On the Social Fabric of Fiction, and Superheroes

Over at TheAtlantic.com, I have an essay about the social fabric of fiction: whether or not the worlds of the mind are similar to or different from the “real world” and how we can use science to help us answer this question. So, naturally, I look to the world of superheroes and social networks:

One clear way in which the fictional world seems far less dull is in the tendency to create complex connections between characters. Characters are not strangers to each other, but are connected in surprising and complicated ways. From superheroes to the world of Scooby-Doo, we are well-versed in the Big Reveal, where someone is exposed as a previously known character. Enemies are actually long-lost brothers; a secret father is discovered; and when a mask is taken off, the antagonist is exposed as a neighbor from down the street.

This isn’t a modern inclination either. In the Jewish rabbinic tradition, there is a trend towards interpreting an unnamed character — who is mentioned briefly and then never again — as someone who we have met before. For example, a man in a field is not simply a random person; instead he is the angel Gabriel. This concept is used so often that some people have a light-hearted term for this: the Conservation of Biblical Characters.

We can now bring new methods of analysis to these phenomena through the now-ubiquitous scientific study of social networks. Through research that delves into who we know and what sorts of relationships we have, we have a good handle on the overall structure and shape of social networks in the real world. In addition to the oft-mentioned six degrees of separation, there are many other statistical properties of social networks, from how individuals with lots of friends are connected to each other, to the distribution of popularity.

It turns out that similar research has begun on the social network of the Marvel Universe. The common home of Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, various die-hard fans decided that collecting comic books wasn’t enough; they wanted to understand the universe in its entirety. Thus was born the collaborative Marvel Chronology Project, which details every character in the Marvel Universe, major or minor, and every issue of every comic book series that they appear in.

The whole essay is here.