Why Do We Respond to Fictional Characters As Though They Were Real People?


You know how when you read about great coffee you can smell great coffee? Falling in love with a character of a story is like that. It can be an emotionally potent experience at a biochemical level. 

Last January, right after making some financial plans for the year, Creation Entertainment announced the “First Official” Outlander Convention for August to be held right outside Manhattan. Sam Heughan (Jamie), Caitriona Balfe (Claire), and Tobias Menzies (Frank/Black Jack) were all slated to headline among several other actors from the show. 


It took a couple of days, but the desire to go settled deep within me. No, I couldn’t really pay for it, but I had time to earn the money (isn’t that how it works?), so I clicked “Pay Now”. Buh-bye responsible goals.

Here’s the deal with Outlander and me. I will try to be succinct. I tuned into the TV show probably three years ago now without expectations. I’d vaguely heard of the books. I had just a few online friends who couldn’t stop talking about it, so I decided to check it out. From the first episode, I could feel something strongly waking up in me. I remember it starting in my belly and radiating out from there. It's like I breathed a deep breath as if I'd never done it before. Three years later, I can still clearly remember that feeling. It was like I was falling though the stones.

If a genie could grant me three wishes, one of them would be to experience "Outlander" over and over again as if it was my first time. Falling in love with "Outlander" changed me at a deep place. I do the work I do today because of the way this story woke me up to who I was and am. 

It was the music and setting of Scotland that first called me. Then it was the female protagonist and her deep need to connect with and own her sexuality and gender despite more traditional settings. Next, it was the Highlanders. My first love was a Scotsman and I was dumbfounded as I remembered him more clearly than I had in decades in the culture of the clansmen. The Highlanders embodied the lusty crassness this good girl, me, had been fascinated and mystified by way back when. I was experiencing again through the screen the raw physicality of their commitment to protect their loved ones and honor with their bodies and wits.  Outlander helped me remember and understand. 

And then there’s Jamie.

A popular "Outlander" meme: "God created man, but Diana Gabaldon created Jamie Fraser."

A popular "Outlander" meme: "God created man, but Diana Gabaldon created Jamie Fraser."

Jamie is no ordinary romantic hero. I wish I had the writing talent and ability to put down in black-n-white what his character represents to me and the fans who have become my online tribe.  Jamie suffers greatly, but remains strong and unsullied. He’s funny in a cheeky and endearing way. He calls Claire by a nickname almost from the beginning of their interactions (the high school boyfriend and his family did that, too, interestingly.). He’s honorable, he’s patient, he sacrifices, he protects, and he is completely and totally in long-term love with Claire.

“It’s always been forever for me, Sassenach.” 

Outlander is not a story of “will they or won’t they” or one where once the sexual tension is released, the story loses its intrigue. It’s a story of a marriage, the author Diana Gabaldon has stated and let me tell you, she knows how to write the sex scenes. I’ve never read anything like them. I would be dishonest to try and say they are just an add-on to the story and most readers could take them or leave them. No. My fan friends and I are smitten. I had a conversation in my store with another fan just today where she said she was done apologizing for how much she loved Jamie and Claire's relationship. The connection they share is richly sensual, poetic, and transcendent. I never cringe. Instead, I want to cry with the longing for everyone to know connection like theirs. It represents the way things could be. 

All that to say, Jamie, Claire, Black Jack, Frank, Jenny (yes, there’s a Jenny in the story and I absolutely adore her!)…they feel so real to me.

Jenny and Jamie Fraser, brother and sister

Jenny and Jamie Fraser, brother and sister

And so I find myself attending my first “Con”, a fan convention of all things Outlander, in a few weeks.

But two days ago, the actor that plays Jamie, Sam Heughan, canceled his appearance. 

BRUTAL! Crushed. He’s becoming more popular with a movie opening tomorrow, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” and is headed to South Africa to start filming, “Bloodshot” a film with Vin Diesel. I might never get the chance to meet him in the relatively small pond of Outlander fandom.

Good-bye photo op I had all planned out to then hang up in the bookstore. Goodbye fifteen seconds to experience the actor who embodies Jamie in 3D. Goodbye chance to viscerally feel that larger than life force of nature so many great actors have up close and personal. 

The disappointment is real. I’m working hard with being ok that Sam won’t be there. I am hardly alone in this process. The fan groups exploded with the news. But hopefully, we can “Release the Story” of how we wanted it to be and relax into what will still be a really fun time for the fans.

Did you know there's a part of our brain that lights up when we "fall in love" with fictional characters? I'm so relieved there's a biological reason because I can't seem to talk myself out of such things. A greater understanding of the brain science behind our celebrity crushes and often very strong feelings can be found here: The Psychology of Fandom: Why We Get Attached to Fictional Characters

There's SO many moral conversations I have in my head with imagined people who disapprove of a good Christian married woman being a fangirl. And yes, I also know I'm a middle-aged white woman and we make up the majority of his current fan base and there's a lot of judgment out there. But still I relish this experience, the ups and downs, because I consider it a gift. I consider getting to play with our stories even as adults is one of the most delightful experiences our imaginations can give us. 

I am glad I fell down this rabbit hole.

Who is a fictional character you have "fallen in love with"? Tell me everything.