Comfort Characters vs. Morals


Sania Mehta and Prithika Sundar

A myriad of television shows and movies contain that singular character who immediately clicks. Someone who makes identical decisions, operates the same, converses the same and lives such strikingly similar experiences that you start glimpsing yourself in them. You begin to associate with them as a means of finding consolation in them, hence coining the term “comfort characters.” 

These characters exist to be somebody to relate to or inspire their viewers. They exist, in part, because many individuals do not have parents, companions or other social confidants whom they can seek solace in. When people feel lonely, watching these characters lets them identify with someone else’s struggles and follow them to the end of their journey — ultimately allowing the individual to find consolation in them.

While these characters can make shows entertaining, potential detriments surface if an individual becomes too affixed. Connecting to a character portrayed in the media guides individuals to solely view them through a favorable lens. When this character makes a morally-wrong decision, many tend to brush it off, as the positives that the viewer connects to often outweigh the negatives. 

Psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford, Ph.D., a psychologist and member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, conducted research on this phenomenon. The research states how having a comfort character could indicate an above-average empathy level and a tendency to have stronger emotions. Additionally, studies have shown that these characters can motivate and enhance people’s everyday lives, whether it comes to decision-making, improving their relationships and more.

Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls is a prime candidate of this. If viewers require motivation for school, want an escape into small-town living or desire a close relationship with their parents, this show provides them with all of the above. ​Rory struggles with life from relationships, making poor decisions, quitting school and struggling to find a job. She faces situations similar to the real world, making it effortless to associate with her. It is rather refreshing to observe a character who loves books, works hard and is not inherently a social butterfly. 

On the flip side, retaining a comfort character can harbor detrimental effects when an individual is too engrossed in the fantasy. Relying heavily on these characters to get through difficult moments is a great risk of emotional and psychological harm, especially when the main character is killed or when the real-world actor is nothing like the character they portray. Cases such as this – when the character becomes the only source of comfort in a person’s life – can lead to a highly unhealthy attachment for the person and dissociation from real-world experiences.

Often, the show’s writers conceal the fatal flaws of the comfort characters with the lead’s characterization, a primary example being the show Gossip Girl. A protagonist in the show, Chuck Bass, makes multiple unforgivable decisions, such as committing sexual assault and being a pathological liar. However, due to Bass being in an on-and-off relationship with another protagonist, Blair Waldorf, the show mainly revolves around their love story, hardly acknowledging his blunders. Since Bass is in a relationship with the lead, all of his previous decisions are brushed off, as he has somehow “redeemed himself” by becoming a better man for his significant other. 

Similarly, HBO Max’s Euphoria is widely known for containing characters that viewers relate to, whether the relation is with their positive or negative aspects. A majority of the individuals in Euphoria considered fan-favorites are constantly defended for any immoral decisions they make. One example of this is Cassie Howard’s character, who has turned from a fan favorite to quite the opposite. Yet, some viewers justify her actions because they can connect to the insecurities she regularly encounters, bringing a sense of closeness between the viewer and Howard. From this example, we can discern how when viewers can comprehend what a character is feeling, it becomes simpler for them to regard that character in only a positive light. 

There has been discussion about why harboring a comfort character is ultimately adverse; nevertheless, if it brings no harm, people should be permitted to bear a clandestine world between themselves and a character they resonate with. Is this not the entire purpose of a character in the first place? Characters, stories and plotlines are carefully curated to impart a message around something much bigger than themselves. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the potential liabilities of completely engrossing yourself in such a clandestine world. Comfort characters can be perceived as idealistic when they are just as real as the person next to you. In fear that these characters will lose their “comfort,” their harmful actions often remain unaddressed by the viewers or the television shows themselves.