My lover waits between the sheets: On literary loves

Graphic by Emma Li

I don’t often read Reddit, but a recent question-turned-confession titled “I think I’ve fallen in love with a fictional character” caught my attention:

“I know people get crushes on fictional characters all the time, but this has gone beyond a crush. I’m infatuated with him. … [H]e’s the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing on my mind before I go to sleep.”

The dilemma posed here by user “someperson23” is not an uncommon one — the very anonymity of their name suggests that this problem could plague anyone. There is a booming world of reader-generated content that speaks to this infatuation with certain literary characters.

FanFiction.net is estimated to have over two million users and nearly eight million published pages of content. Other sites have taken it a step further, even offering a marriage certificate between you and your favorite character.

This issue also relates to the nature of romance in fiction and the often stereotypic portrayals books can promote. Literary characters are usually more attractive, smarter, funnier, romantic and entertaining than living, breathing people. They were written that way.

And this post is especially fitting for Valentine’s Day, a holiday for which companies sell consumers a carefully crafted caricature of love — one that requires you to spend $60 on a bouquet of roses.

The holiday often champions romantic love, but Plato teaches us that there are other types — platonic love, familial love, even the love of knowledge. This Reddit user’s post, however, begs us to add one more: literary love, or, in more clinical terms, fictiophilia.

In the case of someperson23, this refers to when a reader falls in love with a fictional character. However, I’d like to expand it to include falling in love with the fictional world the author has created.

Ever since I finished my first full trilogy (Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium”), I’ve come to intimately understand the heartbreak induced by the end of a series, that inevitable moment when you must leave the fictional world in which you’ve been immersed.

Reading is, at its essence, a suspension of disbelief — we are willing to temporarily put aside rationality in order to inhabit the world of a writer’s mind. But if we are taking part in this knowingly, then why is it so hard to return to reality afterwards?

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The answer, it turns out, lies in neurobiology. When a writer does their job well, evoking all of the sensory details of their literary cosmos, then our eager little book-loving brains light up in response.

The New York Times reported on the findings of a 2006 study in the journal NeuroImage. A team of researchers in Spain examined the difference in neurological activity when participants read neutral words versus words with strong olfactory associations. They found that the primary olfactory cortex of the subjects activated when they read words such as “perfume” but not for words like “chair.”

Other studies corroborated these results by examining words with texture and motion associations, leading the NYT article to conclude that “the brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.”

It is not so surprising, then, that a reader might fall in love with a character. Is this the cost of being a reader? Such a dismal catch-22: we must believe in a fictional world in order to fully enjoy it, but that act of belief itself then makes the inevitable return to reality all the more harrowing.

This might not be a pain particular to readers, either. The movie “Ruby Sparks” tells the story of a writer who, well, writes his ideal girlfriend into existence. Putting aside the fact that the film is the epitome of Manic Pixie Dream Girl mania, it does make a worthwhile point. If we readers think we get lost in the book’s world, then imagine the poor writer.

While that may seem bleak, it is also ultimately what is so wondrous about reading. We are, for brief periods of time, able to escape into a world that is often more perfect, more marvelous, more startling than our own. And that escape can then inform our experiences with reality, as little as we would like to have returned to it.

Other studies have shown that fiction readers have an increased aptitude for empathy. That same NYT article reports on the findings of Dr. Keith Oatley and Dr. Raymond Mar, who found that frequent readers were able to “better understand other people.” The act of reading thus appears to improve our ability for imagining the rich inner lives of others, allowing us to consider different perspectives more easily.

Beyond the benefits and costs, this phenomenon of literary love calls into question larger philosophical meditations on the nature of love and reality. Is the “love” felt by readers such as someperson23 real? If so, that would imply that love can exist in a fictional realm, that is does not need to be based in reality.

While it is strange to think that, in some ways, the writer has manufactured the love between the reader and a fictional character, this relationship does not seem to be so different from the more typical versions of love we associate between partners in non-literary conceptions.

Because, at the end of the day, if reading is a suspension of disbelief, isn’t that what real life love is, too? We put aside, if only temporarily, our cynicism at living in a Tinder and hookup world, a world in which it feels harder and harder to find meaningful connections. We trust that our partner won’t hurt us — that they will protect that burgeoning, blushing, blooming intimacy between us.

And yes, the risk of heartbreak is ever present. When a relationship doesn’t work out. When a particularly good book comes to end. But at the end of the day, love — and reading — seem worth it.

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Samantha Resnick PO ’19 likes reading words, and sometimes, she likes writing them, too.

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