When you’re a fangirl, a shipper, or generally just a nerdy person who gets overly attached to fictional characters, you move through life a little differently than many people you know. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course! Great stories and characters are an important part of our lives and of the human experience.
And so are crushes.
Most nerds—myself included—can tell you that crushes on fictional characters can hit with a special kind of intensity. A brain-melting joy, even. A crush that is literally impossible to realize can actually be more fun, as there’s no point in pining. Just pure, jubilant crushiness. But as enjoyable as these crushes often are, they can also be dangerous.
When navigating the lush and twisting Forest that is a fictional character crush, you’ll want to take some precautions and keep certain key tools handy so that you make it out the other side relatively unscathed.
As a wise old Fangirl Crone and experienced Forest Traveler, I am uniquely qualified to help you navigate this experience. Consider this your handy survival guide for the next time you suddenly find yourself falling head-over-heels for someone who doesn’t exist.
Stage 1: Discovery (aka Wild Thing, You Make My Heart Sing)
What’s Going On: Prior to knowing this character existed, you were fine. You were going through life more or less content. But then their face HAPPENED to you. And also their personality. Probably their backstory and maybe their special skills, too, the main one being SUPERHUMAN AMAZINGNESS. Is this what it feels like to look upon an angel? A celestial being? How could one character be so perfect AND so perfectly flawed? You’re in Crush Stage 1 now, bay-bee!
Warnings: Remain calm. But know that you’re fucked. Royally. It’s best to make peace with that and avoid entertaining any notions about ignoring it, because you are in CRUSH CITY, population YOU. Dust those crumbs off of your hoodie and buckle up. It’s time to enter the Forest, an enchanting and bewildering place.
Key Tools: Your dignity. Try to hold onto this as long as possible, as it’s often lost in the Forest.
Stage 2: Research (aka Getting to Know You)
What’s Going On: This stage might be equivalent to dating, if your crush were on a real person. Since it’s not, you’re going to spend time scouring the internet for more photos/information about them as though you’re the hacker character in a spy movie doing extensive research on a person of interest. Only, the research has no purpose aside from fueling your thirst. Most of this stage is just you staring at a screen while little cartoon hearts explode around your head. Enjoy it while it lasts. If you’re like me, your brain is probably dumping some serious happy juice right now, so bask in it.
Warnings: Essentially, you’re moving deeper into the Forest, and you are surrounded by more wonders than you ever could have imagined—a glowing flower here, a unicorn there—but keep in mind that the Forest is not reality. DO NOT get your character confused with the actor who plays them or otherwise “merge” them in your mind. In the process of looking up info/photos, you are going to see that actor a lot. And they’re probably awesome, and they probably did such a great job portraying the character! But the depth of understanding you feel for the character and their struggle/triumph does not apply to the actor. They’re just out there wiping crumbs off of their own hoodie and, like, taking their dog to the park. Don’t be that fan.
Key Tools: Water, to stay hydrated. You’re going to be logging some serious hours at the computer during this stage. Remember to take breaks. Preferably with sunlight. Try to remember that, unlike your crush, you inhabit reality.
Stage 3: Immersive Infatuation (aka Can’t Get You Outta My Head)
What’s Going On: Every cheesy/horny pop song on the radio reminds you of them. You’re smiling at random times. You’re walking on air. This is the true magic of the Forest: The world around you has become more wondrous, more beautiful, than you ever imagined. The fairies in the trees are feeding you berries that taste like sunshine. Life is good.
Warnings: Use EXTREME caution when in conversations with non-nerd friends and relatives—which may mean just avoiding talking about this character at all. They can’t see the Forest. They won’t get it. And you don’t want to look back on these conversations five months from now and cringe so hard that you astral project all the way to Mars. Trust me on this!!!
Key Tools: All that pent-up energy you have from not being able to talk about the crush in real life is best spent online! With other fans! So, get thee to Tumblr or LiveJournal or wherever you e-live, and interact with people who understand. And while there is a lot of toxicity in fandom spaces to watch out for, it’s a truly beautiful thing when fans come together in a positive way.
Stage 4: Marriage (aka My Heart has Wings and I Can Fly)
What’s Going On: Not everyone with a fictional character crush enters this stage. Some will be content with Stage 3 for a while before bypassing this one and moving on to Stage 5. Those who do enter Stage 4, however, become unwaveringly devoted to their character crush. Stage 4 is recognizable when the character transcends being just a crush and becomes Your Favorite Character. You hold them above all others. You’re married now. While this stage can be highly enjoyable, it’s also the MOST dangerous of all stages: Lured in by the distant, ethereal songs of sirens, you are entering the glittering waters of The Swamp—the deepest and foggiest area of the Forest.
Warning #1: Repeat after me: “I am not this character’s only or biggest fan. I am not this character’s only or biggest fan.” You don’t own this character. You don’t inherently “know” them better than every other fan out there, and another fan with a different interpretation of the character is not automatically “wrong.” The character is fictional and responses to fiction will always vary widely. If you see a really odd headcanon, use this mantra: scroll on and move on. Focus on having a good time, not trying to claim your place atop a non-existent throne as ~the best fan~.
Warning #2: Repeat after me: “When others criticize this character, they are not attacking me. When others criticize this character, they are not attacking me.” Exercise extreme caution when met with criticism of your crush/fav—and this applies doubly if your character crush is a villain in their source material. You might be able to see things from their point of view and acutely understand their pain and motivations—that’s cool! It speaks to how well-written and nuanced the character is. But if you find yourself feeling offended when other fans discuss the character’s canonically established mistakes or shortcomings, you need to take a step back.
Key Tools: A cold shower. A warm beverage. Some fresh air. Open a window, at least.
Stage 5: Divorce (aka Let the Sunshine In)
What’s Going On: You’re nearing the outer edge of the Forest, now, and you can see daylight up ahead. You’re getting ready to re-enter reality. Some fans will inevitably resist this stage and retreat from the edge, deliberately repeating previous stages in order to remain in the Forest. But as your wise crone guide, I’m going to give you some advice: Don’t fight Stage 5. Don’t think of it as a breakup. Think of it as another stretch of the long fandom road we all travel, which will lead you to other beautiful crush forests you haven’t even imagined yet. Everything in life is temporary, including crushes so intense they turn your world over.
Warnings: Coming back to reality can be a little jarring, so be patient with yourself. Go shopping! Make brunch plans! Jam to an album you haven’t played in years! Deep down, you may feel a little frustrated, or even empty, without the crush. You may even feel relief. Either way, rest assured you’re not alone. Your whole life is waiting for you on the other side of this soul-electrifying crush, and that’s a GOOD thing.
Key Tools: Don’t forget your sunglasses. There’s a whole world out there for you to explore.
Stage 6: Acceptance (aka Everything is Alright)
What’s Going On: At this final stage, you’ve made peace with your crush and your wonderful Forest adventure existing as a memory. Your feelings about the character may shift dramatically—you may even come to dislike them and/or decide you need to take a break from their source material. Sometimes, Stage 6 can be prompted when new stories/media about your character change the way you view them, but it’s often just a natural progression along the crush journey. Alternatively, you may always carry some fondness for them, and they may even become one of your all-time favorites. In any case, you are free.
Warning #1: Hopefully, if you heeded prior warnings, this stage won’t bring on too much regret for you. But no matter how carefully you tread, there’s likely to be some mild-to-moderate cringing involved when you reflect on how you behaved in the throws of your crush. Maybe you showed them off as your cellphone wallpaper and when friends asked you about the picture, you got all smiley. Or maybe you posted Rupi Kaur poems and said they reminded you of the character. Regardless, forgive yourself and move on. Learn from these experiences.
Warning #2: Now that your most recent crush is over, an invisible countdown may have started until the next one dives headfirst into your life. Keep in mind that it might not be that long until you find yourself right back in Stage 1 again, and remember the lessons you’ve learned during this wild ride.
Key Tools: Optimism. Hope for the future. You can probably think about your life and your goals/dreams with greater clarity now, so use this newfound peace of mind to reflect on what you really want—and it’s probably not the impossible unrequited love of a fictional character.*
At some point in the pre-Internet past, people with intense crushes on fictional characters probably thought they were rare or weird. Thanks to the sprawling fandom communities accessible at our fingertips, we know that we’re all SUPER fucking weird, but we’re far from being rare or alone. Life is confusing and hard and can feel largely meaningless, and for some of us, crushes are a nice escape. We’re all just huge nerds clawing our way through strange forests, but there’s safety in numbers.