the feels

An Argument for the Legitimacy of Fictional Characters as Role Models

Many of us have been there. We’ve circled up for the question game, and the question has been asked: who is your hero? And around they go, the echoed presidents and athletes and artists and freedom fighters. And then they get to you and everyone is staring and you answer, “Batman.”

Youre-kiddingThey laugh like you’re kidding.

You and I both know that Batman is not, strictly speaking, real. For many of the uninitiated to the world of fandoms and comics, the very notion that a fictional character could serve as a role model for anything is ridiculous.

The argument goes something like this:

Me: It’s not a joke. Batman is really my hero.

Person: But he’s not real! You can’t ask him questions, you can’t go to him when you don’t know what to do. You need someone to look up to that you can talk to.

I’d like to direct your attention to the above gif to give you an idea of my reaction. I have seen this argument many times in the dangerous world of real-life. It’s the argument for human interaction, the forefront of ‘everything that is wrong with this generation’. There is no real interaction: it’s all screens and keyboards and everything about it is terrible. But there is one crucial thing that everyone miraculously forgets: those athletes and activists, those presidents and authors:

How many conversations have you had with them?

We go around the circle: Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Oprah, Parental Unit, Hilary Clinton, Audrey Hepburn – no one bats an eye. They smile, they nod, they ooh and they ahh as they learn the sparkling traits of your human functionality and the importance of the things you value. At the mention of someone that is ‘not real’, they laugh, they mark you as ‘the funny one’ or ask you to ‘please take the question seriously’. And when they realize you are, in fact, serious, well:

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Clearly, the true reason for this trend is not that ‘you can’t really talk to them’ – though many seem to adopt this rationale. The reason for this trend is that many people do not understand the impact a fictional character can have on an individual and, subsequently, do not realize the lasting impact a fictional character can have on the world as a whole. Within these ideas are many more issues, prominently, the troublesome perception of our society that in order to be important, it has to have been important on a national or global scale. And, of course, the value we place on the idea of ‘realness’ – an idea that is, in itself, quite abstract.

tumblr_inline_mvcy8pIKda1qze50nSo, what is real?

According the the dictionary:

actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.

According to philosophy:

It’s more complicated than that.

It is generally considered that fictions are inherently ‘not real’. However, the idea that something ‘not real’ can have an affect on something that is ‘real’ has become increasingly apparent in popular media, appearing in such works as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Supernatural, and Inception.

Consider for a moment a nightmare: While you are there, you can feel it. And even though it may be inconsistent with reality, with everything you know, you accept it as reality because it feels real. When you wake up, you feel scared. And this is as a direct result of the nightmare you experienced. It is something that is not technically real that felt real and created a real affect on you.

This in, in a nutshell, why we love fiction. Although it is not real in a universal sense, it is experienced as real on an individual sense. Which begs the question:

 

Why is the universal real more important than the individual real?

This all comes back to universal effects vs. individual effects – in order to be important, it must be important on a national or global scale. In order to have an impact on the world, you have to be famous, you have to do something big. This is no new phenomenon – we’ve had revered royalty, figureheads, nobles, philosophers – all rock stars of their time. We have have people releasing sex tapes and murdering people all in the name of getting noticed.

Fame does not serve any clear social or psychological need, so we really have no idea why we’re obsessed with it. But, for whatever reason, we are.

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This strange obsession with fame is a big part of what drives the preference of the universal real over the individual real. With that in mind: when I say Batman is my hero, many people, knowing nothing about him, think I’m kidding because they do not experience Batman as a fact of reality, as having an effect on the course of real life history. It does not occur to them that I might have that experience, as their only individual experience is the one that they have experienced. And we all know that reality to one person can be vastly different than the reality of another person.

tumblr_mevn1yCwzN1r74e8xThe actual point I’m getting at is this: we need to realize that the difference in experience leads to difference in perception, and difference in perception leads to difference in experience. I can’t ever talk to Batman, he can’t answer my questions or console me when I am upset – but neither can Nelson Mandela. And I may not have somebody to talk to, but I may have my own world. The place I go to figure things out, to find wisdom, and find help. The feelings I get from that are very real, and definitely effect me in my day to day life. To treat that as invalid in not okay, because it says that my experience is less important than someone else’s.

Let’s fix it.

Fictional characters make great heroes. Although they aren’t technically real, they are representative of the values of a society or of a real person, and the situations they find themselves in are analogous to real life issues and experiences. We analyze these sorts of works because they say something about us and the world that we live in, and they can reveal things about ourselves that that we can’t know in the moment of the real life situation. If we look past what is big and remember our own individual heroes – our parents, teachers, friends – then we open ourselves up to a whole new idea. It’s not weird or even particularly different – it’s something. It something that someone has decided to hold on to. It’s something that, like any real like hero, can make us go like this:

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And this:

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And sometimes this:

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Because this is what these characters make us feel. This is the experience, the very real emotions of life we are forced to cycle through much quicker than is healthy because of the current state of our favorite character, our hero, and the best friend we’re sure we have. Because that’s what makes it real to us – that individual real. And it changes our world, and what we know, and how we experience life. We watch their lives and we we a make connection.

And this – this is very important.

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