Why are we so affected by the death of a character? It happens because we sometimes feel a special connection with a certain character.
Whether you’re familiar with the term parasocial break-up or not, you probably experienced it at some point in your life. Remember when you were watching your favorite show, you kept watching it because of the great storyline, but also because of this really nice character you were drawn to. You were just so curious what would happen to him or her in the next episode, and when you were not watching you actually missed him or her a bit. One day you watched the show and something terrible happened: your favorite character died. You really disliked this twist and you even felt a bit sad. How come? – Because you’ve experienced a parasocial break-up.
RIP your favorite character
So why are we so affected by the death of a character? It is just fiction right? It happens because we sometimes feel a special connection with a certain character, a parasocial relationship. This means that you form a one-sided relationship with a fictional character, or for example with a celebrity or famous athlete. When a fictional character dies, no one dies in real life, and we all know this. However, it is still the end of a (parasocial) relationship you built with this character, so it can be seen as a (parasocial) break-up. This cannot only happen when a character dies, but also at the termination of the show.
What you exactly experience during and after a parasocial break-up can be different for every individual. Besides that the death of a character makes you feel very sad, research shows that you could even experience feelings of grief and loss. It can feel like you lost someone that was near to you. In this grieving process, the role of social media is quite big. It serves as an outlet for grief as well as for finding peers who experience the same break-up. There are even Facebook memorial pages for certain television characters who died, where people can talk about this ‘loss’ with peers.
The Walking Dead
A show which is known for killing popular characters is The Walking Dead. About a year ago, the very popular character Glenn died in a horrible way in the sixth seasons’ final. Fans were broken-hearted and could not believe the writers of the show decided to let this character die. They were mad at the writers of the show, but also grieving about the death of the character who they got to know for six seasons and to whom they had to say goodbye now. They expressed their grief on several social media platforms with #ripglenn, and one fan even sent in an obituary that got published in a local newspaper.
They were mad at the writers of the show, but also grieving about the death of the character who they got to know for six seasons and to whom they had to say goodbye now
The death of a popular character attracts the attention of your viewers, but it can also be a risk. After the sixth season of The Walking Dead, the amount of viewers per episode was dropping. An explanation for this could be the death of the popular character Glenn, or maybe it was the brutal way in which he was killed that scared of some viewers. Also in the newest (8th) season of the Walking Dead, a major character has died, would that maybe cause further dropping of viewers?
Within The Walking Dead it kind of makes sense that some, popular characters die, because of the context of this series (survival, zombies etc). But also in more easy-to-watch series like Grey’s Anatomy, popular characters die. Everybody who watched Grey’s Anatomy remembered the terrible death of Derek ‘McDreamy’ Shepherd. He was, and still is, by far the most popular character in Grey’s Anatomy. Milions of fans watched McDreamy die in a fatal car accident and expressed their grief on social media with #ripmcdreamy. Even two years later, some fans are still not over it.
Milions of fans watched McDreamy die in a fatal car accident and expressed their grief on social media with #ripmcdreamy
How to deal with it?
So what to do when your favorite character dies? You can actually find a lot of tips to get over a fictional death online. An important thing to notice is that you shouldn’t judge yourself for being sad after a character dies. Many people have experienced a parasocial break-up, and even research shows that it is really an existing effect. You should allow yourself to be sad or angry and to cry as much as you want. As mentioned before, you can find a lot of peers online to talk to about the fictional death. This is a good way to express your feelings!
If you prefer a more personal way to deal with the death of your favorite character, you could send him or her a letter. You might feel a bit silly writing a letter to a fictive person but writing has proven to be very therapeutic. That’s why you could also start writing fanfiction about the dead character. You could for example give the character an alternative ending or you can bring the character back to life and fill in the gaps that the writers of the show didn’t cover. You can pretend that you never broke up and that he or she lives happily ever after (with you)!