Why we mourn fictional characters: The very real emotion behind fake death

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in a still from "Avengers: Endgame." Photo credit: Marvel Studio, 2019

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in a still from "Avengers: Endgame."
Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in a still from "Avengers: Endgame." Photo credit: Marvel Studio, 2019

“I’ll never watch another show again.”

That is the all-too-common, conclusive sentiment after months or even years of emotionally devoting yourself to a riveting TV or movie series. The finale is always a bittersweet and emotional parting: a bid adieu to the imagined characters you’ve come to know better than your closest friends. And it always ends in a death.

The fallen character? The obvious (or, in more complex literature, the surprising) Christ-like figure – the last person you wanted to see go. Everyone knows that the best shows end in some great, heartrending passing; the rest only end on an awkward cliffhanger.

So why, then, do we mourn the deaths of fictional characters we don’t even know with such profound regret? Why do we stay attached to their images after they’re gone? Why do we glorify the actors who played them like they’re monuments of the people they once brought to life?

Why do I see so much of the selfless, benevolent Stefan Salvatore in Paul Wesley? And what about “Harry Potter’s” beloved Severus Snape – the unlikely savior? Or even the universal one, “Titanic’s” Jack Dawson?

All of these personages represent the absolute purity of the human spirit. Their commonality is their altruistic devotion to the principal protagonist[s], to whom they figuratively and/or literally give their life. And their deaths are earth-shattering.

The psychology behind mourning fictional characters

Perhaps the best way to make sense of the overwhelming loss that we feel after the death of a fictional character is to understand the nature of mourning through a psychological lens. Cristel Russell, an associate professor of marketing with American University’s Kogod School of Business, conducted research on the phenomenon, seeking to explain it through the scope of a brand-consumer relationship. Indeed, a TV series is an extensive brand, and, naturally, its dedicated viewers are its consumers.

Consumer behavior is a reliable and simplistic way to explain the curious attachment we feel for our beloved characters. In her research, Russell wrote that “TV fuels and sustains social and cultural bonds. TV series are especially powerful because they unfold over time, giving viewers a chance to think about and discuss the characters and the storylines with fellow viewers.”

What’s more, the characters we adore do not merely live on our screens: as Russell explains, “[m]any societal trends, for better or for worse, emerge from TV series and become part of our cultural lingo and lifestyles in the real world.”

TV and movie characters transcend from their imagined world into our real one and shape popular culture and the attitudes that prevail in it. That makes these personages not just mainstays in our minds, but mainstays in our conversations with others who also know them personally and share our devotion to them.

Russell further explains that, “[f]ans who have come to really love and care for their ‘friends’ on TV experience their loss just like real-life break ups. This loss is dealt with in ways that are similar to physical loss by seeking others who feel the same way and finding ways to remember the good times they had when the show was alive.”

We grow up with the characters we love. We see them at their best and worst; we know their weaknesses and their strengths. We exalt their victories and mourn their losses, and we flare with anger and frustration when they are challenged or antagonized. Imperfect as they are, we accept them, and, like our friends in real life, we often overlook and excuse their bad behavior simply because we love them.

A deep connection

Our attachment to fictional characters is hardly ever impersonal or distant. We identify with these imagined people. We see ourselves in them, and we favor them because – in an inexplicably poignant way – they represent hidden parts of ourselves that we’re too scared to express or show. In a similar article by The Huffington Post, Cleveland Clinic psychiatrist Robert Rowney describes our idolization of certain characters as an “escape from some of the stresses of life.”

“Watching these shows allows you to decompress and not have to think about things for a little while. You’re exposed to different aspects of the characters’ lives – their losses, their loves and their own griefs, everything that goes into the human condition – and you eventually begin to empathize with them and form an attachment. We see some of ourselves in them.”

The conflated sentiment of pain and grief that we feel upon losing a particular character is strictly rational. It only makes sense to mourn the death of someone you intimately identify yourself with, even if they are not biologically real human beings. And while it is not exactly like a real-life death, depending on your attachment to the character, it can feel very real to you.

The great beauty of it all is that, unlike many cases of real death, the mourner is not alone in lamenting the death of a beloved character. He or she is joined by thousands, even millions, of others who also loved and identified with that character, making the experience all-the-more compelling and meaningful, no matter how strange it may seem to those who never got the chance to witness the fictional character’s long, evocative journey.