Fictionland Will Eat You Up, It Loves You So

Quick question for y’all: is “my brain has been hijacked by this fictional story and I no longer know how to live in the real world” a valid reason to call in sick to work? I’ve always gotten immersed in stories in a way that blurred the lines between my own life and my imagination – it’s helped me survive all kinds of things relatively emotionally intact – but I’ve been wondering whether there’s a point past which the intensity of stories makes reality pale in comparison. Obviously if it gets to Misery-level obsession with a character there’s a problem, but what about all the non-murderous superficially functional humans whose thought pie chart is 75% filled with fantasies about their favorite character/relationship/alternate universe? How do you solve for your brain telling you you’re in love with someone who never existed, or being unable to make the new program you’re launching at work feel important in comparison to protecting an ancient relic and fulfilling an eldritch prophecy?

In movies and books where the characters get to cross over into their fantasy, the central theme often revolves around either experiencing the fantasy as a reality with all of the painful and boring bits that don’t make it into the storybooks, or finding something real that replaces the need for the fantasy as a security blanket. When David (Tobey Maguire) is transported into the black and white simplicity of his favorite 1950s sitcom in Pleasantville, it turns out to be stifling and the spell is broken with each character popping into living color as they open themselves up to the messiness that comes with being complete human beings. When the characters in The Magicians series become kings and queens of the magical fictional kingdom of Fillory, it comes with all kinds of painful choices and tedious tasks that are every bit as hard and boring as real life or more so. The entire focus of The Matrix is that even a brutal reality with horrible food is better than a sweet fantasy by virtue of happening to our bodies and not just our brains. The moral never seems to be to stay in Neverland, but I can’t help feeling that the better we get at beaming stories directly into our heads, the harder it becomes to find our way home.

As a kid I always wanted to sail with Max to the island in Where the Wild Things Are and join the wild rumpus. In Maurice Sendak’s storybook, I understood how Max would eventually miss his family and want to return home to his own bed, but I also felt the emotional conflict with the intense love the monsters offered him and their terrible sadness at having to let him go. Oh, they loved him so! But maybe they only loved their fantasy of him like that? In the 2009 movie adaptation by Spike Jonze and David Eggers, Max stays on the island long enough for the fantasy to fall apart. The wild things have expectations of him that he can’t live up to and their wild love tears things apart just as much as love can in real life. He isn’t the king he thought he’d be and in the end he surrenders the fantasy and returns home with a new appreciation for his parent’s love and what is expected of him in his own life.

But what if real life ends up being the thing that can’t live up to our expectations? Since stories are almost always about transformational moments in people’s lives, they tend to play out like a highlights reel of Things that Matter happening to other people when our own lives consist of wide swaths of time in which nothing much happens at all. Stories make it seem like big things happen way more often than they do on average for an individual person in their lifetime. They make me feel like I should somehow be finding my life’s purpose or falling in love any minute now, but we don’t have to sit through the ten or fifteen years from the character’s backstory where they worked for a paycheck at S Mart or spent a decade having casual relationships with unavailable people to avoid getting their heart truly broken. The intensity of the feelings, all packed into a short time experientially even if the story takes place over months or years, is kind of like mainlining emotion. It allows us to experience things at a pitch that isn’t sustainable or sometimes even attainable at all in our daily lives, but within narrative boundaries that we can understand and count on, or even control when we’re telling the stories back to ourselves or picking which tiny moments to capture in the endless crystalline time loop of a gif. If it gets to the point where we can’t stop seeking that hit of emotion and real life starts to feel disappointing or depressing in comparison, it’s basically an addiction.

Fandom can connect people who love the same stories and give them a shared language to create something wonderful together, but it can also tip over into disconnection from real people and treating the real actors like characters in a story. I’m not actually convinced that the brain knows the difference between a crush on that cute boy at the bookstore, the gorgeous fictional flapper from the 1920’s gangster drama you’re watching on repeat, and the amazing actress who plays that flapper. I suspect it makes you more or less equally bonkers, and I’ve certainly seen that theory play out on social media. I also have friends who met through writing fanfiction and ended up married. Take Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) in Austenland, who is initially to too busy crushing out on Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and living with her life-sized standee of him to be interested in kissing her actual dates, but eventually meets and falls in love with a history professor at a Jane Austen-themed fan resort.

As long as the relationship stays in your head, you can control everything about the interactions and make them as fantastically intense and theoretically perfect as you want, but you can never really surprise yourself or tell yourself anything you don’t already know. I wrote a whole article about one of my favorite examples of that in Lars and the Real Girl, where Lars (Ryan Gosling) mail-orders a realistic sex doll, creates a personality and backstory for her, and introduces her to his family as his girlfriend, Bianca. He uses her to safely play out an entire relationship right through to a breakup before he’s able to get himself to take the risk of starting something with a real live humanly unpredictable girl who likes him. Wonderfully, by the time he’s done, his whole family and community have been swept up in the story and are genuinely sad to lose Bianca.

Our tremendous ability to tell stories and create art that touches people’s hearts and minds can be used to give us what we need when the world fails to do so. Their siren song can help us cope with a reality that bears no resemblance to what we wish for, but at their best I think they give us a chance to feel things we long to feel and equip us to go back out into the world and bring those things to life.


If Alex MacFadyen were a mad scientist, he might well invent a machine to travel into fictional worlds.

He might also live to regret it .

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