On Falling in Love with Fictional Characters: Life Lessons from My Literary Crushes

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I fell in love for the first time at 15.

The object of my affection was completely unaware of my regard, however, not because he was a Hollywood actor or boy band heartthrob, or even my high school’s star quarterback, but because he existed only within the pages of a Jane Austen novel.

Now before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you: it was not Mr. Darcy. While that gentleman had many fine and amiable qualities, it was Henry Tilney, the facetious, witty and compassionate hero of Austen’s earliest novel, Northanger Abbey, who held my heart.

Henry is intelligent, funny, charming, practical and generous, and he takes a decided (though not suspicious) interest in ladies’ fashion. He is an avid fiction reader as well, remarking that, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” He is, in a word, perfect.

I fancied that I was a bit like Catherine, the book’s heroine, naive but good-hearted, loyal and kind, and such a voracious novel reader that she sometimes blurs the lines between fiction and reality (OK, maybe I was a lot like her). And if that was true, then when I was ready to look for a hero of my own, I would need someone like Henry to keep me grounded, and I would want someone like him to make me laugh.

This was the first time I had ever thought of my possible future husband or romantic partner as anything more than a faceless Prince Charming, a cardboard cutout groom to stand beside me while I sparkled in my beautiful Cinderella wedding gown. Funny that it took falling in love with a fictional character for me to think of the person I would end up with as real.

Throughout the novel, Henry and Catherine have their ups and downs. There are misunderstandings and disappointments, and even after the blissful ending we expect from Miss Austen, there are hints that this happily ever after might still have its rocky bits. Henry (and Jane) taught me that real love won’t be like a fairy tale, but if you’ve found the right person, it can be even better.

Henry made such an impression on me that it was years before I loved again. Six years, actually. From the ages of 15 to 21 I lived in an Austen haze. I would barely read anything else, unless it was in some way related to my dear Jane. Of course I tried the Brontës, as many with Austen hangovers do, and I even went on to the books Jane herself had actually read: Fanny Burney’s Evelina (which I still reread from time to time) and Cecilia (though I didn’t finish that one–it’s so long!) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian and The Mysteries of Udolpho (Henry and Catherine’s favorite novel).

But right around my 21st birthday I rediscovered a genre I had loved as a preteen, before I got hooked on Austen: science fiction. I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game for the first time that spring, a novel often found on middle school and even older elementary reading lists, most likely because of the characters’ ages. The synopsis sounds like current YA fiction, as well: In a distant future, the best and brightest of Earth’s children are sent to a Battle School in space in hopes that one of them will become the leader we need to defeat a menacing alien race. Among them is Andrew, or “Ender,” Wiggin, the book’s young and conflicted protagonist.

I’m glad I first read Ender as an adult. If I’d read it at 13 or 14, I probably wouldn’t have been ready to be intrigued by the deeper philosophical questions it posed, or that of its sequel, Speaker for the Dead. Set 25 years later in Andrew Wiggin’s lifetime, but about three thousand years later for the rest of humankind (since traveling across vast distances of space messes with the flow of time), Speaker finds the descendants of Earth scattered across the galaxy on colonized planets, and centers on a group of settlers who must learn to live in harmony with the sentient native species of their world.

Ender himself is the Speaker of the title, and he travels to the colony to “speak the deaths,” a funeral rite of sorts, of two men who were killed by this native race, and that of another whose family is deeply connected to them.

It was this compassionate, quiet, contemplative adult version of Ender who captured my heart. He steps into a house full of children who have just lost their father and a woman who has just become a widow in more ways than one, and despite their hesitance and even outright hostility toward him, never shows them anything but patience and kindness.

Perhaps this spoke so deeply to me because I had just experienced my first real loss myself; it was around this time that my grandfather died. Just as Ender was helping this family through their grief, he was helping me through mine.

Through his compassion, Ender comes to understand the native species of the planet in a way no one else ever has, and is able to bridge the gap between them and the humans to form a strong interspecies bond. He also helps a family face their own demons, and so begin their journey to healing. Ender taught me that love means trying your hardest to understand, and still giving of yourself unconditionally even when you don’t.

The rest of that summer was a strange one for me. I was about to leave home for the first time, I was preparing to go back to college after being out of school for over a year, and I read Twilight. All four books. In less than a week. I can’t say I’m ashamed of it, though I’m not exactly proud, either. But it was in the midst of this fever that I found I Capture the Castle.

Set in a crumbling Norman castle in the 1930s English countryside, Dodie Smith’s wonderfully charming and clever book is the account of 17-year-old aspiring writer Cassandra, who is constantly honing her craft through recounting the events of her days and recording observations in her journal. She laments that living as she does in a quiet village without the means to travel very far out of it, she will never gain the life experience she needs to become a truly great writer.

Cassandra and her family’s quiet life of genteel poverty is interrupted by the arrival of two American brothers, Simon and Neil, who move into the neighborhood. Cassandra, without even realizing, slowly falls in love with Simon, even though Simon has quickly fallen in love with her sister Rose. It’s easy to see why Cassandra is drawn to Simon (and why I came to love him, as well): he is intelligent, generous and kind, has a love of literature and music, and he takes her seriously when all the other characters seem to dismiss her as a precocious child.

Our heroine experiences the bliss of first love and the ache of disappointment all over the course of one summer. The resolution of this love tangle doesn’t wrap everything up with a bow, but it isn’t entirely without hope, either. Cassandra and Simon’s future is left open, in parallel to one of Cassandra’s observations early in the novel, when she muses that blissfully perfect, happy endings in books are like brick walls; they don’t allow the reader to imagine a future for the characters beyond the final page. Their stories simply end.

Simon (and Cassandra) taught me that sometimes you don’t get the happy ending you wanted, but that doesn’t mean your story is over.

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