Paradox of Fictional Characters

What is the Paradox of Fictional Characters?

The Paradox of Fictional Characters is a really interesting puzzle that makes us wonder why we get so emotionally involved with made-up stories and people we read in books or see in movies. Basically, it’s a confusion over why we would feel actual sad or happy feelings for folks who we know don’t exist in real life. It’s a big question for people who think a lot about minds and emotions and it even stumps those who make up great stories for us to enjoy.

A simple way to look at this is to imagine you’re crying during a sad movie scene. You’re feeling real sadness, but the movie is just pretend, and so are the people in it. It doesn’t make much sense, right? That’s the paradox — our hearts respond to these stories as if they were real, even though our brains know they’re not.


We can trace the Paradox of Fictional Characters back to deeper discussions about make-believe stuff, kicked off by Colin Radford’s paper in 1978. He talked about three big ideas that everyone agrees on, but when you look at them together, they just don’t match up. Here they are:

  1. We feel real emotions for characters that aren’t real.
  2. Feeling a true emotion about something means we have to believe it is real.
  3. We completely understand that these characters are make-believe.

When you line these up, you hit a snag. If numbers two and three are right, then number one should be out of the question. But we still get all emotional over Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins, don’t we? This twisty situation is born from how our emotions and beliefs work inside our heads.

Key Arguments

People digging into the Paradox of Fictional Characters have tossed around a few key points:

  • Emotional Connection: It looks like our brains might not be too picky about what’s real or not when it comes to feeling things for characters in stories.
  • Cognitive Dissonance: Some think the paradox is a case of cognitive dissonance where folks might be feeling two opposing things at the same time: we know it’s make-believe but feel real emotions anyway.
  • Suspension of Disbelief: Others say that we just press the ‘pause’ button on our disbelief to get wrapped up in and enjoy the story.
  • Imaginative Engagement: There’s also the idea that we’re not really buying into the characters being real; we’re just getting caught up in playing pretend with our emotions.

Examples of the Paradox

  • Children Crying During Animated Movies: Watching kids get teary over Simba’s dad dying in “The Lion King” shows this paradox. They know it’s not real but they’re invested in the emotions on screen.
  • Being Scared by Horror Novels: When we jump at a scary part in a Stephen King book, it’s a bit odd, considering it’s all made up. This fear is a classic example of the paradox — we’re truly scared by something fabricated.
  • Fans Mourning Fictional TV Characters: Think about when a beloved character on a show like “Game of Thrones” dies. Fans actually grieve as though they lost someone they knew, underlining the paradox’s power on emotions.
  • Rooting for Superheroes in Comics: Cheering on Spider-Man as he faces the bad guys in a comic strip — despite him being a drawn character — places us right in the paradox’s web (pun intended!)
  • Video Game Players Feeling Guilty: Gamers sometimes feel guilty making bad choices in games like “The Sims,” even though all the characters they’re affecting are digital and not real. That’s the paradox in action.

Answer or Resolution

There’s still a lot of chit-chat about this paradox, yet some thinkers have offered their takes on solving it:

  • The Illusion Theory: This idea says that we’re sort of fooled for a split second into thinking fiction is real, and that’s why we respond emotionally.
  • The Pretend Theory: Then there’s the idea that we aren’t actually feeling real emotions about these fake people, it’s more like we’re playing along with make-believe feelings.
  • Irrationality: A few philosophers simply think we’re not making any sense when we get all emotional over stories and characters that aren’t real.
  • Appraisal Theory: Lastly, there’s the thought that our emotional reactions are based on how we judge the events and values in the story, not on believing they’re real-life happenings.

Major Criticism

Most of the digs at the Paradox of Fictional Characters are about how real our emotions are when dealing with fantasy:

  • Some say we might be exaggerating how much emotions for made-up stuff mirror our feelings for real-life events, which have actual consequences.
  • Others are skeptical if what we feel for fictional characters is as “real” as we think, suggesting it’s more like a faint copy of our true feelings.
  • Then there are those who challenge the whole base of the paradox. They question if you truly need to believe in something to have an emotional response to it.

Practical Applications

Even though the Paradox of Fictional Characters seems really heady and abstract, it sneaks into our everyday lives:

  • Storytelling and Art: Grasping why we get emotional about characters helps those who tell stories or make art to really pull us into their creations.
  • Therapy: Therapists sometimes use made-up characters and stories to help people explore their feelings and sort through personal stuff in a safe way.
  • Education: Teachers can evoke emotions with fictional situations to make learning stick better with students.

Related Topics

Here are some subjects that can get tangled up with our main topic:

  • Suspension of Disbelief: This is about how we intentionally ignore that a story or character is fake so we can enjoy it. It’s like giving yourself permission to get lost in a good book or movie.
  • Empathy and Fiction: Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and with fiction, we practice this by feeling for characters as if they were real people with real problems. It’s like training for your heart and mind.
  • Cognitive Theory of Emotions: This is a fancy term for how we think about and understand the feelings we get from the world around us, which includes all that fictional stuff too.


The Paradox of Fictional Characters is something that keeps thinkers, like philosophers and psychologists, busy trying to untangle. Even though a bunch of ideas and critiques are floating around, we’re still kind of puzzled by the whole thing. What’s crystal clear is that the feelings we get from these pretend people in stories are real to us and they say a lot about how creative and deep our minds are.

To wrap it up, the Paradox of Fictional Characters teaches us about how rich our imaginations are and how we can open our hearts to care about more than just what we can touch and see. There might not be a straight-up answer to this puzzle, but it lets us see just how wondrous our brains can be at dreaming and feeling.