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Loving a Shadow
"It is but a shadow and a thought that you love."
Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings

The nature of emotional relationships often overlaps in confusing complications ranging from the simple crush to Freudian oddness. If this causes the writers to accidentally build things like harems, the easy way to get around this is reveal the basal nature of a relationship. This is a form of Wishful Projection.

In the character's mind, one type of relationship was simply confused with another. This has some basis in reality, where some potentially romantic relationships are actually people seeking "figures". (Hell, who hasn't done this at some point?) They spend time with a person because he or she reminds them of someone else. For example, some characters attracted to older characters often have an absent parent or older sibling or their dead little sister. This situation is often the inherent role of an Unwanted Harem's Unlucky Everydude.

In some other cases, it turns out that the character was only in love with the idea of being in love and applied it to the first suitable person they met; and in others, a character falls in love with another character… or more specifically, some defining feature of that character. For example, Bob falls in love with Alice because she is incredibly beautiful, or a brilliant fighter, or incredibly smart, but he fails to actually comprehend Alice beyond that trait. This is easy to do to The Lost Lenore, since she's not around to contradict an idealized version of her.

Doing this poorly can feel incredibly cheap if the "explanation" doesn't make sense or potential evidence wasn't presented beforehand, as it feels as if the writers are just going down the list of romantic opposition and checking them off.

Like Death of the Hypotenuse and Ron the Death Eater, this trope serves as a subtrope of Die for Our Ship in fanfic, to clear the way for the author's preferred 'ship.

If a character is Really 700 Years Old, this can keep the writers from having to deal with a Mayfly-December Romance.

The trope name and quote refer to Éowyn's unrequited love for Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Accordingly, compare and contrast with All Love Is Unrequited. Not to be confused with Fighting a Shadow.

Most definitely can be Truth in Television.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Priss Asagiri, the Knight Saber's singing biker, has some of this towards Nigel Kirkland in Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, much of it, as Mackey observes, seems to be based on how they're both very quiet, very reserved individuals who say much by saying very little. She's hurt later on to learn that he's with her boss Sylia Stingray (more or less), after which she finally begins to bond more with the hulking roughneck AD Police officer Leon Mc Nichol.
  • Mahou Sensei Negima!:
    • The girl most overtly fond of Negi, Class Representative Ayaka, had a younger brother who died at birth the same year Negi was born. In many ways, Negi really is the "shadow" Ayaka wanted her baby brother to be.
    • An arrow-straight version of this is the oddly flirtatious relationship the Noble Demon Old Master Evangeline has with Negi. She had a crush on his father and followed him halfway around the world before he defeated her through trickery and sealed her away on campus... and no, she did not look any older then.
    • Sometimes Asuna gets conflicting feelings about Negi. She had a dream about confessing her love to Takahata and then he turned into an older Negi.
  • Fushigi Yuugi
    • Wholesome Crossdresser Nuriko's habits were handwaved by the explanation that he was taking the place of his dead little sister Kourin.
    • Likewise, Nuriko's love interest Hotohori had a huge crush on Miaka and was a strong contendor for her attentions. Turns out he was more in love with the idea of the Suzaku no Miko, rather than Miaka herself as a person. He gets over it enough to marry one of the court ladies, Houki (who looks suspiciously like Nuriko when he was still a crossdresser, or like his dead little sister would've looked like if she was alive), and have a child with her... before he dies.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny: Shinn's late-season relationship with Lunamaria is initially based around him installing her as a surrogate for Stella, who in turn serves as a surrogate for his dead little sister. Develops into a proper relationship after Shinn comes to terms with Stella's death and Luna finds out Meyrin is alive.
  • In Cardcaptor Sakura, Sakura realizes that her feelings for Yukito are (mostly) familial in nature, while Syaoran's crush on Yukito is explained as "attraction of similar magic", which clears the way for both of them to fall in love with each other.
  • A rather heartbreaking and slightly twisted variant occurs in Revolutionary Girl Utena with Miki Kaoru, a piano player, who is apparently smitten with Anthy Himemiya. He is attracted to her demurity and good nature because it reminds him of his twin sister Kozue, or rather, how she used to be when they were children (in the series, she's a borderline-Yandere and is smitten with him.)
  • Vision of Escaflowne:
    • Everyone assumes Allan Schezar is attracted to slender young ingenues (borderline-legal in Japan, criminal almost everywhere else). Hints revealed later indicate that they are all Replacement Goldfish - specifically, replacements for his little sister whom he was unable to rescue in his youth.
    • Hitomi's attraction to Allen Schezar was partly caused by his extreme similarity (both physical and personality-wise) to her beloved Amano-sempai, her long-time crush in school.
  • In Macross, Misa Hayase was deeply affected by the loss of her beloved fiancé and childhood friend, Riber Fruhling. Later, Minmay's handsome cousin Kaifun enters the scene, and he looks a LOT like a Chinese version of the deceased Riber...
  • This is a plot point for two characters in Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress. It is even the subject of more direct Lampshade Hanging at one point. The main character became an actress in order to find the man she loves, a rebellious artist. She sees him very briefly in her youth, and continues to keep the torch alight all her life. In the end she admits that "It's the chasing him that I really love."
  • Fruits Basket: After volumes of what seemed like romantic buildup, in order to solve the love triangle that Yuki and Tohru are involved in, it's revealed that Yuki never truly loved Tohru romantically, but was looking for a mother figure in her after years of Parental Abandonment.
  • Sonken Chuubou in Ikki Tousen: Great Guardians was the reincarnation of Shuuyu Koukin's wife from their past lives, so she was crushing out on him before they even met. She stops doing so once Koukin says she shouldn't make fate rule her happiness, though. That, and Koukin was already in love with his cousin and Chuubou's "older sister", Sonsaku Hakufu, which Chuubou also accepted very gracefully.
  • This happened to Creed's worship of Train in the Black Cat anime. After Train defeats him, he suddenly does a Heel-Face Turn and no longer has any reaction or romantic obsession with him, even getting together with Echidna. This never happened in the manga, where Creed goes into a catatonic state of shock and is never shown getting over Train. Rather ironic, considering that the anime made Creed more pervertedly obsessed with Train than in the manga, making this an even less justified trope.
  • Naruto:
    • All of the girls that crush on Sasuke fall under this trope. Karin gets a good look at the real Sasuke as he punches a hole in her to kill Danzo, which ends her affection definitely. Or not. After Sasuke apparently regains his sanity, Karin immediately forgives him.
    • Sakura subverts this trope. She starts out like any other Sasuke-admirer, but later learns what he's really like and legitimately falls in love with him. In Shippuden she knows exactly what kind of person he is and what he's capable of, but she believes that Naruto can rescue him from himself.
  • Sailor Moon:
    • It's speculated that Seiya's crush on Usagi may have come from how similar she was to the Starlight's leader, Princess Kakyuu.
    • Makoto begins the series constantly falling in love with any new guy she meets because they remind her of her old sempai, whom she had a huge crush on. Luckily, she grows out of it.
  • In Monkey High!, Haruna suspects this is why Atsu keeps hitting on her. Their classmate Emi similarly pines for Atsu, and it's even pointed out that Atsu is the type who only loves who he can't have.
  • Ouran High School Host Club:
    • A French young girl was the confidant of an older lady who worked at her Big Fancy House as a part of the staff. The lady told the girl many times that her estranged son was a gorgeous, gentle person; a living Princely Young Man. The naîve and unexperienced girl was completely smitten with such a dream image, logically therefore she went to Japan to meet him... and tried to fulfill her girlish dream by promising said son, Tamaki, to help him re-meet his Missing Mom if he agreed to go to France with her and leave the Host Club. Thankfully, she realized it, and backed off in the nick of time.
    • There's also Ascended Fangirl Renge Houshakuji, who originally had a crush on Kyouya because he reminded her of her favorite guy from a dating sim.
  • May Chang in Fullmetal Alchemist has a HUGE crush on Ed when she's introduced (with dream sequences no doubt reminding some of Ouran above). She inevitably finds out what he's really like...but shortly afterwards she gets to know Al and the squeefest starts all over again. Not even seeing Al's true emaciated body once he's restored to his original form puts her off, and it's implied that by the time Ed and Winry are married with kids, they may be either together or on their way to get hitched.
    • In the 2003 anime adaptation, a filler episode in the beginning of the show focused on an alchemist named Majahal obsessed with reviving a woman named Karin who had died decades ago. To that point he's created life-size dummies of how Karin looked before she died. It turns out Karin hadn't actually died. She'd fallen off a cliff and sustained a head injury, which caused her to wander off in an amnesiac daze. Everyone just assumed she died because they couldn't find a body. Years later, as an older woman, she regained her memory and went back to her village under a different name. The problem was Majahal's love for the younger Karin had turned into an obsession, and when Ed revealed Karin's identity Majahal refused to accept this "hag" was the beautiful Karin of his youth, and dies rejecting her.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion has this going on because apparently it's not in enough Tropes already. Misato at one point openly admits in her narration she loved Kaji in part because he reminded him of her father, who died in the Second Impact.
  • Oldschool shoujo manga Haikarasan Ga Tooru has Countess Larissa, who falls for the amnesiac Shinobu because he's exactly like her husband Sasha, who died in the Russian Revolution. Even more so: Shinobu was Sasha's older half-brother by their mother's side, which explains the extreme physical similarity.
  • Since the plot of The World God Only Knows revolves around having Keima make girls fall in love with him for their own good, there's going to be a lot of this. In fact, he seems to do it intentionally. He projects whatever personality they want to see in him so that they become attracted while he helps them solve whatever problems created a gap for them in the first place. Only two targets and the supernatural characters avert this.
  • Kobayashi-sensei in Detective Conan at first thought Inspector Shiratori's love for her was due to the extreme similarity between her and Inspector Satou, who Shiratori unsuccessfully courted for. It was subverted that it was Satou who was the shadow— Shiratori's childhood friend was indeed Kobayashi, but he forgot her name and mistook that to be Satou when he grew up. It
    • How the little girl whom Shiratori loved was a big fangirl of the Japanese police force (just like Satou) didn't really help. Neither did the fact that, back then, Kobayashi lacked her trademark glasses, which is the main physical difference between her and Satou.
  • Although it's not romantic, the rivalry-pursuit dynamics in Hikaru no Go are very intense and use a large number of romance tropes including this one. With the added complication that what Touya was originally pursuing in Hikaru was really Sai—thus, as Hikaru tells Touya after the second youth tournament...
    "If you keep chasing after my ghost, the real me is going to pass you by!"
  • Played for tragedy in Tiger & Bunny, when the focus of the episode turns to Sky High. During a slump in his superheroics, he falls in Love at First Sight with a beautiful girl he meets at the park, and his conversations with her help him work through his issues. Unfortunately, the girl in question, Cis, was a malfunctioning android, and everything she said to him was the result of simplistic conversational programming. When Cis goes berserk because of her damaged programming, her artificial skin burns off, and a freshly re-moralized Sky High destroys the rampaging robot. The next day, he goes back to the park with a bouquet of flowers to thank Cis...
  • The reason why Otome Katou loved Makoto Itou in School Days, since she's the Unlucky Childhood Friend in the Unwanted Harem surrounding him. She's heartbroken when it finally sinks in that the kind Makoto she once loved doesn't exist anymore, so she decides to call him out on it to his very face right before the... very special Grand Finale.
  • A positive version of this trope occurs in Presents. An artist falls in love with the daughter of a gallery owner at first sight. The daughter is a Rich Bitch who says she'll only go out with him if he can paint a fabulous portrait of her and then give it to her as a present. The artist tries and fails repeatedly, until Kurumi tells him that he needs to put into the portrait what he felt when he saw her for the first time. The last portrait is hailed as a masterpiece and put on display in another gallery. When the rich girl reads about this, she greedily decides to remind the artist that he owes his success to her and his promise about the painting. The artist, surprisingly, turns her down, because he realizes she's not who he fell in love with. The girl he fell in love with is the girl he saw that day, the girl who is immortalized in that portrait, and for all his hard work and everything he put into it, he gets his dream girl. The girl in the portrait steps out from the frame and becomes real. The artist receives a happy ending with his love. The rich girl, on the other hand, has a less than happy ending when she becomes just like all the failed paintings given to her before.
  • In the Yaoi Genre manga Oku-san's Daily Fantasies the titular character has fallen in love with his local delivery man, Sudo, without knowing anything about him or having a full conversation with him. When he finally confesses to Sudo and is promptly turned down, he realises he isn't as upset as he should be if he really felt something towards him and says he was really in love with the idealised version of Sudo that he fantastied about. At this time he realises that he has real affections for his neighbour, who confessed near around the same time.
  • In Mawaru-Penguindrum, Ringo Oginome seems at first to be utterly smitten with Tabuki—stalking him, feeding him a love potion, and generally devoting her entire life to pursuing him. However, she eventually reveals that she only loves him because her dead sister Momoka did, and Ringo believes that if she can fulfill Momoka's role by bearing Tabuki's child, her family will be happy again. Eventually,and with help from Shouma, she gives up on Tabuki and starts pursuing her own desires. Tabuki has some troubles with this trope himself; he and his girlfriend Yuri both loved Momoka and are dating in order to recreate their relationship with her, even though they don't love each other romantically. At the end of the show, they decide to try and start a real relationship.
  • In Freezing, Kazuya's attraction to Satellizer STARTS like this as she reminds him of his departed sister Kazuha. Kazuya grows out of this, but it becomes a source of tension on Satellizer's part as she wonders if she's just a "replacement" for Kazuha.
  • In Death Note, this is part of the reason for Misa's Love Martyrism - to her, Light Yagami will always be the handsome and heroic vigilante that avenged her family, regardless of how less-than-heroic he actually is, and she is madly in love with him for that. It proves hazardous for them both.
  • In the Area 88 manga and OVA, Ryoko's obsession with Shin falls into this category. She idealizes Shin and is enamored with the idea of being in love. However, she fails to understand how he thinks, what motivates him, or how his time at Area 88 has affected him. For this reason, she's completely blindsided when he abandons her in both continuities.

    Comic Books 
  • Nightwing gets this all the time.
    • At one point he had upwards of six love interests, all of whom were infatuated with different shadows.
    • Raven feels this way for Nightwing for an arc in Teen Titans when she's permitted to feel emotions for the first time. Starfire has to pull her aside and explain that there are different kinds of love. At first it looks like they're headed to a different solution, but they end up working things out in a mundane way.
    • This is one of the reasons that Nightwing and Oracle fell apart. She was in love with Robin and he was in love with Batgirl — Nightwing and Oracle's former secret identities. Well, that and Dan DiDio just hated them being together.
  • In an old She-Hulk comic, She-Hulk meets an old boyfriend who introduced her to his new girlfriend who looked just like She-Hulk only not so green. The two women glared at each other.
  • The Black Cat was in love with Spider-Man and only Spider-Man; she had no interest in the man under the mask when Peter revealed his identity to her. She eventually grew to love Peter for himself, but by that time their relationship was long over and Peter was Happily Married to Mary Jane.
  • In the New 52, Mr. Freeze's origin is given this unsettling twist. When Victor Fries was a child he became fascinated with freezing things when his mother almost died after falling through thin ice. As an adult, he became fascinated with Nora Fields, a woman who was cryogenically frozen at age 23 in 1943 when she was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. At the time she was in the care of Wayne Industries, so Fries applied for a job there just so he could have a chance to study her. He eventually became delusionally obsessed with her and started thinking she was his wife — a nasty change from his more sympathetic DCAU origin. Batman calls out Freeze on his delusional "love" of a woman he doesn't know who is old enough to be his grandmother.
  • Amora the Enchantress's on again/off again fixation with The Mighty Thor showed signs of this.
  • Namor the Sub-Mariner's infatuation with Susan Storm-Richards/The Invisible Woman had a little bit of this on both ends.
  • Cyclops unfortunate involvement with Madelyn Pryor (AKA: the clone of Jean Grey) was very much this.

    Fan Works 
  • Dungeon Keeper Ami: Venna's crush on Snyder, is something along these lines. According to Snyder. Other characters, however, seem to find it cute, and occasionally tease him/arrange for them to be alone together.
  • Weightless: Shepard spent 17 years to love Nihlus because he was the first person who was nice to her. But later, she realized that she never knew about him as he had never let her in and that she was just in love with the idea of him.
  • Played to tear-jerking effect in Children of Time: Beth Lestrade is in love with Sherlock Holmes, but Holmes himself changes until there's hardly anything left of himself. Beth still loves the real Sherlock Holmes, but that Sherlock Holmes no longer exists. As for Holmes's response to her pleas, it doesn't get much colder than this:
    I suggest you relay your message to his shade, wherever it may roam, and cease to bore me with your melodramatic sentiments.
  • The belief that Ginny Weasley is in love with The-Boy-Who-Lived rather than Harry Potter is extremely common in fanfiction - especially among writers who prefer some other pairing. It started that way for her (she was ten when they first met, after all), but by the time they hook up she's known the real Harry for years.
  • ''The Infinite Loops can have this, as every reality reboots various Loopers coming Awake for the first time have to deal with the Loopers that have been around for so much longer.
    • A particularly tragic case involves Chrysalis, whose first loop Awake was a varient in which she was married to a nonAwake Shining Armor. The Looping Shining Armor is, as per canon, married to Cadence.

    Films — Animation 
  • It could be taken that in 9, 5 gets so attached to 9 so quickly because he reminds him somewhat of 2, especially considering how much he muses about 2 the first couple of times they're together, his "You know, you're just like him — you forget to be scared!" line, and the fact that 2 is killed shortly after they meet.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Rob Gordon in High Fidelity realizes this about Charlie, his third ex. He spends most of the movie reminiscing about how fantastic, and sophisticated, and amazing, and profoundly intellectual, and out of his league she was — back when they dated in college — until he finally sees her again after having grown up a bit. It would be an understatement to say Rob discovers how utterly boring and shallow and repulsive she truly is and always was.
  • One of the waitresses in I Really Hate My Job wonders if her crush on Danny Huston is just this. Then she shrugs it off with wondering if he'd fall in love with her.
  • Subverted in Laura. When it turns out she is alive, she is what the detective hoped she would be.
  • In Theres Something About Mary, Ted explains that none of the guys pursuing Mary love her, but are fixated on her 'because of the way you make them feel about themselves'.
  • A tragic example is Scottie's fascination with who he thinks is Madeleine in Vertigo, and his attempt to mold Judy into the same woman, indeed the woman he originally loved was never real to begin with.
  • The main character in While You Were Sleeping nurses a crush on a regular commuter at the train station where she collects tokens. Over the course of the movie, she comes to discover that, while not really a bad man, he's not the man she thought he was, and finds herself falling for his brother, whom she gets to know quite well.
  • Bruce Wayne/Batman spends much of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Saga being stubbornly infatuated with Rachel Dawes, his childhood friend. The two actually have very little in common as adults - outside of wanting Gotham City to be a better place - and though Rachel promised Bruce she would wait for him to finish his work as Batman at the end of Batman Begins, they have even less in the way of chemistry, romantic or otherwise. But Bruce just can't seem to let go of his fixation with Rachel, having put her on too high a pedestal, even after she starts dating Harvey Dent. By the end of The Dark Knight Rachel herself realizes that she probably had a little bit of this towards Bruce as well and finally realizes that she really doesn't love Bruce while her heart truly belongs to Dent (which ends tragically for all involved). In The Dark Knight Rises Bruce gets into this again with Miranda Tate, who reminds him of Rachel until the end when she reveals herself to be Talia and tries to kill him along with the rest of Gotham. In the end, Bruce finally finds something real with Selina Kyle and starts a new life with her in Italy.
  • Comes up in the James Bond films quite often.
  • Princess Uracca had a bit of this towards Rodrigo in El Cid.
  • Peter Parker's infatuation with Mary-Jane Watson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man Trilogy comes dangerously close to this. The third film didn't do their relationship any favours either.

    Literature 
  • One of more critical parts of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is when the title character, in an affair with his childhood sweetheart, our narrator's cousin, is revealed to love the idea of Daisy, an idea which she doesn't and can't live up to. When he tries to get her to renounce her love for her husband, Tom, she's unable to respond and the climactic chapter is where the affair falls apart in spectacular fashion.
  • Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility: thirty-five year old Colonel Brandon falls deeply in love with seventeen year old Marianne Dashwood because she reminds him of both his tragic first love and his beloved adoptive daughter (who was seduced and abandoned by Marianne's first suitor, Willoughby). While this seems to be the classic set-up for Loving a Shadow, this is portrayed as the ideal happy ending for both Marianne and Colonel Brandon. (The age difference was even more glaring in the 1995 movie when the 50 year old Alan Rickman played Colonel Brandon while 20 year old Kate Winslet played Marianne Dashwood. Then again, as his fantastic portrayal of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films shows us, he has a knack for seeming perfect for roles a couple decades too young for him).
  • Played straight in Mansfield Park, where the male lead, who is exasperatingly oblivious to the female lead's feelings for him, loves a shadow. The situation is made more complex and much more brillant because he has always been an adept of Wishful Thinking and when he discovers that she doesn't live up to his hopes, his experience as a Morality Chain to the heroine makes him certain that she could. It's made even more interesting because the person he projects his hopes on isn't wholly unsympathetic. Though self-focused, she is more sensitive to the heroine's problems than most of the characters. But it turns out her more lovable trait (emotional sensibility and compassion) are pushed too far for what is about her, making her a manipulative, self-indulgent and entitled materialistic Fake Cutie. He realises it near the end of a book. A violent break-up ensues, and then has a Love Epiphany over said female lead.
  • In Iron Kissed, Samuel and Mercy simultaneously come to the epiphany that he's not jealous of her flirting with a stranger because he's fallen out of love with her. His jealousy in the previous two books is handwaved as "teasing", despite the fact that he nearly came to blows to Adam.
  • In Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Gods of Mars, Thuvia professes her love for John Carter and is unmoved by his speaking of Dejah Thoris — not that she would ever dream of rivaling her. He tells her "Forget your foolish gratitude-begotten infatuation, which your innocence has mistaken for love." Well, she does manage to take up with Carthoris by the end.
  • In Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard, Crawford's second wife Julia was murdered horribly on their wedding night. Years later, her Angsty Surviving Twin roleplays Julia very accurately for an extended period - and Crawford realizes that he never really knew Julia, and doesn't like what he sees of her now.
  • In the Dragon Lance Legends series,
    • Warlord Kitiara and Elf wizard Dalamar hook up. Kitiara is the half sister of Dalamar's master, and still not over Tanis Half-Elven.
    • Raistlin himself has this for Laurana in Dragons of the Hourglass Mage, and though he realizes that what he feels isn't anything more than a crush inspired by her beauty and non-negative reaction to him, he spends a chunk of the book trying to find ways to rescue her from Kitiara's clutches if the opportunity arises (it doesn't, but he still has brief imagine-spots of rescuing her.)
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe
    • Wraith Squadron. Kell thinks he's in love with another pilot, who tells him in no uncertain terms, after asking a few tough questions, that he doesn't love her but his mental image of her. Later, using the criteria she set out earlier, he finds that he's in love with the "real" her... which prompts her to tackle him to the floor in his quarters, as she was smitten almost from the start and was just waiting.
    • Outbound Flight has Maris, who falls for the idealistic image she has of Commander Thrawn. Thrawn... he's not exactly a villain yet, but he's not quite as nice as she imagines. He's aware of this and keeps some distance from her, but also does not disillusion her when they part.
    Thrawn: There are all too few idealists in this universe, Car'das. Too few people who strive always to see only the good in others. I wouldn't want to be responsible for crushing even one of them.
    Car'das: And besides, you rather liked all that unquestioning adulation coming your way?
    Thrawn: All beings appreciate such admiration.
  • In the Mary Higgins Clark novel A Cry in the Night, the relationship between Jenny and her artist husband Erich is like this from both sides. Jenny loves the gentle sensitive guy that she believes Erich must be based on his paintings; Erich loves Jenny because she looks like his dead mother. Needless to say, this does not end well.
  • In K.A. Knaak's Dragonrealm, Gwendolyn originally falls for Cabe Bedlam because of his similarities with his grandfather Nathan, who was once her lover; but later she falls for all those peculiarities that make Cabe himself.
  • In Gone with the Wind Scarlett finally realises - too late - that her supposed true love for Ashley is "only a sort of dream I had when I was a little girl".
  • In one Nightside novel a reporter falls for John and tries to convince him to leave Suzie for her, stating that Suzie's violence is keeping him from being the hero the reporter knows he really is. John gently tells her that she's only in love with an image she's created in her mind and that he and Suzie belong together because they are both monsters.
  • In John C. Wright's Golden Transcedence:
    • Phaethon realizes that most of his love for Daphne Prime was inspired by Daphne Tercius, even when she was a doll and not an emacipated partial.
    • Daphne Prime reveals that, in the Back Story, she approached Phaethon to get to Helion because she was in love the idea of a man who preserved the life of the sun, and when she met Helion, did not like him at all.
  • In J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Éowyn hates her confined life. She meets Aragorn and convinces herself she's in love because he's life outside. (When Aragorn heals her in The Return of the King, she doesn't respond to his calling her, but instantly reacts when her brother Éomer, whom she loves as a real person rather than a shadow, does.) Aragorn spots the trope as soon as the event happens, and gives Éomer the quote above.
  • Lolita arguably. Consider for a second that the origins of Humbert Humbert's obsession with Lolita is explained by him in the very first pages. He says the it was his unconsummated relationship with Annabel that caused him to be attracted to "nymphets". So he essentially loves Lolita because she reminds him of Annabel.
  • Harry Potter
    • Harry's crush on Cho Chang, which throughout the fifth book comes off as Harry being desperate for someone other than Ron and Hermione who believes and understands his angst and frustration over the Cedric, Ministry, and Voldemort issues. His crush on Cho was mostly based in an idealised view coming from how pretty, popular and Quidditch-adept Cho was, aside of how she treated him kindly in a constant manner. In the meantime, the emotionally crushed Cho is trying to wrap herself up in the memories of her tragically-finished relationship with Cedric Diggory, by latching onto the person who was closest to him when he died. However, they had barely shared anything to real conversations.
    • Hermione says that Romilda Vane is only interested in Harry because he's The Chosen One.
    • A more poignant and tragic example is Severus Snape's lifelong devotion to the memory of Lily Evans. In their youth, he never truly listened to her constant criticism of his life and choices and make a real effort to change, only caring that he possess her somehow, either winning her from James Potter or by Comforting the Widow rather than respond to her as a real person. For him, she became Unrequited Love Lasts Forever and a memory to live up to, after his guilt on losing both her love and life, on account of his actions.
  • The reason that Elli Quinn didn't marry Miles is because she was in love with his alter ego Admiral Miles Naismith, rather than his true persona Lord Miles Vorkosigan.
  • Isabella to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. All Girls Want Bad Boys, until they turn out to be abusive bastards. And then it's too late, at least in that day and age.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Tristifer Botley does this toward Asha Greyjoy based on some experimentation when they were barely more than children. His projected ideal woman has little to do with the flesh-and-blood claimant of the Seastone Chair.
    • Robert Baratheon idealizes Lyanna Stark, to whom he was engaged. It becomes clear that he did not know her very well, and her brother Ned's recollections reveal that she was quite Genre Savvy about the whole thing.
  • In Diane Hoh's Guilty, Katie Sullivan believes that somebody is stalking her and plans to kill her because they blame her for the death of her boyfriend, Brownie. It turns out that Katie is being stalked by one of her friends, and that he was the one responsible for Brownie's death. He was trying to kill Katie because, in actuality, Katie went through a massive personality overhaul as a result of Brownie's death. She wasn't "guilty" for Brownie's death, she was "guilty" for killing the old her, whom everyone used to refer to as Kit.
  • In Looking for Alaska, Alaska discusses this trope when she tells Pudge that he doesn't love her; he loves the version of her that he imagines her to be.
  • The Phantom of the Opera has a variation: Erik was in love with Christine insofar as he wanted her to be his "bride in death." At the end, he realized that his love for the girl was false, and so he let her go.
  • Helen and Huntingdon both in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Helen thought Huntingdon was a better man than he was and that she could change him. Huntingdon thought Helen would be more submissive and docile.
  • The Last Dragon Chronicles: Lucy's crush on Tam can be seen as this, considering that she ended up with said crush through email correspondence with him.
  • In Sweet Valley High, Steven Wakefield goes through a stage of dating girls who remind him of Tricia, his girlfriend who died tragically. They pretty much all cotton on to this and call him out on it, and he eventually accepts he needs help.
    • A familial version happened in one of the Sweet Valley Twins books where the twins' classmate Mary becomes attached to their mother and keeps making excuses to come over to the house to spend time with her. It's eventually revealed that Mary was kidnapped as a child and her real mother looked like Alice Wakefield.
    • Elizabeth and Jessica both had multiple stalkers for this reason, the most notable being William White in the Sweet Valley University series.
    • Also in Sweet Valley University, in one of the Thriller specials, Enid/Alex Rollins is stalked by a guy obsessed with the idea of Enid as she was in high school, rejecting her choice to change her name and live a different lifestyle.
  • Fernando Ariza from Love In The Time Of Cholera spends fifty years obsessed with Fermina Daza, the girl he became in enamoured with as a teenager, long after she herself has dismissed the brief relationship as a juvenile illusion.

    Live Action TV 
  • Smallville,
    • This is heavily implied to be the basis of both Lana's love for Clark (dead parents) and Lex's love for Helen, his string of failed romances, and his eventual obsession with Lana (dead mother Lillian). In addition, Lana calls Clark out for loving the image he's built up of her over the years to the point where he was blaming himself for her very illegal, very felonious activities (kidnapping and torture, and eventually felony murder).
    • Chloe Sullivan has a similar situation with Davis Bloome in Season 8, where he's clearly a Clark substitute.
    • Lex's love for Lana and Helen aren't the only things that are placed in this light; many of Lex's relationships take this form. His fascination with Kara is likely due to wanting Clark to be honest with him about his alien heritage. Also, his idolization of his mother came from the years of physical and emotional abuse from his father; however, while his mother was probably too sickly to physically abuse him, she definitely could be just as vicious as Lionel was, emotionally.
  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation in the episode "Booby Trap", Geordi creates a simulation of one of the engine designers, Dr. Leah Brahms. While working with her to solve the problem, he falls in love with the simulation. This produces very awkward moments when, in "Galaxy's Child" he meets the real woman, and finds she is nothing like her projection. But subverted in the series finale, which implies that in at least one version of the future, they actually get together. He gets called out on it by Guinan in her own unique way.
    Guinan: Here you had this perfectly wonderful fantasy... and now the real Leah comes along and ruins it. She's done the most heartless, despicable thing one person can do to another — she didn't live up to your expectations. Take a hard look through your VISOR, La Forge... see her for who she really is... not what you want her to be.
  • In the BBC's version of Robin Hood,
    • After Marian's death Robin begins a relationship with Isabella who bears a slight resemblance to Marian.
    • Likewise, Kate's feelings for Robin seemed to be based more on hero-worship than any particular regard for him personally, and had the show not been cancelled, it's likely that she would have been paired up with newcomer Archer instead.
    • There's also Much, who falls for Kate despite the fact she treats him poorly. Fan speculation is that she simply reminds him of Eve, his Season 1 love interest, who also had distinctive blonde hair.
  • In Frasier Daphne and Niles got together after seven years of UST, after which Daphne developed a weight problem, which a therapist speculated was due to anxiety over being unable to live up to the image Niles had built up of her (a fact seemingly confirmed by the fact that Niles remained oblivious to her rather severe weight gain). Frasier later speculates that Niles may also fear being unable to live up to being in a real relationship with her. The problem is resolved when the two of them make a long list of everything they hate about each other.
  • Subverted and Lampshaded in Kamen Rider Decade. When the group reaches Agito's World, Yusuke finds out that it has its own version of his Big Sister Mentor Yashiro, who died early in the series. Yusuke decides to leave the Hikari Studio group and stay in Agito's World with Yashiro, but he realizes that she has feelings for Shoichi (Agito) and helps get them back together before returning to the Studio. Lampshaded in Tsukasa's "World of Cardboard" Speech, in which he refers to Yusuke as "chasing a dead woman's shadow" but adds that he learned from his mistake.
    • In Kamen Rider OOO, Dr. Maki is implied to have been in love with his sister. He remembers her as a kind, sweet, loving woman and is briefly drawn to Chiyoko, who looks like her. Later, he's forced to confront the truth that his image of his sister is fake: she wasn't a very nice person, didn't really care for him, and planned to have no contact with him after her forthcoming marriage (which is why he murdered her.)
    • In the Yesterday Dopant arc of Kamen Rider Double, Shotaro falls for a client named Yuko; but discovers she's actually Kirihiko Sonozaki's sister Yukie, and was using Shotaro in a scheme to avenge her brother's death and he didn't know the "real" her at all. He decides he does still have feelings for her, but he'll wait until she regains her memories, which she lost after the Yesterday Memory was destroyed.
  • Played poignantly in an episode of Jonathan Creek. At first Robin Priest seems a bit of a lout for having an affair with an unpleasant blonde. However, it turns out that his so-called wife took advantage of a bump to his head and brainwashed him into believing that they were married. When The Reveal comes, it's clear that his immediate attraction to the blonde was simply because she bore a startling resemblance to his real wife, who - though dead - is displayed prominantly in several portraits around his former house.
  • In the Friday The 13th: The Series episode "Femme Fatale", a director married the actress who played a Femme Fatale in one of his movies. Even though both of them are in their twilight years, he is still obsessed with the Femme Fatale. He uses the artifact of the week, a cursed film projector, to send women into the movie to take the place of the Femme Fatale who appears before him in the flesh. The women are forced to act out the role which ends in them being shot to death in the movie while the director makes out with the Femme Fatale. Everything comes to a head when the character convinces him to kill his wife, thinking it will allow her to exist in the real world for good. His wife turns the tables on him by faking her death and shooting him dead, coldly stating that he never loved her, only the "pathetic character [she] played." Even the Shadow itself grows disillusioned with the man, since he only used her as a glorified sex toy.
  • Supernatural: It's pretty easy to see Dean's relationship with Lisa as a case of this, seeing as he decides to have a long-term live-in relationship with her after seeing her three times in ten years. Dean's actor has stated that Dean was more in love with the idea of having a long-term relationship, an adoptive son, and a stable home than he was with Lisa herself.
  • In Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the SVU are hunting a suspect who kidnaps teenage girls and dresses them up to his ideal girlfriend. Along time ago he took in a teenage girl because she looked liked the one he liked, but left her when she got to old for him.
  • Downton Abbey: When Lady Rose plans to marry Jack Ross, an African-American jazz singer (in a relationship considered hugely scandalous for the time period), other characters believe that she is attracted to him mostly because she wants to upset her mother with the scandal. Jack seems to disagree, although he breaks off the engagement because he claims he doesn't want to ruin Rose's future.
    • After an ongoing downstairs love triangle between Alfred, Daisy and Ivy, Daisy ultimately concludes that she didn't really know him as a person and her feelings weren't real. She wishes him well before he leaves Downton Abbey to become a chef.
    • Possibly the reason why Robert almost has an affair with Jane Moorsum, who bears a resemblance to his wife Cora.

    Music 
  • I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You) by John Mayer features Mayer singing to some unknown woman, warning her that he is nothing but trouble and will only lead to heartbreak. He drives the point home with this verse:
    Who do you love?
    Girl I see through, through your love
    Who do you love? Me or the thought of me? Me or the thought of me?
  • Candle by Lunik: dreaming all day long / you're too perfect to be real / did I just make you up how I wished you to be? / dreaming with the curtains closed between shades and candlelight / was it all just in my mind and now I'm losing it?
  • "Shadow" by Maria Mena is a good example of this trope in reverse: Trying hard to be someone I don't even know/ I feel like a shadow/ walking behind who you think I am/... / thought I'd light me bright and new/ but my candle burnt out long before you. Likewise Boston's "A Man I'll Never Be."
  • Conceiving You by Riverside is about eventually giving up the actual person to love the shadow.
  • "Ten Years Gone" by Led Zeppelin
    "Vixen in my dreams, of great surprise to me; in the midst I see your face the way it used to be"
  • "Behavior" by Steel Train.
    A pretty girl.
    Followed her around the world.
    And when I caught her she said to me:
    "Look, at love, it's nothing but a shadow.
    Where, you saw, a heart, that was hollow.
    Look, at you. You've been chasing shadows."
    And then I woke up.
  • "Her Pretender" by Off Course. Though it does turn out okay in the end since the singer sticks around as "her someone else" long enough for her to see him as himself.
    Like an illusion surrounded by fantasy
    A lover’s confusion; she only sees what she wants to see
    I guess I’m just an imitator soon to be
    The love I feel was never meant for me
  • "Love Through Her" by The Weeknd
    Am I going crazy?
    Do I need some therapy to get shorty out of my mind?
    Girl, my head is racing
    Heard shortys been needing the rest of my mind

    Am I making love to you through her?
    Am I make love to you through her?
    Am I making love to you through her?
    Love through her (love through her)

    Theater 
  • Subverted with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; at one point, Todd starts wondering what his daughter Johanna (whom he has not seen in 15 years since she was a baby) is like, and ultimately concludes that he can't really care about her. Played disturbingly straight with Anthony for Johanna (he seems mostly enamoured of the idea of rescuing her from her evil guardian); possibly also Mrs. Lovett for Todd.
  • Romeo and Juliet: Romeo begins the story utterly heartbroken that his one true love Rosaline has dumped him. The minute he sees Juliet, he is utterly infatuated with his new one true love. Some interpret this to mean he, being very Hot-Blooded and brimming with all kinds of intense emotions (he is 16 after all), is too needy or in love with the idea of being in love. However, such an interpretation is not popular because it destroys the notion that the play depicts love at its most ideal.
  • Les Misérables had Eponine sum up this trope best with "And I know it's only in my mind: that I'm talking to myself and not to him... I love him, but only on my own."
  • Cyrano de Bergerac: One of the core points of the play is that Roxane doesn’t love Christian nor Cyrano, she is in love with their Shadow Archetype: An entity who has all the positive traits of both suitors, but none of their defects, a true shadow.
  • In J.B. Priestley's Dangerous Corner, pretty much all the characters' unrequited affections for each other turn out to be this. The entire play is based around how none of them really knew or understood each other for who they were.
  • In On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Mark Bruckner falls in love with Daisy Gamble by discovering her eighteenth-century incarnation, Melinda Welles.

    Video Games 
  • An variation occurs in Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World. Marta falls head-over-heels in love with what she falsely believes Emil to be, clearly ignoring Emil's actual personality. When he calls her out on this in a moment of frustration, she draws back and realizes that, no, Emil really isn't like her fantasy. Then she ends up falling for Emil for real.
  • A story which can be read in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, titled "Palla," tells the tale of a mage who falls in love with a long-dead woman depicted fighting a monster in a statue. Of course, it doesn't turn out like he thought it would. Palla turns out to be the name of the monster. Guess who comes back to life?
  • In Disgaea,
    • Etna's contradictory relationship with Laharl is the result of this: she adored his father, but hated his mother. She admits in her diary that when Laharl came along, she had no idea whether to love him or hate him because of it.
    • Laharl himself is attracted to Flonne, and it's mentioned that she reminds him of his deceased mother.
  • Mega Man ZX has Prairie falling in love with Girouette. She later admitted that it was because Giro reminded her of someone she knew in the past. Prairie is strongly believed to be Alouette of the Mega Man Zero series, and Giro is a (rather blatant) expy of the eponymous character that Alouette looks up to and idolizes. Do the math.
  • Final Fantasy VII: Aerith latches onto Cloud so quickly because he reminds her of her first boyfriend, Zack. Zack was Cloud's friend and Cloud took up his biggest traits. It's very, VERY complicated.
  • Fire Emblem Jugdral
    • If she's paired up with Horse Archer Midayle, Pirate Girl Briggid from will straightforwardly tell him that she's not sure if he loves her for herself or because she is the twin older sister of Adean, the White Magician Girl he used to love, and Midayle will have to disabuse her of such a belief. She exhibits a similar fear if she's paired up with archer Jamuka, whom Adean helped to have a Heel-Face Turn. Again, Jamuka will reply via saying that he loves only her now.
    • It's very strongly implied in one of the mangas that Arvis, a man with a BIG Oedipus Complex, may have fallen for Deirdree because she reminded him of his much adored mother Cigyun. For massive irony, Deirdre was his half-sister... and they shared the same mom. Whoops.
  • Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Harry's been dead for years and Cheryl is the patient. The Harry you've been playing as is the shadow in this equation, either physically manifested by Cheryl or it all took place only in her mind. Probably (hopefully) not a romantic version of this.
  • Shrowdy, villain of A Vampyre Story, has a history of kidnapping women who resemble his mother. All of them made some mistake, did something that made Shrowdy realize they were people of their own. All of them can be found in the same pit—what's left of them.
  • Invoked in Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening; one side-quest involves finding a mortally wounded soldier who asks you to find his wife and tell her that he died trying to make the world a better place. Velanna rather caustically remarks on the inanity of this declaration, and the player has the option to do the same, an attitude borne out by completing the quest and discovering that his wife was having an affair. If you call her out on cheating on her husband while he was out risking his life for her and the rest of the world, she turns the tables by saying that on the rare occasions he was home he seemed to treat her more as an abstract symbol of what he was fighting for than an actual person with thoughts and feelings of her own. Her reaction to his death is not really the pain of losing a true loved one, but more the impersonal sadness of knowing that a brave, idealistic man had died in the line of duty.

    Visual Novels 

    Webcomics 
  • In one of the few non-cheating examples of this, Nanase is introduced in El Goonish Shive as Elliot's Girlfriend... just in time to dump him so he can hook up with Sarah. Elliot's social life was never explored beforehand, and it's pretty obvious Elliot and Nanase's relationship doesn't have much to it. Nanase doesn't know why she doesn't love Elliot, but soon finds out when she falls hard for Elliot's clone Ellen, who of course is a girl.
  • In Namir Deiter, Cedric convinces himself that he's still in love with Tipper (his high-school sweetheart, whom he broke up with). Tipper tells him point-blank that he's in love with the girl she used to be and she's changed drastically since then. Not to mention she's engaged to someone else. Cedric doesn't take no for an answer. From Tipper OR her fiancee, Charles. It doesn't end well. Then again, Cedric has always been portrayed as a flake who tends to react first and think when forced to.
  • Haruna sees Onii-san as a replacement for her dead fiance Mamoru in Experimental Comic Kotone. However, later strips show that, while she may have originally felt that way, as time went on she fell for Onii-san for real.
  • This turns out to be the major source of conflict between Misho and Marena in Keychain of Creation. Misho refuses to have casual sex with Marena. He wants more than that. Marena wants that too, but won't commit to anything more until she's sure that Misho sees her as she is now, not as she was a millenium ago, when she was Misho's First Age Lunar consort.
  • One arc of Least I Could Do has Issa introducing the guys to her new boyfriend, who bears a very strong resemblance to Rayne. The other guys notice this and wonder among themselves if she realizes this, as Issa has adamantly resisted Rayne's advances for the last decade or so.
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal applies this trope to Charlie Brown's infatuation with the Little Redheaded Girl.
    Charlie Brown: You don't understand, Schroeder. For so long, I watched her from a distance. She went from a person to an archetype to an ideal... and what good is a God with a zit?!

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of The Pirates of Dark Water called "A Drop of Darkness" had the older Cray, who had once dated Ren's father. She threw a fit and left him when she caught him having a picnic with another woman. Ren looks like his father, so when Cray regains her youth, she tries to recapture how happy she remembers being. Either Ren marries her, or his friends meet messy ends.
  • Cyclops seems to have this for the missing Jean Grey in Wolverine and the X-Men, not helped by her lack of characterization.
  • Kid Flash's constant flirting with Miss Martian on Young Justice had shades of this, as did Miss Martian's own relationship with Superboy (on both ends).
  • Doughy in Moral Orel develops a crush on his teacher Miss Sculptham after she calls him "son," something his actual parents don't. Aside from her clearly not being interested in a child, she just takes advantage of him to get free expensive gifts. When he realizes that their relationship is not mutual, he stops giving.

    Real Life 
  • Many fans of all genders who are into animated/illustrated media become so fixated with their favorite characters that they openly reject the idea of being romantically involved with real people. While it happens everywhere, Japan is unfortunately notorious for this, including one notorious case of marrying the character in question. The priest officiating averted Artistic License - Law by stating unequivocally that it was not legally binding, though.
  • Rita Hayworth complained of this. "Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me."
  • People who are addicted to pornography; you love the pictures, but the pictures don't love you back. This can lead to a condition known as 'porn creep', in which people (generally men) are not attracted to real people of either gender (generally women) because they become so fixated on the images.
  • One could argue that some intense crushes and long term cases of unrequited love are an example of this, because the ones who are "in love" have never experienced the object of their affection as they truly are, but instead cling to a built up fantasy of how the imagine the person they desire actually is.
  • People who fall in love with a celebrity probably fall under this a lot.
  • Henrik Wergeland when he courted, and tried to win, his first crush Hulda Malthe. On some poetical level, he seems to have understood it, and plays the trope straight in the poems he wrote on the subject. The poems are cosmic visions, to say the least, showing that the poet lampshaded his position by literally trying to grasp for stars. He inverted it later, when he met the girl he eventually married, Amalie Sofie. The poems he wrote to her, are filled with flowers - a lot more obtainable in Real Life.


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