In this blog post, we will answer the questions, “Obsession with Fictional Characters: Is it a Disorder?”, understand what is attachment to fiction, different terms associated with obsessions related to fiction, and answer frequently asked questions.
Obsession with Fictional Characters: Is it a Disorder?
Even though, there is no official diagnosis or a disorder that talks about obsession with fictional characters but it can be quite close to symptoms of OCD because obsessions with fictional characters can debilitate other aspects of their life.
What is Fictional attachment?
It can be defined as a deep sense of connection with fictional characters and fictional stories.
Some new terms which have been going around the internet these days are fictoromance, fictophilia, and fictosexuality. On a whole, all these are considered and can be described briefly:
Fictophilia is defined as intense feelings, desire, or sexual attraction towards characters that are entirely fictional. When a person is having significantly long-lasting feelings and infatuation towards fictional characters, the term fictophilia is used.
As of now, fictophilia is not included as a mental disorder in ICD-11 or DSM-5 and therefore should not be diagnosed as one.
Dr. Shackleford, a media and consumer psychologist based in California explains that while some people who may or may not be casual fans of a fictional character might think it is strange to be very attached to fictional characters, it is actually quite normal to find these characters so important.
She describes our relationships with fictional characters as para-social relationships or one-sided relationships that we have in the imaginary world.
She puts it this way – Even if a fictional character cannot talk or respond back to you, you can become happy when you get home at night and spend time watching TV shows with your favorite characters.
It may be the case that these characters and their stories cheer you up and you feel like the stress from your rough day is slowly drifting away.
Feeling for the character can mean that you have great empathy and also that you enjoy and appreciate a good story line and the characters in it. But this is where it ends.
Attachment vs Obsession with Fictional characters
It is completely normal to be attached to a fictional character as long as it does not turn into an obsession.
For example, an obsession can be when you fall in love with a character, and you want that character so bad that you cannot fall in love with anyone in real life as you are always comparing real-life people with that fictional character. This is where we go back to the term fictophilia.
So according to Karhulahti and Välisalo, fictophilia is defined as “an intense long-term parasocial love or desire relationship between a human individual and a fictional character.”
Their research paper, titled ‘Fictosexuality, Fictoromance, and Fictophilia: A Qualitative Study of Love and Desire for Fictional Characters’ is an article that provides exploratory analysis of the above mentioned labels fictoromance, fictophilia, and fictosexuality.
Though their research mainly focused on the Japanese fictional world of anime and manga, their analysis can be attributed to any other fictional world.
In their research analysis Karhulahti and Välisalo cite another research in their literature by McCutcheon et al. (2003) who found that there exists three stages of ‘celebrity worship,’ these are – ‘entertainment-social,’ ‘intense-personal,’ and ‘borderline-pathological.’
Among these, the first stage the ‘entertainment-social’ stage is described as sharing experiences by learning about celebrities and discussing them with other friends who share similar interests, the second stage the ‘intense-personal’ stage describes intensive or compulsive feelings like frequent emotions and thoughts about those characters, and the final stage describes obsessions like delusions (as in erotomania) and risk behaviors.
The paper analyzes five themes which they believe are central to fictophilia — fictophilia paradox, fictophilic stigma, fictophiloc behaviours, fictophilic asexuality and fictophilic Supernormal Stimuli. Let us now look at each of these themes
The results showed that not many of those experiencing fictophilia were showing the obsession because they ‘confuse fiction and reality. They were completely aware that the characters to which they were attached are fictional. This is not like erotomania where the individual has an imaginary belief of a mutual relationship that does not exist.
Erotomania is a subtype of delusional disorder described in DSM-5. Fictophilia does not usually include such hallucinations but includes the person’s self-aware feelings toward a construct that is not organic and they know that it is ideologically diverse.
However, at the same time, they still hold intense emotions and feelings that may lead to the creation of fantasies of the character where the character ‘loves them back’ or ‘becomes an actual companion.’ And since, such a genuine relationship is practically not possible and cannot exist in the real world – at the same time again, being aware of this, as fictophiles are, it constitutes a fictophilic paradox in which there is a coexisting awareness of fictionality and also a wish to deny this truth so as to save themselves from emotional confusion.
The fear of being judged, considered weird, or ignored by other people can make fictophilia a lonely experience. But, being a member of a community of people with similar way of thinking can revoke the stigmas and instill a greater sense of belonging.
Many of the people involved in the analysis of the research pointed out discomfort with the fact that they or someone close to them have such strong romantic or sexual feelings toward a fictional character.
This may be related to previous findings suggesting celebrity fan attachment tendencies that correlate with lower cognitive flexibility, psychological well-being, social complexity, and educational success scores. (Maltby et al., 2001; McCutcheon et al., 2003).
And because people are not able to speak about their feelings and emotions relating to fictional love in fear of being stigmatized or ridiculed does in fact reduce psychological well-being and these open online forums can actually serve as good support platforms that enable people to share and discuss their experiences without pressure.
These discussions took place in online question forums, this indicates that fictophilia, as a recent phenomenon, brings about confusion to an extent that people involved are seeking advice for understanding and dealing with the experiences.
Most times the behaviors associated with fictophilic situations are very similar to fan activities which can be quite intense. For example, the use of creative media. As we can see that there are similarities between the two, there are some differences.
Firstly all fictophiles do not consider themselves fans of the fictional characters or engage with a fandom community; secondly, they often see their fictional relationships as something beyond fandom.
They consider fandom useless and also identify themselves through fictophilic relationships rather than of fandom. The authors relate these behaviors to pretend-play of children, where they are frequently seen modeling adult behaviors.
These adults make up elaborate scenarios like that of children playing a house game or a war game, but with great imagination and creating entirely new and unrelated stories.
They can be quite engrossed in their world and might frequently find themselves daydreaming obsessively. This might affect their real-life relationships and day to day schedule when they stay daydreaming and losing track of time.
Several people who were part of the analysis described themselves as asexuals who consider themselves to be a struggle to match their fictophilic feelings with the asexual sexual identity.
Whereas others are clear regarding their asexuality and prefer dwelling in fictoromance and fictosexuality. It was also seen in their research that several discussants involved mention that they do not have real-life experiences from romantic or sexual human relationships at all, which may of course be a result of young age.
And some people simply are at peace with their imaginary romance rather than with real people.
Fictophilic Supernormal Stimuli
The notion of supernormal sexual stimuli is often discussed in animal research, for example by zoologists Gwynne and Rentz (1983) who found that male beetles were being attracted to bottles that were “apparently acting as supernormal releasers of male copulation attempts in that they resemble large females” (p. 80).
A large part of the people involved in the discussion forums described that the main reason for their attraction towards these fictional characters was the extra attractive features of these characters in both physical and mental terms.
Finding a character that is so close to what they want in real life and at times as super strength is something that is absent in real life, makes their attraction to characters much real.
A tragic hero who develops to be a great human, a perfect girl who lives up to everyone’s expectations, a girl who can fight or a person who has magical powers, the list goes on.
A lot of fictophiles also explained that their feelings help them supplement or compensate for their real-life relationships which can be unsatisfying (Osborn, 2012).
We explore the world of fiction in details and understood various aspects of obsession with fictional characters from the lens of research on the topic.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs): Obsession with Fictional Characters: Is it a Disorder?
Is it normal to obsess over a fictional character?
Though it is quite normal to admire a fictional character, being completely obsessed over a fictional character, so much so that an intervention may be required is not normal.
What is it called when you are only attracted to fictional characters?
Fictophilic, fictoromantic, and fictosexual are some of the recently evolved terms used to describe attraction to fictional characters.
Is Fictophilia a mental illness?
As of now, fictophilia is not considered a mental illness in either ICD-11 or DSM-5. However, erotomania and paraphilias are considered close to this which are diagnosed as mental disorders.
What is asexuality?
Asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction towards others, or if present it is very low. It is also described as having so sexual orientaion.
Is Fictosexual real or fake?
Fictosexuality is considered a recent addition which has not been studied properly yet. Some people consider it to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, but as of now, there are not many people who identify themselves as fictosexual.
What was the research by Karhulahti and Välisalo based on?
This research by Karhulahti and Välisalo was based on quantitative analysis of 71 public online discussions. They explored the recently evolved meaning of fictophilia in terms of the 5 themes as explained above. They explained more empirical and theoretical research is needed to be done to understand the concept in a multicultural dimension.
Karhulahti, V. M., & Välisalo, T. (2021). Fictosexuality, Fictoromance, and Fictophilia: A Qualitative Study of Love and Desire for Fictional Characters. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 575427. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.575427
Maltby, J., McCutcheon, L. E., Ashe, D. D., and Houran, J. (2001). The self-reported psychological well-being of celebrity worshippers. N. Am. J. Psychol. 3, 441–452.
McCutcheon, L. E., Ashe, D. D., Houran, J., and Maltby, J. (2003). A cognitive profile of individuals who tend to worship celebrities. J. Psychol. 137, 309–322. doi: 10.1080/00223980309600616
Osborn, J. L. (2012). When TV and marriage meet: a social exchange analysis of the impact of television viewing on marital satisfaction. Mass Commun. Soc. 15, 739–757. Doi: 10.1080/15205436.2011.618900