Shed a Tear for the Lost Ones – Our Emotional Connection to Characters

It’s a strange feeling to walk into your dimly lit apartment only to find your roommate wrapped in a blanket, sobbing. It becomes even more bizarre when you find out the reason. No, his girlfriend didn’t break up with him. Everyone who he cares about is doing just fine, except for someone that has staked out a special place in his heart. This particular someone has been around for several seasons and can easily be found every Sunday night promptly at 9pm. The funny thing is that this particular someone isn’t real. Well, a real person plays the role of this alleged someone.

Alright, enough of the vagueness. Your roommate’s favorite TV character died. The show is changing course and left behind is the one person who made tuning in to watch the weekly show so exciting. So sad, isn’t it?

I’m sure you can relate if you’re a fan of any show that has early, unexpected exits for a main character. Mention of Grey’s Anatomy might be too soon, as fans are still griping about recent events.

Mourning, whining and letting oneself slip into depression is exactly the kind of asinine behavior that is worth exploring. Perhaps, describing it as asinine is a little too harsh, but to the confused roommate it might just suit the circumstance.

Audiences are well aware of their fictional reality, though they can’t help but feel emotional tugs to characters. It’s not limited to tragic events either. People will celebrate the hero’s defeat of the villain, and cheer on the perfect couple’s wedding.

Such phenomena of emotional connection is attributed to great narrative fiction. Storytelling enables audiences to get a sneak peek into character development. Nothing is hidden for the most part. They journey through a character’s pivotal life events and have unfiltered access to their private thoughts and doings. Gathering so much information about a character, despite their non-real make-up, forges a connection.

Why is the connection so meaningful when it’s not even with a real person, and the fabricated person doesn’t even know who you are?

Blakey Vermeule, author of “Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?”, details the reason why people are so interested in others lives. She goes on to say that humans have a need to explain both themselves and others, and there’s no better place to pull out social cues than literary and media produced work.

Another theory floating around concerns that of universal experiences and the phenomena of empathy and sympathy. Howard Sklar, a post doctoral researcher in the English Philology Unit at the University of Helsink, makes us think about those universal experiences by drawing attention to the “seat’s taken” scene in Forrest Gump, in which a young Forrest is snubbed out of a seat on his school bus.

Sklar expands on his theory by adding, “we’d have no way of processing a character cognitively if we didn’t have experiences with people outside of the fictional world.”

It’s possible that a good portion of the audience who has seen Forrest Gump can relate to “moments of social ostracism.” The situation might have been different but the feeling of exclusion can be all too familiar, and when it’s recalled, a sudden emotional pain hits close to home. The audience can really perceive how hurt the character is based upon how hurtful their own experience was. This is empathy.

Empathy enables a person to experience the feelings of another. This can lead to sympathy, which enables a person to understand another’s feelings. As long as the narrative engages and forges a strong connection to the character’s woes or victories, then the audience’s investment will be reflected in their own emotions.

Maybe your roommate knows his favorite TV character better than you. After all, he’s not left wondering what you were doing for the entire evening, and then who can blame him for shedding some tears for a lost fictional friend.

Image via Flickr/Mark Roy

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