On Falling in Love with Fictional Characters

Today I’d like to talk about a phenomenon I’ve noticed while reading several books over the course of my life so far: what (for the sake of brevity) I’ll call “falling in love with a fictional character.” My focus is less on what this involves; instead, I’m particularly interested in exploring why it happens with some characters and not others.

This usually happens for me when the book has a male point-of-view character and has a romantic plot or subplot between that character and a major female character. Several recent books by Lois McMaster Bujold are good examples of this, including The Curse of Chalion, A Civil Campaign, and the first volumes of the Sharing Knife series. Except for the point-of-view qualifier, The Lord of the Rings fits in this category too. And I know I’ve read several others that fit in this category, but I can’t think of them now.

A second, related, category of books that cause this phenomenon is books with a female point-of-view character romantically linked to a major male character, provided the male lead is described in terms that make me identify with him. Perhaps the canonical example is Pride and Prejudice, but Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night is another good example.

And then there are the books with female protagonists drawn in such appealing terms that the effect is hardly avoidable. When I read (and reread, over and over) the Narnia series in elementary school, for example, I “fell in love” (in a childish fashion, of course) with Lucy Pevensie. Some of Tamora Pierce’s heroines are similarly appealing, as is Faris Nallaneen of Caroline Stevermer’s College of Magics.

One outlier in my experience—which is perhaps the main reason I wanted to write this post—is Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series. Until the last two or three books in the series, it seemed overwhelmingly obvious to me that (to use the model I’ve built up here so far) the Harry Potter series fit in the first category above: that Rowling was subtly describing her point-of-view character and protagonist falling in love with the female lead. When the story turned abruptly in an incompatible direction, this drove me to prefer fan fiction.

Have you experienced this phenomenon? Do you have any explanations for it? Or any other comments?


4 thoughts on “On Falling in Love with Fictional Characters

  1. Yes, I’m very fond of certain male characters in novels – not sure I can analyze as you have. It’s strange that you mention Gaudy Night. I thoroughly LIKE Lord Peter Wimsey. He is dashing, silly, affectionate, a sterling man. And I greatly like, I very much esteem (I’m trying to use Eleanor’s words about Edward Ferris in Austen’s S&S) the humorous yet serious, seriously likable Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s love.
    Forgive my misspelling of names throughout.

    • Your allusion goes somewhat over my head, I’m afraid, as I haven’t yet read Sense and Sensibility (nor Sense and Sensibilia, for that matter). But I’d like to distinguish between “falling for” a character and mere fondness: the former (which is probably a fairly idiosyncratic reaction, since it, like my general dislike of suspense stories and the like, is probably related to my tendency to “identify with” the characters to the point of strong empathy) is partly a sense that were I in the situation (either as the relevant character, in the first and second categories I described above, or as my imagined self) I would at least seriously consider courting the fictional young lady in question, and a wistful longing hope that someday God will join me to a helpmate similar to her in relevant respects. while a character I’m “fond” of is one I hope to see succeed, and admire (“greatly like and very much esteem” is sometimes going a bit far, but not always), but don’t see “that way.” I’m often fond of the “supporting leads” in romantic plots or subplots I like—Jane in Pride and Prejudice or Iselle in Curse of Chalion, for example—as well as numerous other characters in fiction more broadly. It is (as your other comment suggests) rather like friendship.

      A contributing cause to the existence (or at least the somewhat frequent and widespread occurrence) of this “phenomenon,” I suspect, is the (generationally) recent prominence of the unspoken cultural axiom that there is (at least usually; sometimes exceptions are admitted after the assumption has been exhaustively disproved in a case) only really one kind of fervent and intimate love, namely romantic (or its baser imitation, in discussions in crasser circles), so the “default” is that a young man interpret any feelings of admiration, respect, or love for a young lady of his acquaintance as romantic love, a habit that can in some cases transfer to a fictional “young lady of his acquaintance.”

      (After several days thinking hard about utterly unrelated things, I don’t particularly recall whether my closing questions had any particular implications, but one thing I’d particularly like discussion of is the last category I identified: we may presume that it is the intent of romantic fiction to cause its readers to “fall in love with” one lead character to the extent that they identify with the other, and so it’s a measure of their success that the “phenomenon” happens, but that doesn’t explain the stories where that wasn’t the author’s intention, and it especially doesn’t explain the stories where it strongly conflicts with the author’s later-made-explicit intention.)

      • Jonathan, not everything is under the writer’s control, as you say. Things don’t happen only in response to an author’s intent. Mostly they do, but readers are people who respond independently of the wishes of others. They will enjoy, or empathize with, or admire (in the romantic sense) whomever they will.

        Yes, Jane in Pride and Prejudice is an excellent character. When she responds to her own happiness over Mr. Bingley’s proposal of marriage, it takes the form of joy over how happy all of her family will be made by it. She is a true Christian heroine, I believe, in that her mind seems to be one that has been transformed.

  2. An explanation for this phenomenon? Do you mean the phenomenon of ‘falling for’ certain characters in books? Or ‘falling for’ some characters, but not others? You probably intend both.

    I believe we react to characters in books as if they were people. We want to marry only our beloved, but we can still enjoy certain personalities that bring us joy or a special kind of friendship.

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