The Strange Way We Care So Much About Fictional Characters

Louis Menand discusses the downright weird way we care about fictional characters we know perfectly well aren't really real.


Certainly one of the weirdest aspects of human nature is the way we get so invested emotionally in fictional characters, even though we know they’re just made-up, just words on a page somewhere. We shout a satisfied “Yippie-i-o-kayay, m$@#*^%!” when Hans Gruber finally gets his in Die Hard, and we use up all the Kleenex when Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling finally connect in the Notebook. What is wrong with us? We know these people aren’t real. Why do we care so much? I’m still ticked about Wash in Serenity.

Some neurologists swear by “mirror neurons,” a subset of neurons that fire when we observe someone else doing or feeling something as if it was us — they believe that the neurons provide an evolutionary benefit by endowing us with the empathy required to function in a group. Not everyone agrees.

There are psychologists who suggest that if we see a characters as having human motivations, we’re programmed to decide if we like and care about them or not, or if they make us furious or scare us.

And, of course, we can’t discount the purely manipulative power of a movie soundtrack. Artful soundtrack composers know how to work our feelings with music, even if no one really understands the mechanism that makes music so unbelievably effective at doing so — it’s another topic for another day.

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