I spend a lot of my non-work hours watching and reading stories. Experiencing non-existent reality. Being in love with everything that isn’t actual. And when I am done with a story, I spend time daydreaming about it and its characters. Time, many would tell me to rather spend on pursuing more practical avocations. Like talking to a real person, and assembling associations with them.
I know them to be sensible schemes too – I am not unreasonable. But you see, my interaction with fictional characters has helped my interpersonal relations. These characters allowed me to navigate the complexity that is life by allowing me to live a life I possibly never can in actuality.
Literature is a fantastic avenue for us to go through others’ experiences, empathise with them and understand them. There is a long history of exposing people to fiction to inculcate their empathy for others. We include fiction in school curriculums, and in libraries in prisons and ask for a read list in college applications, to make them have a humanising approach to characterisation. Aristotle was probably one of the first recorded people who talked about the ethical values fictional work carries. David Foster Wallace said, “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.”
Fictional scenarios with fictional characters have, more often than not, provided me with a davenport to work on my trepidations, think through my problems, and come up with solutions for them. Something that has helped me look out for my perturbed self.
When a story is engaging, I spend a lot of time, effort, energy and emotion in it, in its characters. You see, fictional characters have their own allure; a charm that is quite difficult to be replaced with real characters. Interactions with fictional characters are complete as opposed to those with real ones, where we hardly have full knowledge of their deportment that are characteristic of their persona. You are always on shifting sands with real people. I would love to blame the pandemic for allowing me to spend significantly less time with my real friends and appreciably more with screens, but my reliance on fictional characters far predates it.
I am not one to read self-help books. But I have enjoyed self-improvement benefits because of reading fiction. Or watching it. Exploring the world and its people who solely live in the minds. Spending time with these characters provides me with a much-needed period of creative incubation allowing me to approach scenarios in my real life in unexplored ways. Katherine Beckett taught me more about being a strong, independent individual than my mostly superficial gender studies classes ever did. Before feminism was used and misunderstood this widely, Hermione taught me what it means to be a feminist and recognise and own your strengths and weaknesses. Samwise Gamgee taught me that you don’t need to take the spotlight to be of value and Samwell Tarly taught me that putting someone else down does not elevate you.
These characters, constructed through the interplay betwixt top-down knowledge from the mind of the reader and bottom-up knowledge from the text, have their own agency, desires and conflicts, independent of other characters. These ample arrays of fully realised, three-dimensional characters who display a wide variety of emotions have a lot to offer than most real, existing characters. A product of linguistics and cognition, these characters aren’t just your companion you feel comfortable around, they also engender a safe space for you — a space where you don’t have to worry about how you are being perceived by them.
Numerous studies talk about the dangers of developing para-social relationships with inhabitants of fictional worlds. Many close to me have pointed out that investing in fictional characters hardly pays off as imaginary people even if based on a real person are quite distant from them. But aren’t identities of real people hardly a precise portrayal of that person either? Rather a partial presentation formulated in situated communication, that is shaped by specific objectives, societal forces, belief systems and many others. Equating fictional characters with mere imagination poses the danger of making the role actual people play in different situations difficult to understand.
As someone who struggles with social anxiety, I find it less intimidating to interact with real people once I have had conversations with fictional ones. The fictional realm with its characters and situations provides me with a mechanism to cope with the challenges of the real world without burdening someone with my emotional encumbrance. And while I do, fortunately, have enough real people around me to share my trepidations with, I am partial to easing them with my fictional friends first.
Priya Singh is a researcher and an accumulation of antitheticals.