I’ve often wondered if I have a healthy sense of empathy since it always seemed easier for me to come to form emotional connections to fictional characters rather than real people. There was something about that abstraction to reality that made me experience a wider spectrum of feelings that nothing else in my life could provide. This is not to say that I was neglected as a child, in fact far from it as I was blessed with parents who tried their best to raise me to be the person I am today. Even within that environment, seeing the struggles and triumphs of my favorite characters allowed me to vicariously experience those same emotions. I can imagine in my formative years that this would have greatly influenced the development of my personality and more importantly my identity. As an example, I was about 10 when I first learned of the series “One Piece” when it came as one of many different manga series in the first English language version of Shonen Jump in the US. At the time, it was a fun adventure story I just took enjoyment from in reading, but by middle school I had grown to be more withdrawn, and my attachment to the story grew as a means of compensating for the loneliness I experienced. The attachment I felt to those characters was stronger than any real life connection I had made at the time, and as a result I felt that One Piece became an integral part of my identity in how it shaped my emotional development. It clearly was not the case that I could identify with any of the conflicts or shenanigans that the Straw Hat crew got themselves involved in, but it was what these characters meant to me that gave me hope, inspiration, motivation, laughs, tears, anger, etc. I knew that every week I could set aside a few minutes and sail away into a world where I could feel everything.
To call myself simply a fan wouldn’t be accurate because it is the single best comfort during my most stressful times. Anyone who has been part of a fandom probably has encountered the sentiments, “[Piece of fiction] saved my life,” or “I was in a bad place until I came across [Piece of fiction].” Now, if I was to go back and ask myself my response to hearing a statement like that, it would no doubt include some form of derision that anyone who felt like this was pathetic to need a book, game, movie, TV show or any other storytelling medium to keep themselves from ending their life. Even my middle school self who was already enduring the pangs of loneliness might have also felt similarly. Experience made me realize otherwise. I have never been at the edge of ending my life, but I have entertained those thoughts when I was at the lowest of my lows. Whenever I was in those moments, I would tell myself that I’ll never know how One Piece ends, and somehow that was the only motivation I needed to get through. Why does a simple story have this much sway over me and my decisions? Can I not be satisfied with my real life that I need to turn to fiction to feel something? These are just some of the questions that I ask myself. I don’t have all of the answers just yet, but it did make me question my relationship to One Piece and if it was a healthy one. I deluded myself into thinking that it was the only meaningful thing in my life. These past few years have revealed for me how much love and support I have from my family and close friends which cannot be understated. In my opinion, the way One Piece or any other piece of fiction should fit into your life is as a supplement. It doesn’t need to be the only thing that sustains you emotionally, but in those times when nothing else is going right, it can be a nice addition to reaching out to those who care for you for help of which there are many more than you might expect.
Having that support system helped me put into perspective what my favorite stories can add to my life rather than it becoming my life. Essentially, this was the good ending to my predicament. To that point, I can understand about .00000000000000000000000000001% of how some particular aspects of fandom take root in that some fans think that they have some ownership over a piece of fiction based on how much it has embedded itself into their lives. Considering how it manifests itself, I would categorize this path as the bad ending. As an example, Star Wars seems to be a lightning rod for so many people to attack and harass those whom they don’t deem fit to be a part of “their idea of what Star Wars is”. Most egregiously was a fan who said that the actor who voiced Yoda in the original series didn’t know the character better than the fans who have spent years delving into other expanded universe material beyond the release of the movies involved with his character. Everything that has been said about this kind of poor behavior and gatekeeping has already been said, but I wanted to focus on the root of why some people feel this way. Not as a means to provide sympathy for anyone who would do these things (they don’t deserve any), but as a way for me to posit that the source for these feelings which stem from the same place of feeling a deep connection with stories and their characters.
P.S. My opinion stands that no one besides the original authors of a fiction have the final say on what their stories are intended to be (I still believe this even in the context of the plentiful J.K. Rowling memes), but that doesn’t mean that it has to be the definitive perspective of it. Anyone can take away anything from a story because our own experiences shape how we perceive our realities for better or for worse. I, as an Indian person can take the struggles and triumphs of fictional Japanese pirates and internalize them in ways meaningful to myself. The important point is that stories have an inherent power of the formation of who we become, but it’s important for people to draw boundaries between their perceptions and how it can affect not only themselves, but also those around them.