Why Do We Get So Emotionally Attached To Our Favorite TV Characters?

I still cry when Carrie and Aidan break up. And these are reruns I've seen a million times. 

Well, I hope he never reads this, but I may have seen my husband sniffle and tear up over an episode of The Walking Dead after he lost his fictional pal, Glenn. Also, when he lost another close friend Hodor, who was a fictional character on Game of Thrones. Following the deaths of characters he’s grown attached two, he falls into an emotional funk for a day or two, telling me what he really loved about those guys. I nod, I understand, I don't think he's crazy. I watch neither of those shows, but I can relate. When Carrie Bradshaw broke up with Aidan on Sex and the City, I almost threw up, I was so heartbroken. I loved a fun high school reunion scene from Casual so hard recently, I rewound it until I cried. I loved Valerie having fun. Who is Valerie? Valerie is a fictional character who doesn’t exist in real life. 

But I am not alone. 

One man wrote into Quora to try to understand why he is so emotionally attached to the characters on his favorite TV shows

“I’m a 22 year old guy, so this is a little embarrassing for me to admit. I find that I get so emotionally attached to TV characters on long running shows, like Dexter, Breaking Bad, Lost, The Sopranos, The Wire, etc...

“I don't know. Take Dexter for example. I used to love that show. Everything about it was perfect…Butwe were given an unsatisfying ending. When I watched the ending, all I could feel was disappointment and some anger. But after calming down at the end of the day, I was struck with the reality that the show was over. No more Dexter, no more Deb, no more Angel, no more Quinn. It was at that moment when I literally broke into tears. It's just that I've developed a certain bond with these characters after watching them for so long, feeling their ups and downs, that I couldn't get over the fact that the ride was over. You know that choking sensation you get when you're really sad and you're holding back so many tears? That's exactly what I felt. 

Which is weird because as an adult, I got used to being ‘manly’ through sad situations. But somehow I couldn't hold the tears. 

“Does anyone out there experience something like this? Or am I alone?”

So why do we respond in a real emotional way to fictional characters as if they were real people? For one, we are projecting our own emotional experiences onto the character and are empathizing with them. Howard Sklar, a post doctoral researcher in the English Philology Unit at the University of Helsinki did a study on this exact subject. He says when we get attached to the people who live behind the screen, we are having a true emotional connection—even if the person is a fictional one—because we learned in real life how to feel the emotions.

“We’d have no way of processing a character cognitively if we didn’t have experiences with people outside of the fictional world,” he says. “The experiences with fictional characters resonate with us because of the fact that we’ve had deep experiences with people throughout our lives.”

Empathy then leads to sympathy, ability to understand that another person is experiencing pain (please see Carrie example above). We then wish for them to be relieved of their pain. If a character gets sick or dies, anyone who has experienced loss can relate, and real life emotions over a loss can resurface. We miss them like we do a friend. 

“As anyone who has watched an engaging film or read an engaging novel knows, we invest ourselves deeply in the experience of living with those characters,” Howard says. “We tend to respond to them as though they were real individuals.”

Also, humans subconsciously fill in the details of characters’ lives that are missing, and we tend to give them an entire background and backstory that makes them multidimensional. 

Relationship expert and author of The Flirting BibleFran Greene, says there are several reasons why TV viewers react to characters as if they are real people. 

"The number one reason that the viewer feels strong emotions is that they identify with the character and therefore have a true emotional reaction," she explains. "Although they know the TV actor is 'acting,' in their own mind they think of the situation as if it is happening to them or what they would feel like if they went through something similar. Once the viewer has a gut reaction it activates all sorts of feelings in them and it is hard to just see it as entertainment especially when it is a heartwrenching role."  

Fran also has a good point with TV specifically, saying that unlike going to the theater or movies, TV allows us to become connected to the character on an ongoing basis, especially if the actor portraying the character is very realistic. "Since you are viewing them in your own home it becomes more personal. They are 'with you' on a weekly basis and they become part of your life. We want to know what happens next just like we do in real life."

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