In our modern world, it isn’t difficult to find a fictional figure to fall in love with. Whether it’s a book or a movie, we as humans seem to find it easy to connect to a made-up character. Why is this? Why can we feel such a bond with someone who isn’t even real? The answer lies within the human brain.
The main reason is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings with someone else. This is directly related to common experience and our aptness to comprehend emotion. Howard Sklar, a researcher from the University of Helsinki theorizes that because we are witnessing the character’s life from a personal perspective – whether in the first person or the third person omniscient – we can claim their experiences and emotions as our own, making them relatable. Doctor Pinchas Noy claims that there are three basic components to empathy.
The first component is a sensitivity to other people’s sentiments. The ability to “read” the emotions of someone else creates a strong understanding between humans. The same idea goes for fictional beings. Even though they are just words on a page or figures on a screen, our access to their thoughts and feelings gives us a sense of “knowing” them. We can relate to what they’re going through, just like real people. The experience is even more intense when other readers or viewers have a similar connection to the character, because it forms a sense of community.
The second component is the particular perceptual mode. This is usually the way we receive the information, such as through reading or viewing, but it can also be the way it stimulates our brains. Descriptive words, for example, stimulate our creativity. The tone of the work also plays a major part in this. By presenting the audience with an emotional scene, such as a death or a romantic venture, the author or producer is attempting to pull on your heartstrings. After all, the more emotionally relatable the story is, the better it sells. Take John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, for example. The novel has only been published for two years now, and yet over 10.7 million copies have already been sold. It is available in forty-six languages. The official trailer for the film has been viewed more than nineteen million times, and on the premier weekend in theaters, The Fault In Our Stars made over 48.2 million dollars. Why is this book so drastically different from any other love story or great tragedy? Many think that it’s because it is realistic in our world today. Cancer is a disease that so many people have been affected by, and the love story is so pure that it’s impossible not to get emotionally involved. I personally witnessed an entire theater not just crying, but sobbing over a fictional character death, myself included, because the characters were so beautifully created to represent real people.
The third component is our tendency to project our own personality into someone else. We subconsciously try to change people to replicate ourselves. As we cannot alter a written character, we look for the pieces of their mannerisms that we can relate to. Some characters have a wide range of emotions, and are easy for everyone to identify with. Others… not so much. The feelings of love, hate, worry, and fear that a character instills also determines our ability and willingness to find a piece of ourselves in them. You rarely ever find someone who is a hardcore fan of a loathsome villain, because they do not want to be associated with the feelings that character presents. They may admire some of the characteristics of that figure, but they tend not to come out and say it.
The beginning of relatable works began during and after the Renaissance. The development of Humanism, or the belief that man is important, lit the way for novels that displayed human emotion and everything that comes with it. War, death, and destruction, yes, but also peace, love, and hope. These are the things that keep humanity moving along. Without someone to show us how to hold onto our beliefs, we would be an extremely depressed society. Humanity in itself tends to sway to the negative side of the spectrum. We read books and watch movies because we admire the strength of the characters and their ability to get up and keep going even when all seems lost. We aspire to be like these figures, and so we find anything we can to identify with in their personality to prove that it’s possible to reach our goals.
Now, this does not mean that in any way are the most admirable figures of fiction perfect. In fact, it is their flaws that are what really connects us to them. By displaying their “humanness”, it simulates what we typically see from people such as political candidates, or even actors. The “I’m just like you, so you should admire me” ploy. Granted, it makes no difference to a fictional being whether or not you like them, but it means the world to the author or producer. As aforementioned, the things that we can emotionally connect to sell better. Why write a book or create a movie that no one will enjoy? It’s a waste of time and money. So they work hard to make the characters as believable as possible. Even if the concept of the work is completely out of this world, you will notice that at minimum, the main persona exhibits exceedingly human qualities. Spock from Star Trek is a perfect example. His species, the Vulcans, are supposed to be incapable of emotion and rely only on hard facts. Spock, however, was given a human mother for the sole purpose of relatability. Countless times do we witness Spock going through an emotional dilemma, however subtle it may be. If he were just a sterile, dull, intelligent creature, viewers might get bored of him, or even annoyed at his presence. But because we can connect to his hardships, he has easily become one of the most recognizable figures in the film industry.
Our tendency to relate to fictional characters all leads back to human empathy. Our ability and desire to affix ourselves to others that we can look up to is what allows us to connect to the emotions of a cognitively created figure. Now, if we could only begin to transition that same admiration to real people… humanity might finally learn to respect one another for our individual flaws and contributions to the world.