Fictional Characters and the Role of Intimacy in Storytelling

Research Team: Alisa Avigan, JerNettie Burney, Nancy Smith, Mitch Spicer

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Intimacy is typically associated with physical or romantic relationships, but it can be expressed in many forms, such as a close friendship, a parent’s love for a child, or a connection between two siblings. However, can intimacy only occur between two people in the physical world? Is it possible for a person to develop intimate relationships with fictional characters, such as ones featured in books or film? With a focus on Game of Thrones, both the book series and the television drama, we wanted to see how participants connected to characters in the story, how they were able to relate to each of them, and whether or not there was a difference in the types of connections made by those who have read the books and people who have only seen the story on TV. 

In order explore this area, we wanted our subjects to express themselves creatively in a manner that allowed them to show how they connect or relate to a fictional character and the environment in which they exist. Doing this helped to pull emotional reactions from our subjects in a way that a typical interview may not bring out. We helped the participants to become more reflective on how the story or a particular character has impacted their lives. To get at this reflection, we created a probe packet with instructions for the research subject to draw a map of the Game of Thrones kingdom, marking where major events happened and to write a eulogy for their favorite character from the story. The goal of the map was to determine in how much detail a person remembers the story, as well as an attempt to see a difference between those who read the books and only watch the show. We were also curious to learn what types of events stood out to the subjects. The goal of writing a eulogy is in the very nature of the television series, where important or influential characters are often killed off and are never featured in the story after that. When people have to think about the possibility of their favorite character’s death they reflect more deeply on what that character meant to them.

Her courage and cleverness were often underrated because she channeled them through traditionally feminine means. Rather than getting to showily resist, like Arya with Needle, she subtly negotiated the complexities and dangers of court. So often the most celebrated female characters (Brianne, Arya) have to take on traditionally masculine roles to be adopted by the fans, while “evil women” (Cersi, Melisandre) use sexuality as a means to power, making it easy for fans to discount them. Sansa, over time, grew into a more complex figure. She represented a more interesting role for women in Westeros and in the fandom as a whole.”
—Eulogy excerpt from research participant, Maureen.

The above example is a from a fictional eulogy written by one of our research participants. We collected 'key words' from each of the eulogies in order to better understand how people perceived these characters in relation to themselves. During this project, we developed a novel form of data analysis; inspired by the eulogies, maps, and follow-up interviews, we wrote a short story detailing our subjects’ connections to the Game of Thrones story. The research team collaboratively wrote the short story, in which we were able to externalize the details of our subjects’ phenomenological experience and situate their felt intimacy in a real-world setting; a setting which can be further enhanced by design interventions. Below are the tools we developed during this project:

We developed cultural probes that included creative activities for our research participants, such as map-making tools and letter-writing prompts. 

We developed cultural probes that included creative activities for our research participants, such as map-making tools and letter-writing prompts. 

A participant drawn map of Westeros based on memory. This was a useful artifact to use during interviews as participants elaborated on what they drew. 

A participant drawn map of Westeros based on memory. This was a useful artifact to use during interviews as participants elaborated on what they drew. 

A fictional eulogy written by a participant about the death of Jon Snow. The eulogies were extremely personal and each of the participants remarked about how much they helped them to think about the characters they liked and why they were so drawn to them and the overall story.

A fictional eulogy written by a participant about the death of Jon Snow. The eulogies were extremely personal and each of the participants remarked about how much they helped them to think about the characters they liked and why they were so drawn to them and the overall story.