Ana, 17, remembers the moment she fell in love with Harry Styles. She thought his solo during the What Makes You Beautiful video sounded dreamy. Wow, he looks like Prince Charming, she thought. Even though she was captivated by his green eyes, curly hair, and British accent, it was his personality shining through the screen that led to her giant crush. “I really admire his kindness,” she tells Her Campus. Is there more meaning to this fictional crush? Of course, Ana doesn’t actually know Styles — she developed a crush on the persona created to draw young women just like her mad with lust. Now Ana struggles to connect with real romantic prospects, comparing everyone to Styles.
During the 2010s, Gen Z experienced the height of stan culture, which led to explosions in fanfiction, ship accounts, and making thirsty TikToks about celebrities. Coined by Eminem in his 2000 song “Stan,” to “stan” someone refers to next-level fan dedication. Over the past two decades, the concept has evolved through various iterations in which young girls developed unattainable crushes on celebrities. And thanks to fanfic, it became easier to fantasize about the object of your affection, feeling directly connected to your favorite star. Fantasizing about a celebrity can make you feel like you actually know them, transforming your romantic feelings towards them into something that feels real, but isn’t. (What do you mean when you say Seth Cohen isn’t my actual boyfriend?!)
Back in 2009, fans were actually so in love with Justin Bieber that they described the sensation as akin to having a “fever,” with scientists studying the phenomenon and publications sharing the symptoms. Then, in 2010, Directioners — fans of the British-Irish boy band One Direction — presented to the world a whole new level of dedication and obsession (and boy, was I a witness to this). Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, and Harry Styles haven’t been together as a band for six years, but their fandom is still obsessed with them. Directioners follow the boys’ solo careers and fantasize about them, even going as far as shipping fictional relationships between them – like Larry Stylinson.
Although everyone has experienced a celebrity or fictitious crush (or several) before, only crushing on the unattainable might impact your relationships IRL. Sarah,* 20, developed a huge crush on Zayn Malik the moment she first laid eyes on him. “I love his personality, his kindness, and his songs,” she tells Her Campus. Even though she’s never met him, Sarah believes that his personality is all over his song lyrics. She loves every little detail about Zayn. “I don’t have a crush on anyone from my day-to-day life,” she tells Her Campus. “I don’t think anyone can match [Zayn’s] standards.”
According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers In Psychology, developing feelings of love, infatuation, or desire for a fictional character can be referred to as fictosexuality, fictoromance, and fictophilia. It’s so easy to fall in love with a fictional character, and the power of good fanfiction combined with the readers’ desire to experience romance can create the perfect storm. Fans often take it a step further, creating and consuming fanfiction that takes the characters they know and love and throws them into their wildest fantasies. For example, the movie franchise After, based on Anna Todd’s book series, started out as fanfiction about Harry Styles. The 50 Shades Of Grey franchise also started out as fanfiction, based on Twilight’s Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. Fans create bodies of work to experience a reality where they can be with their idols. Anything can happen, and for most readers and writers, this is as close as they’re going to get to a relationship with their favorite celebrity or fictional character. Everyone wants to live that y/n life — but why?
Sammy, 23, spent her teenage years with her head in a book — gaining a few crushes on fictional characters along the way. “I was really into Harry Potter and Twilight, but my literary boyfriend was definitely Edward Cullen,” she tells Her Campus. “I really identified with Bella Swan.” Clumsy and socially awkward, Sammy felt the Twilight series gave her hope that someday, she too might find someone like Cullen. (Except, you know, not a 100+ year old near-cadaver-turned-vampire).
But what makes a character like Cullen so alluring? Perhaps the fact that nobody gets him quite like Bella. Mackenzie, 22, has plenty of celebrity and fictional character crushes, but loves the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), especially the character James “Bucky” Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier. She’s also fond of the character Ashallayn’ darkmyr Tallyn, from the Iron Fey book series; and Draco Malfoy, from the Harry Potter series. Mackenzie tells Her Campus that what makes those characters so interesting to her is how misunderstood they all are. In her free time, she envisions how they would treat a partner. “At the end of the day, they would burn the world down for the woman who wins their love,” she says. “It’s a completely devout, ‘real love’ kind of thing.”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to experience passionate love, but not seeking this feeling in people you can actually date can become an issue. According to Gary Brown, PhD, a prominent relationship therapist in Los Angeles, people might be drawn to celebrity crushes due to their fame, power, or success. “There’s something very sexy about someone who’s famous and successful,” he tells Her Campus. Brown says that having a crush on a celebrity or fictional character is completely normal, and it can help someone figure out who they’re attracted to and the type of person they want to be with. However, it can become a problem when it crosses the line of obsession. “If you’re at a point in your life where your friends are dating and you’re not, because you’re at home obsessing over your [celebrity] crush, then it becomes a problem.”
The “kind of love” that Mackenzie has witnessed from her favorite crushes isn’t something she’s experienced yet, and she struggles to find people that resemble the characters’ good looks and personality. “I don’t think people have this kind of romance anymore,” she tells Her Campus. In her opinion, it’s also easier to have a crush on a fictional character. “You always know their next move,” she says. “With a fictional character, you know what you’re getting yourself into, and there’s no risk, or the chance of ever meeting them and [becoming] disappointed.”
Lexi-Nyx, 20, agrees that it’s much easier to crush on fictional characters. “I’ve dated people and they just broke my heart time after time — heartbreak and love isn’t something I do anymore,” they tell Her Campus. They also have a crush on MCU’s Bucky (and the characters Sam Wilson and Loki), as well as on actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson. “The people in my surroundings aren’t attractive to me. Some are handsome, but nothing compared to these men.”
Brown says that if someone is only interested in unattainable crushes, it could indicate that they have commitment issues, or a fear of being in a relationship. “It’s scarier to form an attachment to somebody in real life, because you’re going to have to deal with real life stuff, like a fear of attachment, of acceptance, and the fear of losing somebody,” he says. It’s just easier to experience a relationship entirely in your head, right? That way, you’re in control.
So, how do you “break up” with your fictional crush, so that you can start to pursue real romantic relationships? Brown says you should start by figuring out what’s so captivating about your crush. Is it their sense of humor? Their humility? Their style? When you identify the root of your attraction, you can look for that in people from your college, your local coffee shop, your gym, anywhere. Someone might just have what you’re looking for, if you’re interested.
But Meggie, 41, a longtime fan of the MCU who has a big crush on Bucky Barnes, doesn’t put her fictional crush on a pedestal. Identifying as asexual, Meggie explains that it’s just easier to have crushes on the unattainble. “I feel like crushing on people who I have no chance of interacting with is ‘safer.’ They’ll never want anything from me and it’s socially permissible to find them aesthetically pleasing without me wanting to have sex with them.”
For non-asexuals who also fear rejection, Amalía Astin, a ThetaHealing practitioner focusing on meditation, tells Her Campus that intuition can guide readers through limiting beliefs. Seeking the unattainable might be a symptom of hurt, trauma, or fear. “Ask yourself, ‘How am I benefiting by liking this person?’ Maybe it feels fun, safe, easy, and allows you to feel included in love and romance without risking anything,” she tells Her Campus. There are no “wrong” answers, but questioning the reason why you only have crushes on celebrities and fictional characters might help you in the process of overcoming a fear of relationships. “Are you willing to give up the fantasy and risk the potential of true intimacy?”
Although Ana isn’t sure if she’ll ever find someone as perfect as Harry Styles, she still believes in love. “If you’re someone who seeks and desires ‘true love’ then it’ll probably find you one day,” she tells Her Campus. “The trick is to reframe love not just as a feeling or emotion, as a way of being.” And in order to open yourself up to real love, you sometimes have to let go of your fictional crushes first — that’s what makes it beautiful.
* Name has been changed
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Karhulahti, V. M., & Välisalo, T. (2021). Fictosexuality, Fictoromance, and Fictophilia: A Qualitative Study of Love and Desire for Fictional Characters. Frontiers in Psychology.
Dr. Gary Brown, PhD, LMFT