In the second grade, I wanted to be a lot of things other than a taller-than average 8-year-old Minnesotan. I wanted to live out the American Revolution and World War II, and look cool doing it. American Girl novels made that possible.
I didn’t casually read these books. I read the whole series in a matter of days and pestered my mom with theories and questions about the characters. I told perfect strangers about their bravery. I dreamed up new scenes and acted them out with my dolls. I fangirled.
This addictive side of my personality scares me sometimes. What if I were to accidentally get into drugs or something? Would I be a goner? I honestly don’t think so. Because the initial draw, what really seals the deal with every album or series I sink my teeth into, is the story. Drinking and drugs supply no story, no lesson, no spunky heroine.
My laser-like passions weren’t isolated to a single series of books, but spread to new units in math class and my first choir that sang in harmony, not unison. This intense love — often an obsession — didn’t exactly make me popular with my classmates. At my private, Lutheran middle school, classes were small enough that I was given the choice between conforming and being a loner, prey for the mean girls. Sometimes, the teasing cut so deep that I stifled my “weird” obsessions. During the brighter moments, I channeled the stories I loved.
Trixie Belden was tough and brave, running into burning buildings and solving mysteries. I could be like her, even without a flaming shed. I abandoned the mean girls at recess to climb trees, just like Trixie. When my teacher scolded me for climbing too high, I grinned. Trixie took risks, too.
My first fictional crush was on “Ella Enchanted”’s Prince Charmont. He was different than the prepubescent boys I saw at school dances — he was funny and charming and tall. Ella, clever and strong, won the heart of the prince with her wit and kind heart. Her refusal to marry him in order to protect him from her curse angered me. He was offering her true love — how dare she say no? I ranted to my mom. She talked me out of a rant on our way home from school. The true love, it seemed, was in her sacrifice. I chewed on that idea at the park after dinner, working a piece of steak between my teeth I had pretended to swallow before leaving the table.
Someone once pointed out to me that I mimic the facial expressions described in books as I read them. I do more than that. When I first discovered the British cult TV series, “Doctor Who,” I was hooked in an instant. Watching on my iPod Touch in between classes, I was in so deep I began to hear The Doctor’s ship outside and imagine aliens behind every corner. I connected so deeply with one character in particular that I began to act how I thought she would act. My wardrobe changed slightly to mimic her sartorial choices. This only weirded me out a little — it was nothing new.
Lying in bed with a new favorite TV show running through my mind, I sometimes wonder if my own personality is nonexistent, but is instead a weird mashup of every character, song and idea I’ve ever identified with. A fiery temper here, a lopsided smile there, a knack for leadership in the center. What am I if I’m made of mimics?
It comes down to the reason even fifth graders feel the heartbreak in an Adele song. Sure, they likely haven’t experienced a lost love, but they don’t need to wait until they’re older to understand the sentiment and feel it deeply. In her voice, they can hear pain. In the lyrics they can pick up on the yearning and tuck it away for future crushes. They might apply it to the dumb boy who won’t share dessert with them anymore. Stories are powerful because their potential impact is limitless.
My favorite stories have taught me how I’d react to unexpected time travel and how I feel about the execution of prisoners by the sword. Will I ever experience these things in suburban Minnesota? Probably not — though I hold out a glimmer of hope that “Doctor Who” is actually a documentary — but I know precisely how I’d react in the off chance that I do. At the very least, I know how I aspire to be in these situations.
Fangirling over books and TV shows has not always been about self-improvement. In fact, it has only been recently that I’ve noticed the impression that these characters have made on my life. I clung to the escapism provided me by stories that shielded me from a bumpy childhood of teasing and illness. I vicariously dated boys in young adult novels in middle and high school, deciding that a real boyfriend who I actually liked would be too hard to find.
Today, I dive headfirst into any good narrative if only for a 22-minute episode. The characters are cute and fun and have their life together, and I’m terrified of my future and wearing sweatpants.
At times, falling too deep into a “fandom” can be a little dangerous. There’s no way I’m going to travel back in time and marry a beautiful Scotsman in the 1800s, yet I’ll fall into the trap of comparing my experiences and relationships with that of the heroine. Usually, mine fall short. Balancing the obsession with some rational thought, I catch myself. I don’t want to travel back to 1800. There’s no modern healthcare, and the women don’t get to try their hand at careers without a husband’s permission. Gross.
Coming back down to earth post-story can be really jarring, but they’re not over for me when the book closes or the finale airs. Walking into a job interview, I summon the wit of Elizabeth Bennet and enthusiasm of Leslie Knope. I embrace my weird sense of humor and channel Jessica Day. When I tear up during a sad song, it’s due to more than the tough week I’m having — I’ve lived through the heartaches of a thousand very real characters.
I’m not mimicking, I’m a part of these stories. I obsess not just because it’s an escape from life, but because it’s a safe way to test out scary what-ifs. And I’m not ashamed to admit how much my life revolves around fictional characters, but no one needs to know that the outfit I wore to class today was inspired by the heroine of my new favorite TV show.