The death of Mark Darcy, well-known to fans of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones books, made headlines recently and charged up fan message boards in Canada and around the world.
Even the venerable BBC rated the British author's decision to kill off Darcy — Bridget's true love who was played in subsequent movies by Colin Firth — second only to the Syrian news of the day.
While some people might question the priorities of those who give more than passing thought to the death of fictional characters, Darcy's death and the reaction to it tap into a longstanding phenomenon that, observers say, underpins the role the arts play in day-to-day lives.
"When you're reading a novel, in some ways it's a more intimate relationship than it is with a real human being," says Nick Mount, an English literature professor at the University of Toronto.
And while most people don't give up secrets easily or publicly, those secrets spill out in books all the time, Mount suggests.
In Bridget Jones's case, the secrets were on full display, as the 30-something singleton divulged her many, many foibles with men, cigarettes, food that did little for her waistline, drink, work and so on in diary form.
- Helen Fielding on the real-life loss behind Mark Darcy's death
- Helen Fielding on Bridget's popularity
In her latest rendition, Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy, Fielding casts Bridget as a 50-something widow with two kids who tweets and whose amorous adventures include a dalliance with a 29-year-old boy-toy named Roxter.
The many foibles are still there, alas without Mark Darcy.
Mad about the boy
Fielding charmed fans in Toronto recently even though some were obviously a bit queasy about Darcy's death.
Hard to let go
Authors sometimes have difficulty letting go of popular characters they have created.
Jean Stapleton, who played Edith Bunker on All in the Family and Archie Bunker's Place, said in an interview published on the website of the Archive of American Television, that series developer Norman Lear was reluctant to see the beloved character die.
"Norman said on the phone, 'I just haven't been able to say yes to this…. I said, 'Norman you realize don't you, she is only fiction,' And there was a long pause. And I thought I've hurt this dear man that I love so much. And then the voice came back to me, 'She isn't.' But, shortly thereafter, he gave the word and they made Edith die."
But she knows first-hand the impact her characters and their onscreen incarnations can have with real people.
"I couldn't walk out in the street without some bloke coming out of a restaurant and saying: 'You've murdered Colin Firth,' " she said during a series of CBC interviews.
Before this third and latest Bridget Jones book, Mad about the Boy, was published last month, Fieldling let Firth know that Darcy was no more.
"It was literally like making that call to tell someone that someone's died. I had to ask if he was sitting down and if he had someone with him," Fielding told CBC hosts Steven Sabados and Chris Hyndman.
"We were both really upset but at the same time he's really funny and gorgeous and we were laughing as well, because of course no one has died. It's not a real person.
"I think it's a tribute to him, to Colin, that he created this character the people cared about so much."
Why Darcy had to die
Fielding admits to being caught off-guard by the popularity Bridget Jones found, first in a 1995 column in the Independent newspaper and later in book form.
"When it first got successful, I had no idea. It was just a little column in the newspaper."
Then Fielding met a woman when she was touring in Japan. The woman, Fielding said, was "really successful … in perfect shape, really good-looking."
"And she said she identified with feeling fat and not good enough."
Fielding has her own perspective on the essence of Bridget's appeal: "I think it's about the gap between how we all feel we're expected to be, and how we actually are inside."
Still, what makes characters like Darcy or Sherlock Holmes or Dumbledore, of Harry Potter fame, somehow elicit that extra bit of public emotion when they are killed off?
Roberta Barker, an associate professor of theatre at Dalhousie University in Halifax, suggests there are two big reasons: "the zeitgeist, and communities growing up around characters," something she sees magnified by the way such connections can now spread online.
As for the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, "these characters who are connected to real, big questions of a particular time and place often become especially intense vessels for a lot of people's questions or lot of people's ideas, a lot of people's emotions at that time."
Barker was a student in England when the first two Bridget Jones books came out, and she saw firsthand how the character resonated with the go-go world of the 1990s U.K.
"It was so interesting that she was someone as a character who I think a lot of people, but especially lots of women, had a really deep identification with," says Barker.
"She's expressing the experiences of a generation of working women who are getting to a certain point in their lives and wondering, 'Am I going to find a partner, am I going to have kids, what's going to happen, how do I fit into this world today?' "
As for Mark Darcy's role in all that, it resonated with the first Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen's 200-year-old Pride and Prejudice, Barker says.
"This relationship that you have to work through, but that at the other end of … this fabulous man sort of solves it all."
Darcy's problem, perhaps, was that he was too fabulous.
Fielding has said she felt Darcy had to die because she wanted to write about Bridget as a single mom, and Darcy, to be true to his character, would never have left Bridget of his own volition.
The curiosity shop of fiction
Barker sees the phenomenon of audiences connecting with fictional characters as something probably "as old as human story-telling."
"We think of the famous story of Queen Elizabeth the first saying to Shakespeare, after seeing his Henry the Fourth plays, 'Oh I want to see Sir John in love,' and she wants to see another play about Falstaff. So there's this idea that characters live beyond their fictions."
Fans of Sherlock Holmes donned black armbands after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off the famous detective in the 1890s.
Readers consumed with wondering whether Charles Dickens' Little Nell would live or die lined the docks in 1840s New York waiting for the next instalment in the serialization of The Old Curiosity Shop to arrive from England.
Even the recent finale of the TV series Breaking Bad, suggests Barker, had a lot of buzz around who was going to live and who was going to die, and how it was all going to happen. In the end, drug kingpen Walter White met his demise, and in the real world, fans held a mock funeral with funds raised going to a New Mexico homeless charity. A Walter White obituary also appeared in an Albuquerque newspaper.
Still, in the rough-and-tumble of real life, why would all that actually matter?
Robert Morrison, an English professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says the issue at stake "really is that literature and film and any kind of creative representation I think has a power that is greater than our society sometimes assumes."
Characters like Darcy or Sherlock Holmes are, he says, "doing something or living something or believing something that takes us beyond ourselves."
And if our lives are in any way limited or exasperating, as they so often are, then "these people like Sherlock Holmes seem to transcend that."
"He gives us something greater than our own circumstance and that's a very powerful thing."