arise from the less than fully human status of a “2-D” romantic interest. For example, not having to care about whether you hurt them, because they’re not people, just plastic dolls or cloth covers for body pillows.

    Perhaps it wasn’t clear enough in the PSFK article that this is what a “2-D Lover” is all about. People involved in this trend “experience romantic (and sexual) pleasure” with inanimate objects.

    The distinction I’m drawing is not snobbery, because it’s not between “high quality” or “low quality” art forms. Manga, anime, and video game characters can be and often are just as three dimensional as those found in any “high class” Western literature or movies. People can and do fall in love with these characters in the same healthy way I described above. We value them for their three dimensionality, and use those feelings to strengthen, rather than replace, our real life relationships.

    What makes the “2-D Lover” relationship less healthy is the way it reduces the characters to less than they could be. It’s in the attempt to create a physical relationship with an inanimate object that is at best loosely based on the fictional character. And it’s in the refusal to face the challenges of relationships with real living humans. If all the sex dolls were based on characters from Shakespeare, I’d still consider it an unhealthy trend for all the same reasons.

    I’m not as troubled by the other trends described in the other linked article, in which peopled feel less socially isolated by watching shows with characters they like. Those trends may be problematic too, but not nearly so much as the “2-D Lover” trend.

  • Paul

    When I went through a particularly rough period in my life, surrounded by the toxic relationships of my friends, watching most of the people I knew so relentlessly searching out people who were bad for them that I wondered if they were doing it on purpose, that I played ostrich. Every couple of weeks I would rent an entire season of a show on DVD and watch it almost straight through to relax and recover from reality. “Buffy”, “Dead Like Me,” “Angel,” “Six Feet Under” – yes, I escaped life by watching shows about death, the dead, and the undead. Then I could come up from the basement and listen to everyone else tell me about how unhappy their sex lives made them.

    Speaking as a person with a very dim view of humanity, who seriously wonders how society manages to build good upon evil, I don’t blame anybody for preferring fictional characters to reality. When I was in high school I certainly thought Elinor Dashwood was cooler than any of the girls I knew.

    And the more messed up a society is, the more reasonable it is to escape it. Thus it does not surprise me that Japanese are well out in front of the industrialized world when it comes to artificial relationships, that foreign women sign up to marry leftover American men, or that people get addicted to TV.

    And let’s face it; not everybody is attractive to members of their prefered sex, and how many times have you heard your friends complain that all the good ones are taken? So let lonely people find their solace where they can.

  • Victor Plenty

    I don’t object to lonely people finding solace as best they can (provided it’s in ways that don’t hurt anyone else, of course). For example, one of the people in the NYT article said his infatuation with anime characters helped pull him out of a suicidal depression. As troubling as I might find the “2-D Lover” concept, even I can agree it’s a step up from suicide.

    Still, I wouldn’t advise anyone to give up and stop there. The challenges of relationships with real human beings may be far greater, but then so are the rewards.

  • The challenges of relationships with real human beings may be far greater, but then so are the rewards.


    As much as I would like to kvetch about some of the real-life people I’ve met, I have nevertheless gotten far more from face-to-face encounters with real people than I ever have from fictional people.

    And this from someone who had long had a bit of a Quasimodo complex himself.

    Perhaps we should all take a cue from The Loner’s Manifesto and note that it’s not necessary to be friends with everyone in the world as long as there’s at least one person out there who gets you.

    Besides, fictional people give very bad hugs.

    And their French kissing is awful…

  • Paul

    Oh, even in the depths I had friends, but as we as a people raise our standards while at the same time becoming less attractive and more selfish, it won’t be long before the idea that there is someone for everyone becomes quaint.

  • Victor Plenty

    Paul, we need to examine why we are constantly “raising our standards.” What is the real source of our upward spiral of impossible demands from human relationships? Who benefits from pounding the message into our heads that nobody could ever be good enough for us? In the old days, it was sometimes a parent who wanted their child to stay at home for various reasons, a seemingly innocuous impulse that turned parasitic when carried to extremes.

    Nowadays, we all have less benign figures in our lives who benefit from making us feel perpetually frustrated and unfulfilled. When we think no human relationship can ever be good enough, we turn to various forms of that great comforter of modern consumer society: we buy stuff.

    This is why more and more of the advertising and marketing sector turns its efforts to creating a vague sense of unfulfilled discontent. Because nothing is more profitable than misery and despair, when we have been carefully trained to believe it results from the absence of just the right product.

  • Jolly

    Well, as a public educator, I encourage my students to keep it real. “Mr. Right is sitting in his parents’ basement with his PlayStation, waiting for you to come and sweep him off to your basement.”

  • amanohyo

    Wow Jolly, that sounds like a pretty sweet deal for all those Mr. Rights. Do you tell the male students that if they wish real hard, Miss Right will burst into their basements with a hot pizza and a chamberpot and have sex with them while they’re gaming? Then they won’t have to move at all! Awesome!

    The problem is not simply artificially high standards. It’s that the sense of entitlement that most people have is completely unearned. Every time a movie shows yet another unproductive, unhealthy, childish man win the heart of an attractive, responsible, intelligent young woman with minimal effort that sense of entitlement is reinforced and another few hundred self-proclaimed nice guys get a little more frustrated. George Sodini was obviously a severely disturbed person, but his crimes are a symptom of this problem.

    If it seems like I’m picking on men, I am. They seem to usually be the ones with ridiculously unrealistic expectations and poor communication skills, although admittedly all people have difficulty transforming their bodies and minds for the better. I blame poor parenting and our lousy educational system more than the individual men though.

    I guess I’m just not sure that placing the burden of combing through basements on women helps matters much. Maybe there’s a better way to tell girls/gay men that they shouldn’t just assume Prince Charming will drop into their cubicles one day. Most of them figure this fact out on their own pretty quickly anyway.

  • Jolly


    My “encouragements” are tongue-in-check and follow the observation that roughly two-thirds of the students are female at the institution I work at, which is typical of undergraduate universities here in Canada.

  • amanohyo

    Whew! I was scared that you were seriously handing out relationship advice to younger students, warping their precious little minds for life (I was once a high school teacher). Sorry about the misunderstanding. Did most of the people in your classes seem to appreciate the joke or did the men nod their heads in agreement while the women rolled their eyes?

  • Jolly

    Responses from the women included amusement, eye-rolling, in some cases outright horror and a few comments about knowing a guy “just like that,” who typically turned out to be a brother.

    At the time, I had just been told by a friend about a professional woman in her early thirties that was dating a “professional musician.” He spent his days in her apartment smoking pot and seeking inspiration, while letting her pay the bills, which included the services of a professional cleaner that had been hired at his insistence (his standards for cleanliness were high). Much like “2-D” love in Japan, I have no idea how prevalent such behaviour actual is, but having heard enough similar anecdotes, I felt compelled to suggest that the dating prospects of some of my students might not be particularly rosy…

  • blake

    There’s a woman in a book that I’m mad about.

    Bit tragic really…

  • LaSargenta

    Interesting thread, glad it is continuing.

    I’ve been thinking about my original post and wanted to add that when I’ve “fallen in love” with a fictional character, book or movie or whatever, I’ve somehow known that what I wanted was to become that character, not to have that character with me IRL as a partner. After I was no longer in high school and I was out and about and working and having adventures, I stopped falling in love with fictional people.

    Gandalf? I wanted all that wisdom and experience.
    Bond? I wanted the skills and the adventures.
    Jodi Sheckter? Ok, he isn’t fictional, but he could sure drive a race car!
    There was once a long list, precious few women on it, too. I had better luck with non-fictional women, they usually managed to keep fighting: Amelian Erhart, Mae West, Annie Bonney.

    Anyhow, this naval-gazing is just for the point that I suspect that there are two different (or perhaps more) kinds of “falling in love with fiction”: There is the kind where one wants the object and the other where one wants to be the object. This business of the dolls is definately the first.

  • its a nice thing but if you are serious because as you know that the love is life and life full of love is like the tree with fully flourish with fruits but the life with out love is like the barren.
    and the true love is that when you see to any one then your heart beat rise up and you say that that is my life.

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  • Grinebiter

    The banner before the comments is “Find your Filipina Beauty today!”. Not entirely irrelevant to the topic, perhaps.

    I can’t navigate romantic life either, whether modern or ancient, but I find the 2-D Lovers phenomenon as described seriously squicky; and no, I don’t have crushes on fictitious characters. (In my youth, maybe of La Sargenta’s “I want to be him” variety, but that was a long time ago.) I see love in terms of doing good unto the Other, which you can’t do to a fiction; and infatuation as a bad thing, whether for a real person or not. So I don’t see this phenomenon as an inevitable consequence of being off the market, lonely, frustrated or whatever. One can surely live a life without love but also without delusion?

    On the link between standards, misery and consumption, I’m with Victor.

  • stryker1121

    I have very mixed feelings about this…on one hand, it’s very easy to condescend to people like those described in the NYT piece (and yes, some of you are coming off as very condescending and self-indulgent), but for some the world is a cold, indifferent and even a malignant place. The world breaks some people, like the aforementioned George Sandino (by all accounts a textbook psychotic who probably allowed himself to be broken), while others cling to whatever they can to make them content and able to face the day-to-day.

    However, I must admit the Times piece disturbed me…that a grown man (Nisan, who the writer lead with) would be SO lonely as to cling to a pillowcase for companionship and more. A pillowcase that sexualizes a teen girl, no less. (Read the comment section following the Times story; the comments are as enlightening as the article itself.) The questions I have, Is this man “broken” (by society’s standards of normalcy at least) b/c he’s lonely, or lonely b/c he’s broken? Why is he unable to connect w/ a real person? I don’t the answers, but these are questions worth pondering before dismissing people like this as demented freaks.

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