Often when you find something you connect with on a deep and personal level it becomes 'yours'. You make the association of some kind of ownership, and as you do not only does it become 'yours' but you become 'its'. But what does that mean? Is it nothing but escapism, or is it something that can really define who and what you are? This is my attempt to answer these questions, and to perhaps provide a more rounded understanding of the ideal.
The Origins of Becoming Friends with Fictional Characters
When I was a kid, Pokemon was in its blue/red/yellow prime. I fell deeply in love with the games and the tv show - I wanted to be a Pokemon master. I'd heard of this place called 'Japan', and that's where Pokemon came from. My goal was to become a Pokemon Trainer and move to Japan so I could enter the Pokemon league and have my own adventure - just like Ash did. I loved Pokemon so deeply that I came to forget the real name for butterflies, instead knowingly them instinctively as 'butterfrees'. When I got older I was expecting to one day be taken to Professor Oak and given my first Pokemon. I was expecting that I would have a grand adventure and that I would be allowed to travel the world and make lots of friends. This persisted right up until high school: I was entirely convinced that before I started junior high I would instead go off and become a Pokemon trainer. I believed it with every being of my body. I even told friends that I had real Pokemon - because that's just what kids do, and it's also a testament to my utter devotion and belief.
As I progressed through high school - a truly different place from the elementary environment - I found that the world wasn't as exciting as I hoped. People were mean, rough, and thought Pokemon was lame (what losers). I learnt that Pokemon weren't real, and that, fundamentally, no one was coming to rescue me. No one was going to take me into that world. A psychiatrist, or rather just about anyone that's watched a medium-brow tv show, will clearly state it was escapism on a severe level because I just couldn't cope with the change that was occurring before me. And whilst that is all undoubtedly true, it entirely ignores the one fundamental part: Ash, Misty, Brock, Pikachu, and all the other Pokemon and characters, were my friends. I viewed them as such and I listened to what they had to say, I emulated their actions, I trusted their judgement, and I learnt from their mistakes just as they did. I turned to them for moral guidance, I turned to them to be comforted, to be inspired, to have fun. They forged me into a nice, kind, and welcoming person with a strong heart - the exact traits of Ash, Misty, and Brock combined. Even as an adult I place great significance on the effect that Pokemon had on me; in terms of shaping my way of being and how I understand the world.
This bond I forged with the characters persisted. It led me to forge new bonds, with other characters. That's not to say I wasn't making friends in real life, but in comparison, real people seemed to be kind of, pale in comparison. An understanding I came to develop later in life is that, ultimately, you won't be understood by everyone. You won't have a deep connection with many people, in fact, if you even find a friend that fulfills those qualities (aka, a best friend), then you're pretty damn lucky. There's no worse feeling than not being understood - but at the same time there's no better feeling than being understood. These characters gave the latter feeling readily: they gravitated towards me and I to them. It would be decades before I found that kind of connection with a real person.
Are Friends on the Internet Different from Fictional Characters?
In this age, everyone has friends they solely know from the internet and not in real life. In essence, they are characters. Who they are online may not be who they are in real life, in both personality and in physicality. Fundamentally, this makes them 'unreal' - or fictional. Does this make your connection with them hollow? Does it make your experiences with them any less meaningful or memorable? Is it 'sad' to refer to them as great friends, best friends - or even friends at all?
Unsurprisingly, I've played a lot of games online. I've been in many clans, guilds, and teams. I feel so close to these people because we went through hardship, struggles, and triumph together. We went through a shared experience and because of that our bonds became exceptionally strong. In reality, I can honestly say I have next to nothing in common with them aside from the fact that we play the same game. If this were to occur in real life the connection made between us would be so weak that we'd probably forget each others names the second we walked away.
So how does this relate to fictional characters? When you're watching a movie, watching a series, playing a game, or reading a book; you're going through an experience. You get taken on a journey, you get to 'live' something as if you were right there with the main character, or as the main character yourself. You assume the identity of the protagonist or the side-kick, you 'live' that experience. Sometimes you enjoy it so much you 'live' it several times, maybe you even 'live' it for the rest of your life. What is more fundamental than living than by experiencing elements of life? Just because the elements of life you're experiencing are digital or fictional that doesn't make them hollow experiences, and it doesn't make them fictional. You're still 'living' through it, you're engaging with it, you're learning from it. If life isn't a series of experiences, then what is it?
Can you Really Become Friends with Fictional Characters?
Referring to a fictional character as a friend draws immediate attention. It seems to trigger alarm bells of a sociopath, or a 'real loser'. But allow me a chance to explain why it should not instigate those immediate feelings of repulsion. How many times have you read the same book, or played the same game, or watched the same movie? Why do you do it? Because you're in love with the world or because you find the characters deeply engaging? How does living the same experience make you feel? It's like you're hanging out with friends. Depending on the medium (such as a single film) it can be a little box that you singularly enter and close - a pure joy that is just for you. Other times it can be a gigantic world where everyone joins in, such as Star Wars or DeviantArt, where everyone who is in that world with you is a friend - like a giant community.
It doesn't matter if a person is fictional or not. All that matters is how you feel about them and what they give to you - and, in return, what you give to them. It's all about the value you place in it: the higher the value the greater the return you feel. It's not at all different from a standard friendship. The more you care for someone the harder you'll try to be good friends with them, and generally this is reciprocated. The more you care for a character the more you'll get out of them. You develop an understanding, a way of thought that becomes synced - which, again, is not at all different from understanding another person.
There are several characters from games and books that I feel a deep connection to. And I don't hesitate to say that I turn to them when I need to; I feel their personalities and understand how they would react to a situation or a thought. From that I balance my own ideas and opinions. It's a knife edge between complete companionship and complete loneliness. You'll never replace real human interaction, but I fail to see how that has any impact on becoming friends with fictional characters. By becoming friends with fictional characters you're not replacing real people, all you're doing is making new friends and having experiences. It's like making friends over the internet. Are they not simultaneously fictional and real at the same time? By making friends online do you immediately sacrifice 'real-life' relationships? Of course not, you're just making new friends and having new experiences.
Whilst my goal is to provoke thought and hopefully cast a ray of understanding to a lot of people - this entire topic of becoming friends with fictional characters is something I would be extremely hesitant to bring up in real life. As a society we have a stigma of 'reality above all else'; and that the connections we make with people over the internet are somehow 'fake' and 'fictional' or 'hollow'. As previously stated, I raised the idea that the friends you make online are both fictional and real simultaneously. But I will now deliver my final blow.
How do you know the friends you have in 'real life' are not fictional? How do you know that they're not providing a mask to hide their true selves when you're around? When I walk outside, or talk to people, I hide elements of my life away - just like anyone would. I become a person I think people want to interact with, whilst hiding my real self away. Part of getting to know me is seeing me slowly unfold - and that's not me being unique, the same goes for everyone. The longer you get to know someone - or the more time you spend with someone - the more they unfold and reveal themselves. There is absolutely no difference between this and making friends that are online or are fictional.
No matter the medium, no matter the reality, every single person is a character and every character has a story that slowly unfolds - so long as you care to listen. And, ultimately, isn't that what making friends is all about?