I fall in love quickly and easily… with fictional characters.

This propensity for swift infatuation began with my giant crush on Michael from “Barney and Friends.” He had an adorable shock of blonde hair, a cute face, and a shirt that said “Michael.” Just in case that wasn’t enough to make me swoon, the lyrics to the Barney theme song seductively informed me that he was comfortable with both hugging and kissing, and that we were, in fact, mutually in love.

Soon thereafter, I fell for Jim Hawkins, boy soprano and Muppet straight man. In a dark, primitive time in my life, I actually constructed elaborate daydreams in which child actor Kevin Bishop and I would battle pirates and befriend Muppets side by side, my young self showing a promising amount of mettle and general swashbuckling fortitude, Kevin refusing ever to leave my side.

My taste grew somewhat more sophisticated as I grew older (though there were mountains and valleys of judgment) and my list of fictional crushes grew to incredible lengths: Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Mr. Darcy, Jon Snow, Hobbes (I would straight-up marry that tiger, right now), Fred and George Weasley, Han Solo, Wentworth, Malcolm Reynolds, Peeta Mellark, Spider-man, Sodapop Curtis, Dr. Watson, Tom Brandson, Jess Mariano, Will Turner, the non-sellout roller-blading kid from “Brink,” the cuter half of the Olsen twin love interests, Corey Matthews, pretty much any Scooby from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and most of the Mighty Ducks. If you were cast as the lead actor in a theatrical performance in Northwest Iowa anywhere between the years 1999 and 2007, I have probably doodled your name on a binder somewhere.

I adore the hero. Give me a protagonist, and my knees start feeling wobbly. Give him a pretty face, and my body begins to shut down non-essential organs. Give him a four-octave vocal range, and you’ll have to scrape me off the floor with a spatula.

Give me a real human being however, and I’m rather ambivalent.

I’ve been a bit disgruntled by reality. It turns out that real people, be they love interests, classmates, or coworkers, do not always have incredible vocal ranges, a fierce and unwavering dedication to my personal happiness, or the ability to fly.

I went to see Pixar’s new film Inside Out with my family on Sunday, and, in one scene, the main characters encounter “Imaginary Boyfriend,” the protagonist’s mentally fabricated representation of the perfect tween heartthrob. He has a 2011 Justin Bieber haircut, a pubescent Keanu Reeves voice, and a constant cyclical mantra of “I would DIE for Riley.”

Don’t we all do that? I do. Imaginary Boyfriend. Imaginary Boss. Imaginary BFF. Imaginary Students. Imaginary Ex. Imaginary Sister. Imaginary Cousin. Imaginary Acquaintance.

I keep building up expectations for everyone around me, assuming that anyone worth anything in my life will scratch, scramble, and claw their way onto the pedestals of heroism that I have so kindly constructed for them, no matter how precarious and unnecessary the climb.

I don’t think the problem is, though, that they can’t do it. I think the problem lies in the assumption that I’m the main character of the story, and that everyone else is born to be my hero. Colin Stokes has a number of excellent TED talks in which he discusses narrative traditions and their relationship to culture. In one such address, he discusses the idea that The Hero’s Journey, the traditional narrative arc of a hero, a heroine, a mentor, a trickster, a triumph, and a resurrection, confuses us into believing that we are all the protagonists of life.

We need to remember, Stokes says, that sometimes, we are someone else’s hero. Sometimes, we are someone else’s mentor. Sometimes, we are simply a minor character. Sometimes, we are someone else’s villain.

Instead of spending my time attempting to cram real, beautiful people in my life into fictional, distorted roles, I need to forget THEIR roles altogether and start thinking about MINE. Who am I to them? What do others need from me? When do they need me to step up? When do they need me to step back?

Since when do my expectations for them matter more than my expectations for myself? We’re all heroes and villains, glories and shames, and we will begin to manufacture a lot more villainy than heroism if we forget that we ourselves are not the center of life, that we can’t love people for what they can give us. The truest example of love offered that very love without promise of return on His investment.

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