Love in pixels and pages- The New Indian Express

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Express News Service

It’s a cosy Saturday evening. A good book or the latest binge-worthy TV series? Either way, it is the beguiling world of fictional characters, who you can’t seem to get enough of. The seemingly innocent pastimes make you feel a profound and enduring emotional connection with them. 

In a quiet corner of the internet, nestled within online communities and forums, exists a phenomenon, which transcends the boundaries of reality. Terms such as fictophilia, fictosexuality and fictoromance—signifying enduring emotional attachment, love, infatuation or the desire that individuals may develop for fictional characters—are gaining traction. “Those who identify as ‘fictophiles’ often grapple with questions about the normalcy and healthiness of their feelings, contending with societal stigma, shame and confusion surrounding their intense emotional bonds with characters that exist only in the realm of fiction,” explains Mumbai-based psychologist Diksha Sahani.

This emerging trend raises intriguing questions about the nature of love, desire and connection. To better comprehend this phenomenon, a 2021 study Fictosexuality, Fictoromance, and Fictophilia: 

A Qualitative Study of Love and Desire for Fictional Characters, published in Frontiers in Psychology outlines three signs that may indicate someone is a fictophile:

1. The Paradox: The research draws a distinction between erotomania and fictophilia. Erotomania is the delusional belief that someone, often a public figure or person of higher social standing, is in love with you, despite a lack of real evidence or reciprocation. In contrast, the ‘fictophilia paradox’ describes the awareness that the characters they love are not real. Despite this realisation, and the acknowledgment of the unrequited nature of their feelings, they continue to yearn for their objects of worship. “This arises from the emotional depth and genuine connection they feel, even though they understand the impossibility of reciprocation. They see the emotional confusion stemming from this paradox as logical; research indicates that parasocial romantic relationships offer similar benefits to real-life connections,” says Pragati Raj, Noida-based behavioural specialist.

2. Deep Connect: Fictophiles engage deeply with fictional characters through daydreaming, fantasising, cosplaying, creating fan art and writing fan fiction. Similar to the fans of real life icons, they too express their admiration through character-related tattoos, clothing, jewellery and other merchandise. 
“These creative expressions are a way for individuals to assert agency over their feelings, transforming the passive experience of consuming media into an active engagement that fulfills emotional needs,” says Dr Priyanka Srivastava, consultant, Department of Behavioural Sciences, Jaypee Hospital, Noida.

Another 2021 study, Adult Attachment and Engagement with Fictional Characters, published in Sage journal suggests that the appeal of engaging with fictional characters is influenced by attachment style. “Higher attachment anxiety leads to stronger parasocial emotional bonds with nurturing characters, while individuals with avoidant attachment styles may be drawn to personalities embodying traits they value, such as autonomy and independence,” says Sahani.

3. Reel Over Real: Fictophiles are drawn to characters who evoke mixed emotions or possess traits they find appealing, even if those traits are contradictory. “Some express a preference for fictional characters over real individuals due to the former’s perceived superior emotional qualities and conventionally attractive physical appearances. The safety associated with loving fictional characters, who cannot hurt, betray or reject, is a common sentiment among fictophiles. They exercise a high degree of control over their interactions with fictional characters, finding comfort in the predictability of these relationships, particularly if they have experienced instability in real-life connections,” adds Dr Srivastava.

For some, the signs of fictophilia manifest subtly. It may begin with an intense emotional response to a character’s storyline, a tinge of jealousy when they form connections with others in the narrative, or an undeniable longing for the fictional world to become a tangible reality. “Fictophilia often stems from a desire for the idealised. These attachments offer a sense of control and escapism, providing comfort in 
a world that can be unpredictable and challenging,” Raj explains. It’s crucial to note that these behaviours are not inherently problematic or unusual. Maintaining a balance between affection for fictional characters and engagement in real-world relationships, however, is essential for emotional wellbeing and personal growth. Online platforms and fan communities have become the epicentre for those embracing fictophilia. “The digital platform provides a haven where like-minded individuals can find solace and understanding without judgment,” adds Raj.

Despite the apparent therapeutic effect of fictophilia, the symptoms raise questions about its impact on real-world relationships. How does an attachment with a fictional character affect a person’s ability to form and maintain connections with actual people? Sahani suggests, “It’s crucial to strike a balance. Fictophilia becomes problematic when it interferes with one’s ability to form healthy connections in the real world. As long as these emotional attachments enhance rather than hinder personal growth, they can coexist with real-life relationships.”  Fictophilia has initiated a broader conversation about the evolving nature of love. As technology continues to advance and storytelling evolves, so too will our understanding of the fascinating world of emotions, which bridges the gap between reality and fiction.

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