When reading a book, when watching TV shows or movies, I always find myself coming to care about the characters. It seems that while reading or watching, you are almost projected into their world, no matter if it's a fantasy world. You, as an invisible companion, live their lives with them. You go on a journey with them and experience every event, every emotion they go through. Strange how that happens while at the same time realising these people don't really exist.
As a huge NCIS fan, recent events have made me all too aware of how attached I can get to fictional characters. The characters on this show have become so important to me that the news about the departure of Cote de Pablo, who plays Ziva David, really hurt. It's safe to say that I have never loved a show more than I love NCIS, nor have I ever before been as invested in one. Losing one of the characters feels like losing somebody close to you. Add to that the fact that the cast of this show are as important to many of the fans as the show itself, and it is a double loss.
In the past few weeks, I have been thinking about this subject a lot. I have started to wonder why it is that people tend to identify so much with fictional characters. Why is it that we care about them?
In her book Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, Blakey Vermeule writes that people "need to know what other people are like." People are very interested in people and the reasons we care about fictional characters are akin to the reasons we care about other people, especially those we have never met and probably never will meet. Vermeule started writing her book asking the same question of why people care about fictional characters. "Why should we spend attention on people who will never care about us in return?" The need to know what other people are like seems to be one of the main aspects. It makes sense, really. In real life, how much time do we spend every day wondering what is going on in other people's minds? I know that I would love to know this most of the time. Vermeule writes that humans spend a lot of their energy trying to explain both themselves and others. Additionally, she states that fiction, after we give it our attention and "suspend our disbelief", pays us back by giving us valuable social information. "Information that would be too costly, dangerous, and difficult to extract from the world on our own."
Fiction allows us a rare insight into the minds and hearts of its characters, its people. An insight that we often wish for in real life. When reading or watching a fictional story, we see and hear (almost) everything. You could go as far as to say that you get to know some characters better than you ever get to know the people around you in real life. Readers of novels may know more about what the characters are thinking than the viewers of TV shows and movies, since we get to read the characters' thoughts in novels but we don't usually get to hear those thoughts on screen. However, the actors most often do an amazing job at letting viewers know what their characters are feeling. I can imagine that actually being able to see the characters (as portrayed by the actors) instead of only imagining what they look like, makes them seem even more real to people, and more familiar. It adds aspects such as knowing their every facial expression.
On top of all this, it is also thanks to the writers' abilities that we get so attached to fictional characters. They create characters that people will like, no matter how flawed they may be. They make us care. Moreover, Vermeule writes that writers have developed "tools" to stimulate our minds, to grab our attention, and keep us interested. They know exactly how much information to give the readers/viewers and how much to withhold. For NCIS fans, and specifically the fans of the Tony/Ziva relationship, I think a great example that comes to mind is 'Paris'. We know that something happened in Paris but the writers withheld information. For years, this has kept our minds occupied.
The writers of NCIS have certainly been doing an amazing job at stimulating our minds and keeping us interested. They, and the actors, have also done wonderfully with creating characters that millions of people like, even love. People have been letting these characters into their homes and hearts for 10 years. We have gotten to know them incredibly well. For many, it doesn't stop with the one-hour-a-week peek into their lives between September and May. Fans like to go on the internet and interact with other fans. They like to spend time thinking about their beloved characters and what is going on in their lives. They discuss what the characters were thinking and feeling, what they did and why, and what they 'should have' done. After so many years, the NCIS family has become our family. They have become part of who we are. That is why we care. That is why it hurts to lose one of them. That is why many fans are fighting for Cote's return.