Why the death of a fictional character hurts

Illustration of someone looking stressed while reading a book.
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Surprisingly, when I pulled my first all-nighter in college, the cause wasn’t the accumulating projects, exams and essays. Rather, it was due to the death of a fictional character. 

After spending the first half of the night absorbed in an epic tale with pirates, romance and magical powers, I spent the second half sobbing into my pillow after a child in the story died to exchange her life for one of the recently deceased main characters. The graphic description of the death of the main character, the sacrifice of the child and the well-written anguish of the protagonist all served to send me bawling. Even after I turned off the lights in an attempt to sleep, the pain plagued me. I mourned her lost future and grieved over the impossible choice she had to make. Given how emotionally invested I was in this story, the emotional effects only faded after a weekend. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve cried over a fictional character, but it is the first time I had such a strong emotional response. The next morning, when my eyes were puffy and red, a strong wave of embarrassment washed over me. What was wrong with me? This was a fictional story, after all. None of these characters actually existed. So why did it impact me so much? Why did it hurt? 

This is because our brains largely treat our emotional relationship with fictional characters the same way it does with our real relationships. Spending a significant amount of time watching these characters grow will naturally build a strong bond between the reader and said character. When we go through a story, we witness their growth, challenges, turmoils, hopes. We imagine a life for them. We build an image in our minds. The suspension of disbelief inherent in fiction allows us to feel like those characters are real at that moment when we are reading or watching. We empathize. We find ourselves in them. Hence, if the character dies, the reader will often feel grief as well. 

I think this is representative of the human ability to empathize. We can feel the pain of other people when they are sad or angry. It is this feeling that fosters the sense of community and belonging that humans rely on. So in these fictional worlds, where the emotions are portrayed or written so well that it practically flows off of the pages, it triggers our natural ability to empathize. But these emotions are what make stories epic in the first place. Without heartbreak, tragedy and obstacles, much of the anticipatory excitement of the reading experience is gone. The wild rides books and movies bring us on allow us to escape and fully immerse ourselves in another world; we inevitably get emotionally invested. 

We see the pain of fictional characters. We witness the consequences of such tragedies. We watch other characters grieve over the death as they go through feelings of denial, turmoil, sadness and anger. We are able to imagine their devastation, their heartbreak and their facial expressions morphing into ones of utter grief. We mourn with them. Crying over a fictional character doesn’t mean you’re overly sensitive. In fact, it is a strong indicator that you are a very empathetic person. In essence, our ability to empathize is the reason why we will be hurt over the death of a fictional character. 

That is not to say that people who do not cry when watching sad movies or reading tragic stories are unempathetic, unfeeling stones. Just like everything else, our emotional responses vary. Just because people express them in various ways doesn’t mean one is less empathetic than the other. It changes from person to person. We have different hobbies, goals, fears, quirks and lives. Our different life experiences and personality influence our instinctual responses to these situations. 

Me, I cry very easily. I can burst into tears in a few moments during a stressful situation, and I have. I cry when I am angry, sad or frustrated, which often leads to feelings of embarrassment — especially if I shed tears in front of other people. This made me feel as if I had to hide any of the emotional attachments I felt with fictional characters to keep any judgment away. However, at the end of the day, when I reach the last page of a story, this emotional response is my way of expressing any kind of distress — and no one needs to feel shame for experiencing pain over the death of a fictional character.

Contact Winnie Wang at [email protected].