Spotlight TEDx Talk: The reality of our relationships with imaginary characters

Writer Jennifer Barnes at TEDxOU

Writer Jennifer Barnes at TEDxOU

Are there any book characters you’d want to hang out with? Any character on TV? In a movie? Have you ever felt sad when a fictional character gets hurt? Do you root for your favorite characters, even though you know you can’t affect the action of the plot? Have you ever yelled at the TV even though you know the actors can’t hear you?

Your answer to at least one of these questions is probably “yes,” says psychologist and writer Jennifer Barnes at TEDxOU. People “spend time” with fictional characters just like they do with “real life” friends, she says, and that time matters.

Barnes has looked at this time — the development of relationships with fictional characters  — and studied how a small group of people felt about and responded to the imagined loss of a real person versus a fictional character. The results may surprise you.

For more, watch Barnes’s whole talk below:

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:
Here at TED, we spend lot of our free time interacting with all kinds of ideas and people, some of which aren’t necessarily existing IRL (“in real life”). The speaker — a university professor and psychologist — combines insights from the study of psychology, media, and literature to show how this commitment to those who do not exist actually affects us, emotionally and socially.


  1. Laili

    Hello, I don’t know what you mean by fictional characters, you say fictional but then you refer to real people, politicians or celebrities. Politicians, TV Show hosts, and celebrities are also real people and they also have real lives, real hopes, real dreams, real relationships, and real emotions, it is just that we aren’t in direct contact with them. So, why would you think people shouldn’t get upset or should get less upset about their death than the death of their acquaintances. I think your example and your presentation applies only to book characters, those are fictional.

  2. Susanna Kelly

    My comment is more of a questions. Jennifer, my boyfriend and I just got in a very interesting conversation. He was claiming that it’s unhealthy for children to believe in fictional characters. He said, “There’s a little girl next to me in line at UK customs, talking excitedly about how she’s going to Hogwarts to meet Dumbledore, and I’m struggling to contain the urge to shout “It’s not real! None of it is real!”

    Both as avid readers of sci-fi and fantasy we then began the debate whether it’s healthy to let our future kids believe in these types characters and break their heart and let them experience the grief of Santa “dying” in the future, or if it is better to be real from the beginning and tell them Santa doesn’t exist. Have you done any research if this stifles creativity and imagination if you’re real and honest from an early age? Or is it healthy for them to develop this imagination and experience the grief?

    • Nathanael Hesselbein

      There is a distinct and definite line between fact and fiction. If parents choose to let their kids believe in fictional characters and create a bond with them then that is fine. There is nothing unhealthy about using your imagination. Using your thoughts and feelings when you are a child to believe in something that makes you safe and happy will carry over when you are grown up. You may be crushed when you find out that Santa, and the Easter Bunny are not real, but it just leads on to believing in other fictions. If people want to let their kids grow up not believing in fictional characters that is also fine. Those kids are growing up learning to believe in themselves which is also healthy and perfectly fine.

  3. I believe that there is somebody out there as genius as Dr. House “the TV series”

  4. Sof Mits

    What if, the emotions that we experience when a loved character dies, or gets hurt, or something not good happens to them, are, in a weird opaque way, actualy addressed to the writer, the person that chooses that particular moment, to do that upsetting thing to a cherished character?
    The fictional person I love and empathise and identify with, may had to die, but why now and not old enough for me to believe that he should, why in that punishing way and not peacefully. Because somebody choose for that to happen. In real life that doesn’t exist, you are mad to… something, you don’t even know that exists. In fiction you are mad to a person with a name, so the addressed emotions are rational, real, so are much more intense.

  5. Pingback: TEDx: Imaginary Friends and Real World Consequences | Life Between Reads

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