Normal People: the enigma of falling in love with fictional characters (part one)

There’s always another fictional boy to love. The one who, upon seeing him on screen or at the crest of turning the page, you realise with a start you’ve been waiting to meet your whole life. And suddenly, here he is! Up there, on the screen, his voice playing far too loud over the cinema speakers but somehow it’s okay because everything he says is like birdsong at dawn, sinking into your ears to be quoted back later to friends, or to yourself when you’re lying awake at night, stomach sick and lurching with lust. Then he’s kissing her, the one he’s in love with, because he’s only just realised that it might be too late, that he has to do something to keep her. Maybe it is too late, and you go home inconsolable by their loss, the popcorn you ate sticking metallically between your teeth, salt clinging to your tongue like the misery you feel.


Perhaps you’ll go to your room, get your laptop out and fall into a Google hole researching ‘facts’ about his personal life. You’ll realise that he was born in the same hospital as you, or your fathers are both keen amateur cyclists; that you both come from a large, rowdy Irish family; that he almost gave up on his dream-job too, before it suddenly hit him full on the mouth and swept him up in its wave and that this is the reason you saw him in the film today, and if it hadn’t you never would have crossed paths with him…

Except, you didn’t. That actor isn’t the boy on the screen – you’ve made the fatal error of mistaking them for the same person. And the thing is that they’re not the same, they never are, and neither of them are quite real.

Throughout the years, I’ve lost count of the number of films or series that I’ve watched – either alone or with friends (the latter worse, because we can’t help but egg each other on) – which have proved a transformative, almost spiritual experience. The dawning rush of uncontrollable passion enhanced because it’s safe – because you’ll never bump into the object of that heady desire in the lunch hall or the library.

The first one which springs to mind, excruciatingly, is High School Musicals’ Troy Bolton – that nasal, auto-tuned tone irresistible to pre-teen ears – then Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars, Grease’s Danny Zucko (as I aged and my taste in films improved somewhat), more recently Timothée Chalamet’s exquisitely garbed Teddy in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and now this: Connell Waldron, Normal People

I’d like to say it’s the inimitability of these characters, their superior intelligence or unmatchable humour, the way they have somehow acquired a deep and profound knowledge of the great masters (both their pain and their creations) by the tender of age of 20 – and in some instances, it is this that draws you in. However, mostly, the fetishisation of fictional characters – the way we’re left unable to sleep because of the longing we feel for them, the way suddenly they’re there in every facet of the day even when before there was no time to think about anything else, the fact that (maybe this is just me, and if so please allow the madness – it’s what’s keeping me sane) sometimes we smile to ourselves just thinking of them laughing as we describe the ridiculous minutiae of our day, how their lips curve upwards in that certain, mercurial way they reserve, unconsciously, just for us – is misplaced.

Normal People is a triumph. If I wasn’t so stunned by its vulnerability and magnificence, I’d be somewhat ashamed to join the teeming leagues of people lavishing praise upon it, but it can’t be helped; it’s genius. The ability to dramatize literature which relies so much upon the minutest of notions only ever truly exposed in text and to turn it into a masterpiece of pain, love and the ache and swell of bad timing and painfully poor communication isn’t one which many of us have, or will ever acquire.

Part Two to follow soon.


Feature Image: brando on flickr. Available under Creative Commons 2.0.

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