It’s funny the way we care about fictional characters. I mean, we know they’re not real, but something inside us cares what happens to them. We want Frodo to destroy the ring without getting killed; we want Jack to let Owen back on the Torchwood team; we want Sherlock not to fall. It matters to us.
Why does it matter to us?
Fictional characters are fictional. They don’t exist, they really don’t. Often, however, they outlive their authors. Walk up to a random person in the street (not one wearing fake ears, the LotR fandom do not count in these circumstances), and say ‘Gandalf’. See what they say. Now walk up to someone else, equally randomly, and say, ‘JRR Tolkien’. You can imagine the responses you’d get, can’t you?
It’s partly because there have been films, and the Lord of the Rings has permeated our culture quite deeply, but there’s more to it than that. How many of us really look at a book in a shop and say, “I’ll buy it because the author has a cool name”? (Okay, I’ve done this. Shh.) We don’t care who the author is, but we care about the characters and what happens to them.
When Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, he got hate mail. A lot of it. As did the magazine where it was published, and lots of people cancelled their subscriptions – and then took to the streets with black armbands, showing their public grief for the death of someone who hadn’t been alive in the first place. They didn’t care who knew that they were upset – it had to be known!
When Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss made Sherlock out to be a hoax and Moriarty an actor in The Reichenbach Fall, they started an internet movement of I Believe In Sherlock and Moriarty was Real. Posters, graffiti, fan art – it took over Tumblr for several days and it is still what mostly comes up on my dash. People aren’t content to let fictional characters be fictional characters, because they care what happens to them. If they die, or are publicly shamed, people care. They want the world to know that they believe in Sherlock Holmes.
Dobby died, and how many people cried at that? (Not me, but I’m the exception.)
Anakin Skywalker’s mother died, and how many people were miserable with him?
Kirk’s dad sacrificed himself in the first ten minutes of the newest Star Trek film for the sake of his newborn son and his wife, and who cried?
We care what happens to fictional characters.
Perhaps it’s because characters are just like ourselves, only better. They’ve not these superhumans, because they’ve got failings we recognise from ourselves, like an inability to conjugate French verbs correctly, a mental block against simultaneous equations, or asthma attacks that always trigger when they’re least convenient. But at the same time, they always find a way to better those failings, don’t they?
They go on to make something of their lives, to do something worthwhile that will help other people. We want to believe we can do that. If the characters with our problems can do it, we think, we’ll be able to do it too. Oh, and how did they get around that problem? Like this? Well, maybe we can try it too. It might not work, but nothing else has either. Let’s do it.
And from that mindset we get even more wrapped up in a character’s emotion, because their struggle is our struggle. If we don’t will them to succeed, no one will will us to succeed. That’s what we think. They have to succeed because that gives us hope that we can, too.
Of course, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, and that depends on whether the author likes happy endings or they’re as sadistic as me and like to kill and/or torture all the characters at the last minute, preferably following the latter up by locking them in another world away from everyone they know.
But while we will them to succeed, we care what happens to them.
They’re like portraits of ourselves, with the warts, but not the bags under their eyes.
We care, because we know Moriarty was real.