Have you ever fallen in love with a fictional character — someone in a novel, movie, or (I suppose) even a comic strip? Last night I attended a potluck dinner for women working in media, calling themselves the Browning Group.” Only a few of them knew each other well, and about half were newcomers. The hostess, my friend Susan McClelland, tapped on her wineglass and announced the pregnancy of one member, then invited me to say a bit about my new book,Two Aspirins and a Comedy.
I talked about the immense power of entertainment, and the fact that we are failing to make good use of it – especially television series. I talked about ways in which films, novels, and television shows have influenced social changes around the world, without being recognized as the driving influence. And I gave an explanation: regular information does not mobilize people to become activists because it’s just rational; it takes emotions to get us stirred up and ready to engage with such problems as global warming, world hunger, pollution, and warfare. The only media that arouse people’s passions in a sustained way are dramas or stories, especially prolonged ones in which you read installments or see episodes over a long period of time and then talk with other people who have also seen them. Soap operas for example, are more powerful in the world than films that are executed equally well or even better. This is because the characters we see over a long stretch become our friends, or even our loved ones. It is common for viewers even to fall in love with a TV character.
I asked, “How many of you have ever fallen in love with a fictional character?”
You could have heard a pin drop. Finally one woman with both red and orange hair put up her hand. The others asked whom she had loved. “J.R. Ewing,” she replied. They groaned.
Never having watched Dallas, I had nothing special against J.R. personally, though I believe he was a bad guy until someone famously “offed” him. What surprised me was that only one of the fifteen guests admitted to having had such an experience. That was a lower ratio than usual. I’ve asked this question quite a few times, though not often enough to reach any generalizations about the frequency in real life. I imagine the women hesitated to come out with their own stories because they didn’t knew each other well enough. (I’ve been part of this group a few times before and have always felt that there was a certain reluctance to talk about fraught topics. Indeed, these women do not even talk about their jobs, though they are all in magazines, radio, TV, films, public relations, or some other related medium. (I don’t know what’s fraught about that topic, but their work seems to be avoided. The woman with the red-and-orange hair had already struck me as unusually bold. She had uttered controversial remarks as soon as she arrived, and I liked her for that.
I could not tell these women how common the experience is in everyday life, but I’d bet money that they’d each tell me about a memory of their own imaginary romance if we were chatting alone. I’d actually like to have a fuller sample. If you want to send me your story about loving a fictional character, I’ll appreciate it. Send it either as a comment to this blog or as an ordinary e-mail. Tell me how many times, if you can remember.
I realize that this is a sensitive question. Last year I joined a Yahoo group that reads one of Dorothy Sayers’s novels per month and discusses it by posting on an e-mail list. It’s a huge club. I get about fifteen e-mails per day, though it has been running for years. I’ve belonged to a lot of similar lists devoted to different topics, but most members of this one seem to be friends, though the occasional newcomer is usually treated in a friendly way. However, I made a big mistake. I told the two women moderators of the group why I was interested in the group: that I am curious about the number of women who have fallen in love with Sayers’s main protagonist, the aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. My curiosity arose from the fact that a woman friend of mine disclosed her crush on Peter, and recounted a dinner party thirty years ago with four female anthropologists. They had all been in love with Wimsey. Upon hearing this, I remembered that I too had entertained fantasies about him in my own younger days. So I wanted to join this list, not only to discuss the Wimsey mysteries, which I dutifully re-read, but also to gather clues about this business of falling in love with fictional people.
I am still a member of the list. About a third are men. None of the members mention their emotional attachment to Lord Peter. However, both of the leaders are fiercely hostile to me. I was astonished the first time I encountered their rudeness. I had encountered “flame wars” on other lists as well – indeed, had even been largely responsible myself for starting an acrimonious exchange some years ago – but I’d never seen moderators do flaming themselves. Yet I persevered, quietly amused by the nasty replies my posts elicited. I kept putting out civil, moderately interesting comments on topics quite unrelated to love, but was informed that my remarks were worthless and would not be posted. Actually, I rather enjoyed baiting these ladies by uttering innocuous remarks that invariably provoked their paroxysms of fury. It seems to me (though perhaps not to the other list members, who after all have not seen their retorts to me) that these two women are in love with Lord Peter and feel horrified by the possibility that I’ll refer publicly to such feelings. Although I was getting a kick out of it, I’ve been too busy lately to carry it on. Perhaps it is genuinely painful for them to have their deepest sentiments observed unsentimentally by someone identified as a social scientist.
Two other questions about love were also on my mind as I fell asleep last night : one that I’ve never explored before. First: what is it like to “fall out of love”? Of course, most of us have experienced it, but people don’t talk about falling out of love. In fact, I can hardly remember my own instances. How long does it take, on the average? I understand that “being in love” normally lasts about two years, but how long after that is the tapering off period? Or is it a sharp drop-off in some cases? It is supposedly affected by the amount of uncertainty about the prospects of a relationship with the love-object. Can it also be terminated by a shocking disappointment in the love-object? It is clearly a biochemical condition. When you’re in love, a scan of your brain will show a spot that “lights up” when you see a photo of your beloved. That brain effect is matched by the production of biochemicals throughout the body, with delightful sensations in the chest. I think that when you’re no longer in love, you cannot intentionally generate the same brain or other peptide responses. You just have to wait until Cupid strikes again. But I’m not sure.
Finally, while wondering whether the trajectory of falling out of love is a continuous curve or a cliff, it occurred to me that some such curves may not be “monotonic.” That is, some people may fall slightly out of love, then renew the spark, and then lose all feeling for each other, then – say twenty years later – fall in love again in a big way. I have never experienced anything like that. For me, once it’s gone, it never resumes. But I was reading an article about Italian men in their fifties. It seems that they are sitting ducks for a new infatuation. And the authors said that it was sometimes with a new woman and sometimes with their own wives. Really? Of all the times you’ve been in love, how many were with a person whom you’d loved before, with diminishing feelings? If you want to tell me your experiences, even anonymously, I’d love to hear them. Who knows: You may provide data for my next book