River and the Doctor: Our Emotional Connection to Fictional Characters

As a Whovian, I’m addicted to one of the greatest love stories never told – the romance of River Song and the Doctor. What an ingenious concept to have a time traveler meet his epic love in reverse order. From the first time he meets her and then watches her die, he becomes forever haunted, because every time he sees her after the fact he knows exactly what happens in the end – yet he still falls madly in love with her.

Everything about their relationship and the way that the writers reveal the story pulls tight at my heartstrings in ways I could never imagine possible, especially since we’re talking about completely fictional characters. Just thinking about the course of their romance chokes me up inside. In fact, from the moment I heard Phillip Phillips’ song, “Gone, Gone, Gone,” I remember thinking – “Now there’s a song about River and the Doctor!” Oh – and yes many people have linked the song with clips, such as this one:

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for the tissue box while watching.

The more I thought about the song connection, and the more the song played on the radio, the more overwhelmed I became with a mixed emotional state. Part of me felt absolute romantic bliss that such an undying love could exist somewhere in the universe, even if only in our imaginations, but the other part of me wanted to weep openly at the thought of such an epic love forever tainted with bittersweet sadness – at least from the perspective of the Doctor.

When I get beyond that kick to the gut of emotional turmoil, the writer in me starts to wonder – why are we so affected by fictional characters?

Although there are many potential answers out there, I want to discuss two particular answers, because I think these answers get to the heart of storytelling.

Answer #1 Good Writing

Answer #2 “Human” Connection

There are at least three main elements that make the writing of this love story so good:

  • Character Development
  • Tension
  • Playing with Linear Time

With our characters, we have our epic hero, the Doctor, who is the last of his kind, an alien from another planet, a time traveler, brilliant beyond belief, and possibly the most generous being in existence. So, of course, his love interest can’t be some equally goody-goody character. She has to be a foil to him, but she has to pair well with him too. Bring in River Song – sexy, sassy, slightly psychotic, amazingly brilliant, morally flexible, and eternally devoted to the Doctor.

But we really only learn about River throughout the 11th reincarnation of the Doctor. So what is it about her character that catches us from practically the first moment we meet her?

I think it’s her sense of mystery. She instantly knows who the Doctor is, even though he doesn’t have a clue as to who she is. She somehow has the Doctor’s tool of choice, a sonic screwdriver. And, as dark and sinister enemies come into play, River remains surprisingly calm, like she’s used to it. This type of mystery works amazingly well for perking the viewers’ collective interest. Plus, as the final icing on the Whovian cake, she alone knows the one thing NO ONE knows, the one piece of information that we as viewers have NEVER been given. She knows the Doctor’s name. Talk about imbuing a character with instant power and panache!

Her character is developed even further as she sacrifices herself to save everyone, especially the Doctor. In that final act of her first appearance on the show, she becomes a martyr, an epic heroine, and even more of a mystery. She tells the Doctor about the last place he took her before she came to the library, letting him and the viewers know the details about the Doctor’s final date with his dearest love. She also points out that the Doctor will forever know, (has always known), her fate, yet he will never be able to tell her about it – spoilers, after all. River also leaves her journal in her stead, making sure that the Doctor knows he gave it to her in the first place, and that every piece of information of her entire life with him is in that book, yet he can never open it.

All of this massive character development is done in a matter of minutes on the show, and instantly we’re hooked. So what if we know how she dies? Hello – time travel!!! Now we as viewers have to know more about this woman. We’re compelled to follow her and the Doctor’s love story, because we HAVE to figure out who this woman is, how she gained the Doctor’s trust, and how she found out the greatest secret in the universe.

Which, of course leads us to tension and playing with linear time. We as viewers know where River ends up, but we have no idea how she gets there or how the Doctor will fall in love with her. Plus, every time River and the Doctor meet, they meet at different points in each of their timelines. The tension between these two builds because of what each of them knows about the other one, but can’t reveal due to potential paradoxes and fixed points in time. The tension builds for viewers because we know that they end up as lovers/partners, so every interaction we see we’re voyeuristically hoping to see pieces of their romance fit together.

The fact that their entire relationship is done with no regards to a linear timeline makes us invested in these characters even further. For one thing, we as watchers are constantly trying to figure out where each character is in the timeline and what he or she knows about the other character at that point in time. We also learn about River, our woman of mystery, in pretty much reverse order, which means we constantly know the end results of her life without ever knowing how she got to each point until far after the fact. Optimistically, I think it shows that we do care more about the journey than the final destination.

In addition, the lack of a linear timeline has a jarring effect on viewers. We constantly find out bits of information about each character, but never in the proper order, so we can’t see the full picture. As each piece is revealed, all the other pieces change position instantly, causing us to question what we already know, and, in many ways, making us love and/or hate the characters all over again.

In those moments of questioning and character judging, we come to the second answer as to why we love these fictional characters – “human” connection. (Yes, I realize the irony in using the word human, but just go with it).

As we invest so much of our energy into finding out more and more about these characters, and as the different pieces of the puzzle come into play, we start to connect to the characters because we can relate to them. The act of being in love, or just love, is universal, regardless of whether you’re human, a Time Lord, or something else. The majority of sentient beings have a desire to be loved and to connect with others. I think what really makes us cling to these fictional characters is the turmoil we see them face as they pursue love and the ability to connect. Granted, for plot value, the obstacles that River and the Doctor overcome are far more grandiose than what we as regular people will probably ever  face. But that’s the point – if we can see these two people who are forever locked into meeting each other in the wrong order, who are constantly fighting off enemies, and yet somewhere in the midst of things they still manage to fall deeply in love – after all of that, if they can do it, then there must be hope for the rest of us.

That’s why this love story grabs us. That’s why even as I write this article I’m getting choked up. That’s why these characters have to be so expertly crafted – they represent our hopes and dreams and what it means to be alive.


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