Is it possible to ‘love’ a fictional character? Musings of an Asian girl in an Asian society: A reply to CheesyJ’s post ‘On Love, Reality and Fiction’

This is my first post in a new segment I have started called ‘Musings of an Asian girl in an Asian society’, where I aim to discuss social phenomenon or social issues from the perspective of an Asian girl living in a rather conservative society. My idea for this segment mainly comes from the large cultural differences between Western and Asian culture, and I also find it interesting to see how different or similar perspectives can be even if we are large fans of Japanese/Asian culture. 

I refer to CheesyJ‘s post On Love, Reality and Fiction, an academic musing (which you can view here) on the topic of the phenomenon of developing romantic feelings and/or affection for fictional characters. In recent years, otaku’s proclamations of wanting their union with fictional characters to be recognised officially have garnered international media attention. CheesyJ refers to merely but two of such individuals, amongst a small but growing community of people who think the same way. Society’s reactions have been largely negative. The less open-minded lash out at the alleged ‘abnormality’ of these individuals and relegate the blame to the ‘poisonous’ ability of Japanese soft culture to change the fundamental way romantic relationships are constructed, no doubt an unduly harsh accusation. Even some of us who are lovers of the same entertainment medium (anime, manga, Japanese visual novels) would raise their eyebrows or shake their heads at such a proposition. Personally, my concern lay with the fact that this was yet another piece of news undermining the already precarious social position that Japanese soft media and the presence of otakus in society occupy, subjecting a community who merely genuinely appreciate Japanese media and wish to pursue our interests (though manifested in different ways according to the individual) to inordinate levels of scrutiny by the predatory public eye. This smacks of a species of discrimination or bias that other kinds of interests or hobbies do not have the misfortune of being prey to.

Being inspired by CheesyJ’s post, I decided to pen down some of my thoughts on this issue, as well as address some of the points he has brought up. In his article, he explores some of the possible origins of this phenomenon: the information age changing notions on love, sexuality and relationships and the evolution of our relationship with media, just to name a few.

Indeed, all of these factors may have some part to play, but the liberalisation of sexuality notions and the possibility of being able to practice them in society is an undoubtedly major push factor. Homosexuality, bestiality, and other less conventional forms of sexualities have been in existence in histories of civilisations and conquerors, no less unique to any nationality, though mostly shushed or described as an ‘affliction’ of sorts, inviting pity or thinly veiled disgust. Due to fear of being unaccepted in a more restrictive society, any ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ romantic tendencies were more likely suppressed and killed in the crib in preference for heterosexual union and society’s more approving glances. By analogy, it will not be too far of a leap to contemplate the possibility of attraction to a fictional character and being in love with him or her being in existence since time immemorial, and not a novel idea (pun unintended) that has only gained traction in this highly globalised and modernised world. Yet, in a time where the only fiction existed through words and plays (the latter which could be played off as being attracted to the actor or performer him or herself), such ideas could not have developed further. As motion pictures and the medium known as television came into existence, the lines between reality and fiction become much more blurred. With notions of freedom of belief and practice of sexuality becoming widespread and a form of entitlement or a fundamental cornerstone of human rights and dignity, it is no wonder that unconventional ways of living have began to ‘surface’ from the depths where they have stayed, hidden and afraid of being discovered, for so long. 

She is kawaii, no?

Next I come to the crux of the issue – is it really possible to ‘love’, or develop feelings of affection for a fictional character? CheesyJ zeroes in on this in his post and argues that fiction is derived from imagination, which is made out of ideas gleaned from what we experience, in reality. In fact, he shows that the relationship between reality and fiction is circular, as “the imagination is the interior process by which we document, remember and interpret our world”, thereby shaping our perspectives and how we essentially view reality and interpret those experiences to be. In other words, fiction may shape reality as well, and reality to us is merely a form of subjective perception as our minds and imagination act as a filter, and there is no ‘objective’ form of reality. He also illustrates the phenomenon with the example of moe. (I am afraid I may have summarised his arguments too briefly here to fully give him credit, but see his post for a more detailed discussion on these points.) 

I should watch this soon.

Despite the circularity of the relationship between reality and fiction and their origin, however, I believe there still lies a notable difference between the two. Assuming rationality here, a person is vastly limited in the amount of ways he or she can interpret reality. In fiction, it is possible for us to see what we want to see because of the mere fact that it is created – even in fiction, we subconsciously choose to see and love only characters that appeal to our emotional sense or trigger feelings of affection and disregard the rest. There is, literally, room for imagination about how a character will behave and interact with you, the real person, as you, the audience, ultimately control all the ways of interpreting a character. In contrast, in reality, there is less room to subjectively select what we want to experience because of the constraint of other factors that are more difficult to ignore, unless you are a believer of the sheer power of will and mind and its ability to change the signals that our five senses send to our brains (which undoubtedly, doesn’t actually exist in every living moment, but under immense pressure or a product of survival instinct.)

Yet, the question isn’t really resolved unless we tackle the really controversial core of the issue: are the feelings that one may feel for a fictional character really ‘love’ or are they actually a lesser form of affection? It is true, as CheesyJ argues, that attraction can arise from various reasons that could be attributed to our own subjective views, coloured by our imaginations. In fact, that we are individuals attracted to not the same person (or character) presents a very strong argument for that presence of the subjective fiction. However, this only relates to attraction and – merely – feelings of affection. A fictional character is limited in his or her ways of presentation to the viewer. I agree that it is possible for one to experience both sexual and emotional attraction, for example, feelings of desire, for a character because the way he or she behaves and looks can trigger such reactions (clearly, its creators also know this). However, the nature of the character, being fictional, allows one’s imaginations to run wild in bringing the character out of its created context, and this is likely to be done in the way that presents the character in line with one’s subconscious biases and preferences. In other words, a character may be the perfect manifestation of a partner in a romantic relationship, but this may be only due to one’s subjective conscious shaping and moulding him or her into who or what one wants the character to be and to represent.

For female otakus too, just so that I am not gender-biased …

We return to the analogy of a relationship between two people in real life. All that has been described in the above paragraph undeniably governs the initial stages of a relationship. Yet, that is not love. Love is a more complex state of being or emotion that is hard to define, and may be constantly evolving. However, what is clear is that love also involves seeing and accepting the inconsistencies that exist in human nature and unpredictability of change in the circumstances surrounding a relationship that would impact, whether large or small, the nature of the relationship and the people in that relationship as well. Even slightly wavering from one’s principles or doubting them would constitute change. However, this will not be experienced if one party is a fictional character. The character will not ‘experience’ anything nor will the character react and adapt to any change in the surrounding circumstances. The person, in that situation, will still continue to take in external stimuli which will mould his or her perception little by little, even if he remains a staunch hikikomori for the rest of his life. With one party changing and the other not, ‘love’ will not be for long.

… or sexuality-biased..

Whatever emotions we experience in every moment we live are in no doubt, real, as they are a reaction that is borne from who we are. However, it is one thing to call these emotions real and another to say that it is possible for it to develop into a complex notion like ‘love’, especially when we seek to bring its standard to a high one like romantic love for another person and/or being in a romantic relationship. Having said that, technological advancements have made the development of visual novel characters with the requisite artificial intelligence to respond to external commands in a sufficiently realistic, humane way a distinct but upcoming possibility. This question can only become a more difficult one to answer, and it remains to be seen whether a future would arrive where a relationship with a fictional character can be accorded the same respect as a relationship with a real person.

I thank CheesyJ for writing a great original post on this topic that has given me the inspiration to write this, and has given me permission to reply to his post in a post instead of a comment. What I have written contains my personal opinions which come out stronger towards the end, but I like to think that I only arrive at this conclusion through a logical thought process and I try to minimise as much subjectivity as possible. Do leave a like and/or comment if you like what you read or if you want to share your thoughts and I’ll be happy to discuss any of this with you (: All in all, I had tons of excruciating and painfully awesome fun generating and organising my thoughts on such a serious subject matter. Hope you guys enjoyed reading! Off to write my next Top Anime post 😀