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Why we think that fictional characters are real

The reboot of the TV series Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: The Return premiered on the 21st of May, to a huge response from fans. What was interesting is how they responded, criticizing the producers if any of the characters deviated from their previous incarnations by so much as a word or gesture. They were commenting as if the people of “Twin Peaks”, “Detective Dale Cooper”, “The Log Lady”, “Laura Palmer”, etc., were real. What interests me, is why we identify with fictional characters and think they are real – or want to believe they are real. There has to be a psychological or neurological basis for this. In the linked pages of this post I discuss one reason at a time, from our ability to fantasize to the way our brains work.There are numerous anecdotal and documented instances of readers and viewers demonstrating that they think fictional characters are real, for instance:

Comments from the Twin Peaks aficionados show that everything about the characters, from what they do, to how they look and talk, has been minutely dissected, revealing deep knowledge, as with someone you know really well:

“If you squirm at an early scene that lavishes almost a full minute on a man unpacking shovels from a cardboard carton, by the time Lynch devotes three minutes to the same man methodically spray-painting the shovels gold, the pacing seems just right, even though you still have no idea what he’s up to. (Besides, he’s Russ Tamblyn’s Dr. Jacoby, back again with those mismatched sunglasses!)” Review by Laura Miller in

With the death, on the 23rd of May 2017, of Roger Moore, one of the actors who played “James Bond” for many years, it became clear that the actor was very much identified with the fictional character, and that his every move in real life, his wives, clothes, hair, glasses, voice, etc., were associated with and compared to the character of Bond – rather than vice versa.

With the airing of the series, Dickensian, on the BBC in 2015, fans of Charles Dickens and the immemorial characters he created were furious when dead characters like “Jacob Marley” (one of the ghosts from A Christmas Carol) appeared, one of many “mistakes”.


The question is why do fictional characters become real to people, and why they keep trying to substantiate or somehow make real something that exists only in the mind of an author? Take the scores of people who descend on Iceland simply because of Game of Thrones, the “literary sleuths” who wander through Ystad, Sweden, in the footsteps of Henning Mankell’s character “Wallander”, or people poring over the scenes of murders in Edinburgh, Scotland, investigated by Ian Rankin’s fictional detective “Inspector John Rebus”. These fans want to bridge the gap between fiction and reality and go to the places where the novels have been set. What do they hope for? That they will catch a glimpse of Wallander standing on the shore, gazing out to sea, with Jussi on a lead? (Actually, that’s what I would hope for.)

These instances are more than a case of purists getting finicky. People do identify strongly with fictional characters, whether in games, films, photos or books, and they become real to them. They identify with them to the extent that they create fan fiction to “tell the story properly” or have the ending the way THEY imagine it should be done, considering that THEY truly connect with the characters.

To take this idea to the extreme, fans even ask actors for their legal, medical or investigative advice, depending on the characters they portray. And they do so, knowingly. It’s awkward for the actor, unless the actor can quickly spout some lines of script, but moreover, it’s daft. So daft in fact that this situation has formed the basis of film comedies, Galaxy Quest, in 1999 and Paul, in 2011.

So, why is that?

There are eight possible reasons why we do this, but the list is not exhaustive.

1. Because of our ability to suspend our disbelief while we read, which confuses facts with fiction
2. Because of our intention when we tackle a book
3. Because it is enjoyable
4. Because of how good the writing and the graphics are
5. Because of our ability to feel empathy
6. Because we confuse the source of the information and mix up facts and fiction
7. Because we feel the characters are just like us
8. Because our brains are hardwired that way

I’ve explained each reason on the linked pages. Each reason is interesting in itself, but taking all the arguments into consideration would explain why we can feel empathy even for non-human characters in Science fiction.

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