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Why It’s Okay To Be So Upset Over Yesterday’s Game of Thrones

The emotional bonds we forge with fictional characters can be just as real as those with real people

Photo: HBO

Yesterday’s Game of Thrones. Oh, man. The reaction by fans of the show was palpable. People are jokingly (we think) offering to start support groups to help each other cope with what happened. This is going to be a spoiler-free post, but we’ll note that there is a stark trend in the oeuvre of fantasy writer George R. R. Martin, the man behind Game of Thrones, of killing characters—even main characters loved by the audience—without remorse. Interviewed by Buzzfeed (spoiler-y link), here’s what Martin had to say about this episode:

I am told by the people that participated in it that it is awful. So I’m, like the fans, I’m looking forward to it with anticipation and a certain amount of dread. And also I’m living in terror of the reaction. When that book came out, I got some amazing letters from people telling how they threw the book into the fireplace and they would never read me again and they hated me. But then they went out the next week and bought another copy of the book, and they love me now. We may get some similar reactions. I don’t recommend anyone throw their television set into the fireplace. It could be very dangerous.

So, we’ll say this: some people died on yesterday’s Game of Thrones. People some of you may have rather liked.

The powerful emotional response by fans of Game of Thrones may seem weird to those who are not fans of the show. But we’re here, along with a little bit of help from University of Helsinki researcher Howard Sklar, to tell you that that powerful, visceral, emotional response you had when was with the is totally okay.

For you see, says Sklar in a 2009 essay (a rework of a chapter from his 2008 PhD dissertation), the emotional bonds we forge with fictional characters can be just as strong as the connection we feel with some people in the real world. So when bad things happen, the emotional responses we have can be powerful.

The key, Sklar argues, is that the way we get to know fictional characters—through little tidbits of information, through watching their actions, through the things we hear about them—isn’t so different from how we come to understand strangers. He says the processes of getting to know a fictional character is much like learning about a real person who lives out in the real world who we’ve only come to know through online interactions or non-fiction writing. From our perspective, sure, we know that one person is real and the other isn’t—but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.

Like our experience of fictional characters, our knowledge and impressions of real people in our daily lives, with the exception of close family and friends, is fragmentary, incomplete. We make do with that fragmentary information in much the same way that we do while reading fiction, by filling in gaps in our knowledge with hunches, ideas, feelings, or impressions based on our experiences with people, our sense of places, and other relatively intuitive factors.

Since we only get to know most people (or fictional characters) through snippets, we have to fill in the rest, round them out into a whole person—a process called “concretizing.”

hen “concretizing” fictional characters, we intuitively fill in the picture using that which we know from the world of real persons, with the end result that the fictional world ultimately becomes peopled by characters who seem real to us as readers. This is true even for characters in stories that fall into the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and “magic realism”: Even though the fantastic or speculative or “magical” components in such works would not appear so other-worldly were it not for the contrast between real-seeming characters and their fantastic behavior and lives, in the end we imagine those characters and their worlds by placing them within the context of things that we know. Put another way, the process of reading becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, by which we imagine worlds that comply with our definitions of real.

So, for fans who’ve known the characters of Game of Thrones since the show’s start, or who met them in the books, the characters can feel, in some sense, just as real as a person we only know through a biography. But while we know in our minds that the characters in Game of Thrones are not, in fact, real, this doesn’t matter while we’re actually engaged with the show, says Sklar. We put that “reality” vs “fiction” idea on the back burner.

reader who engages deeply with a work of fiction—who becomes absorbed, for instance, on an emotional level—may simultaneously disengage his awareness of the work’s fictionality. He may have the fictionality at the back of his mind, but the front of his mind, so to speak, is occupied by the sensation of realism that the work produces. This is not so much a question of the “suspension of disbelief” as the generation of temporary belief.

When the credits roll and you flip the lights back on, sure, you remember that what happened in Westeros stays in Westeros. But in the moment, it can feel just as real. Quoting from the work of philosopher Robert Yanal, says Sklar:

he type of emotions that we experience with characters about whom we have learned a great deal “richly generated,” to the extent that “what we have is real pity that must be kept to oneself, real anger that is forever ineffectual, real love that is never to be returned.

More from Smithsonian.com:

From Harold and Maude to Harry Potter: Making Fictional Foods Real
Ten Inventions Inspired by Science Fiction

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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