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"It is but a shadow and a thought that you love."
—Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings
A form of Wishful Projection. 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.
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.
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.
The trope name and quote refer to Eowyn'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. For cases when someone doesn't let wishful thinking block imperfect reality, but expects to change said reality (which often relies on the same wishful thinking) see I Can Change My Beloved.
Most definitely can be Truth in Television.
Anime and Manga
- In 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. It's a bit of an inversion, however, because in many ways, Negi really is the "shadow" Ayaka wanted her baby brother to be.
- An arrow-straight, although arguably warped version of this is the oddly flirtatious relationship the resident Noble Demon Old Master Evangeline has with Negi. It seems she had a crush on his father and *cough* 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.
- Let' not forget one of the few times Asuna gets conflicting feelings about Negi. She had just had a dream about Nagi. Whom it seems she rather liked.
- There's also a slightly more literal version involving a student falling in love with Negi's "cousin", who's actually Negi magically aged up. The results are rather disastrous (and not in the good way).
- An arrow-straight, although arguably warped version of this is the oddly flirtatious relationship the resident Noble Demon Old Master Evangeline has with Negi. It seems she had a crush on his father and *cough* 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.
- On Fushigi Yuugi, Wholesome Crossdresser Nuriko's habits were handwaved by the explanation that hedid it to deal with the cruel loss of his Dead Little Sister Kourin, who died as a little girl and in front of him.
- 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 cross-dresser, or like his Dead Little Sister would've looked like if she was alive), and have a child with her... before he dies. (And for even more irony, Nuriko and Houki were pretty close friends.)
- Inverted in Inuyasha. The title character starts off hating a shadow; his attitude towards Kagome initially comes off as a case of Hate at First Sight but it quickly becomes clear that he doesn't actually hate her at all; he just can't stand looking at her because she looks so much like the woman who pinned him to a tree fifty years ago. Kagome even lampshades this:
Kagome: It's not even me you dislike. It's this Kikyo person.
- Also inverted with Tsubaki, who hates Kagome just for being the reincarnation of her former rival.
- This pretty much sums up Koga's feelings towards Kagome; he learns she can sense the Jewel Shards, captures her for her power, then before he knows, he starts saying he's in love with her and calling her his woman as though he owns her, causing a heated rivalry between himself and Inuyasha. Thankfully, he gets over it and ends up marrying his true love, Ayame, which is shown in the anime and implied in the manga.
- In Cardcaptor Sakura, Sakura realizes that her feelings for Yukito are mostly familial in nature (and coming from him being similar to her dad), 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.)
- Juri has a crush on Shiori, but she seems to be more in love with an over-idealised mental image of Shiori than with the actual person. Word of God implies that Shiori might come to like her back, though.
- Mikage is smitten with Mamiya, but "Mamiya" we see in the show is Anthy doing a Dead Person Impersonation, the real Mamiya died years ago. Mikage later projects his feelings for Tokiko onto Utena as well.
- Anthy, too. She's with her brother Akio because she loves his former and much kinder person, Prince Dios, who fell through the Despair Event Horizon after being ditched and attacked by the crowds he used to help. It's implied she's complicit in his plans because she sincerely believes that, if Akio gets his powers back, he'll once again be her gentle brother who cared for her, rather than the Magnificent Bastard who now mistreats her. It takes Utena's Heroic Sacrifice before she realizes that it's never going to happen and it's not worth it: Dios is completely gone, and Akio is far too gone to return to his once-heroic self.
- Needless to say almost everyone in the series gets this. A major theme is understanding and accepting people as more than just a stereotype or over-idealized image. Because until that happens, people will end up talking past and hurting each other.
- In Vision of Escaflowne, everyone assumes Allan Schezar is attracted to slender young ingenues . In fact, hints that are revealed later indicate that they are all Replacement Goldfish - specifically, replacements for his little sister Selena 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, Chiyoko Fujiwara, 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."
- In Fruits Basket. After volumes of what seemed like romantic buildup, 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 had a crush on Sakura because 1) he thought she was pretty—which is an incredibly shallow reason to "like" someone (though understandable in his case, he IS a kid), thereby fitting this trope perfectly—and 2) she always loved his rival Sasuke, which made him subconsciously believe that if he managed to win her love, he'd be beating out Sasuke at something for once. It was always about his rivalry with Sasuke—The Ace, the Chick Magnet of his class, and someone who was always better than Naruto—than any actual romantic feelings. Sakura even called him out on this trope, pointing out that his jealousy towards Sasuke was the only reason why he had a crush on her at all—which was implied as early as Chapter 3. Both Chapter 469 and the canon movie The Last: Naruto the Movie make it patently clear that his crush on her was legitimately just that: a passing crush and nothing more or less; it was never actual romantic love. The movie also makes it very clear that Hinata is the first and only time Naruto experiences both First Love and true love, because he genuinely fell in love with the person, rather than the idea of winning someone over by beating out someone else. Even the movie's Tagline is "His last story is his First Love", which makes Hinata his One True Love, First Love, the First Girl After All, and First Girl Wins. Finally, Kishimoto himself explicitly stated that Sakura was his first crush while Hinata is his First Love. (And one that Sakura, now a Cool Big Sis figure to Naruto and his potential lady, fully approves of)
- Near 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 pretty definitely.. Only Sakura goes past this, though she also has her own... issues.
- In 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 first TV 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 seems to grow 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, becoming this trope incarnate.
- In the Ouran High School Host Club anime, 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, pretty much a living White Prince. The naîve and unexperienced girl was completely smitten with such a dream image, logically, therefore she went to Japan to meet him... And she 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 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, May and Al are either hitched as well or in their way to be..
- 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 at least somewhat because he reminded him of her father, whom he had a difficult relationship with, and who saved her life at the cost of his own in the Second Impact.
- Oldschool Shoujo manga Haikara-san 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 expreme 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.
- In Detective Conan, Sumiko at first thought Inspector Shiratori was love with her was due to the extreme physical similarity between her and Miwako Satou, who Shiratori unsuccessfully courted. It was subverted that it was Satou who was the shadow—Shiratori's childhood friend was indeed Sumiko, but he forgot her name and mistook that to be Satou when he grew up. When he actually met Sumiko, he immediately recognized her as his actual love due to other clues.
- How the little girl whom Shiratori loved was a big fangirl of the Japanese police force didn't really help. Neither did the fact that back then Sumiko lacked her 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 and 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 Cus 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...
- Pretty much the reason why Otome Katou loved Makoto Itou in the School Days anime, 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 subversion of this trope occurs in Presents. An artist falls in love with the daughter of a gallery owner at first sight, but she's 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 the main character 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 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 one 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...
- 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 relatively mundane way.
- Of course, Nightwing gets this all the time. At one point he had upwards of six love interests, all of whom were infatuated with different shadows.
- 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.
- 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 idtentity 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 subversion of his more sympathetic DCAU origin. Batman calls out Freeze on his delusional "love" of a woman he doesn't even know who is old enough to be his grandmother.
- One of the waitresses in I Really Hate My Job wonders if her crush on Danny Huston is just this. But then she shrugs it off with wondering if he'd fall in love with her.
- It could be taken that in Nine, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In There's 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'.
- Actually subverted in Laura. When it turns out she is alive, she is basically what the detective hoped she would be.
- 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.
- Somewhat subverted in 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).
- Not to mention the fact that May–December romances of this nature weren't exactly unheard when Austen was writing.
- And whatever his actual age, when he smiled at their wedding he looked ten years younger than he had throughout the rest of the movie.
- Played straight in Mansfield Park, where the male lead, who is exasperatingly oblivious to the female lead's feelings for him, loves a shadow. 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 Dragonlance 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. Am I the only one Squicked by this?
- Our Elves Are Better? Maybe the elves' trees aren't the only thing they have that are huge? Either way, Dalamar is much more similar to Kitiara personality-wise than Tanis ever was; it was only due to Lord Soth convincing each that the other had betrayed them that their lusty plans of conquest didn't work out.
- 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.)
- A variation from the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel 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.
- 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 emacipiated partial.
- Daphne Prime reveals that, in the Backstory, 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 actually met Helion, did not like him at all.
- In JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Eowyn hates her confined life. She meets Aragorn and convinces herself she's in love because he's life outside. (When Aragon heals her in The Return of the King, she doesn't respond to his calling her, but instantly reacts when her brother, whom she actually loves as a real person rather than a shadow, does.)
- Lolita argubly. 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.
- Quite a lot of fans who dislike the canon Harry/Ginny pairing consider Ginny Weasley to be in love with The Boy Who Lived, not Harry Potter.
- A saner version of this trope is 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; while Cho is trying to wrap herself up in the memories of her relationship with Cedric by latching onto the person who was closest to him when he died.
- Hermione says that Rodmilla Vane is only interested in Harry because he's The Chosen One.
- 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.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire Asha considers Tristifer Botley to be doing this to her, and wishes he would stop going on about how much he loves her.
- 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 actually 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.
- It is quite probable that Desdemona's love for Othello is of this nature and he suspects it making him an easy target for Iago's manipulation.
Live Action TV
- In 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 activity (kidnapping and torture, and eventually felony murder). Of course, this being Lana Lang, she wants him to accept her for her kidnapping, murdering self, but the framework is there.
- Chloe Sullivan has a similar situation with Davis Bloome in Season 8, where he's clearly a Clark substitute.
- In Star Trek TNG in the episode "Booby Trap", Georgi 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.
- 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 rather 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.
- This is a theory in Charmed that Phoebe loved Coop because he's like the safer version of her ex Cole. Coop acted like Cole only he's good because he's a cupid and not a demon.
- 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.
- 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.
- "The One You Really Love" by The Magnetic Fields.
- "Behavior" by Steel Train.
A pretty girl.
- Subverted with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; at one point, Todd starts wondering what his daughter (whom he has not seen in 15 years since she was a baby) is actually 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.
- Played straight with Romeo and Juliet. Romeo begins the story utterly heartbroken that his one true love has dumped him. The minute he sees Juliet, he is utterly infatuated with his new one true love. Some interpret this to mean he 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.
- The musical version of 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 or 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.
- An interesting 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.
- Tales of the Abyss: Part of the plot is that the lead, Luke fon Fabre got Identity Amnesia as a result of being kidnapped seven years ago. His fiancee Natalia is desperate for him to remember their Childhood Marriage Promise and focuses on that over everything else, including the fact Luke finds her annoying. It gets more complicated when The Reveal comes out: this Luke is a clone of the real one, now known as Asch the Bloody. Therefore Luke cannot recall the promise to Natalia because he never made it. Natalia's Character Development, thus, nearly entirely revolves around her moving past this trope.
- A story which can be read in 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: Hour of Darkness, Etna's rather 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 seems to be 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. Who was Cloud's friend, and whose biggest traits he took up on. It's very, VERY complicated.
- However, if Aerith is Cloud's date during the gondola ride at Gold Saucer, her dialogue seems to imply she's begun to see past Cloud's facade, how different the two actually are outside of surface mannerisms, and that she's "[searching] for [him]" and "[wants] to meet [him]," to Cloud's confusion. Ultimately, Aerith might have started to fall for the real Cloud while suspecting certain things were off about him.
- Persona 2: In Innocent Sin, Lisa is infatuated with Tatsuya from the get-go, but it's clear that it's a shallow fantasy - the popular pretty girl who wants the "cool loner" for a boyfriend. Over the course of the game Tatsuya is shown to be a loner because he's been hurt by loss and reluctant to open up to anyone again, but Lisa genuinely falls in love with the good person hiding behind the loner. Hanakouji and Eikichi do the same with each other as well, though Eikichi's fantasy of Hanakouji is more from not having seen her for years, and her fantasy of him is actually a more shallow and immature person than he turns out to be. The reality of one another turns out to be far more fulfilling.
- Persona 3: At the end of his Social Link, Kenji Tomochika suspects that his love for Emiri Kanou was actually this i.e. he didn't love her so much as he loved the idea of being in a relationship with a teacher. Whether or not this is true is ultimately left up in the air however.
- Persona 4: Despite being a Dude Magnet, Yukiko has never once had a boyfriend before the beginning of the story; she's turned down so many guys that asking her out is considered a challenge in Yasogami High. Part of the reason for this is that people only see her as the ideal Japanese beauty, and have no idea of what she's truly like. This is shown in the 8th rank of Chie's Social Link; Chie's old friend Takeshi confronts her about Yukiko's funky laugh and accuses Chie of being a bad influence on her, not realising that Yukiko had been that way since Chie first met her, if not before. By contrast, Yosuke states that he actually likes her better now that he has an idea of her Hidden Depths.
- If she's paired up with Horse Archer Midir, Pirate Girl Brigid from Fire Emblem Jugdral will tell him that she's not sure if he loves her for herself or because she is the twin older sister of Edain, the White Magician Girl he used to love, and Midir will have disabuse her of such a belief.
- She exhibits a similar fear if she's paired up with The Archer Jamke, whom Edain helped to have a Heel Face Turn. Again, Jamke will reply via saying that he loves only her now.
- It's implied in one of the mangas that Alvis, a man with a BIG Oedipus Complex, may have fallen for Deirdre because she reminded him of his much adored mother. For massive irony, Deirdre was his half-sister... and they shared the same mom. Whoops.
- 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.
- In Psychonauts, there's an example in the Black Velvetopia level. It turns out Edgar's beloved Lampita is a reflection of his former girlfriend, who dumped him for the male captain of their high school's cheerleading squad. This event was the cause of his psychosis, and he only gets better when this reflection disappears and moves on.
- 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 actually 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.
- Some fans suggest that Dr. Horrible may have only been in love with Penny's shadow, since he never got to know her for who she really was before she died.
- In Be the Sea Dweller Lowblood, Karkat's large number of hate-based flings are because he hates himself so much that anyone who can tell him how he's a failure and a fake can turn him on.
- 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.
- In Kids Next Door, there's a perfect example in Numbuh 2/Hoagie's Precocious Crush on the villainous Cree Lincoln. His crush on her stems for her being a gorgeous gal, almost completely ignoring her cruel, less-than-pleasant personality. He actively pursues her because he sees her as a grown-up version of his teammate and Cree's younger sister Numbuh 5/Abigail, who not only has a beautiful appearance, but also a beautiful personality. He eventually wises up, and marries Abby.
- This is highlighted in "Operation: K.I.S.S": When Hoagie grows up to be a handsome teen named "Hank", Cree immediately becomes infatuated with him due to his looks, reacting with disgust when his true self comes out. Abby, on the other hand, subtly makes it clear she loves him as the dorky sweetheart he really is, regardless of his physical appearance.
- In Danny Phantom, one episode makes it clear that the titular character's mother Maddie would have never been happy with his nemesis Vlad Masters, who used to be college friends with Danny's father Jack and and Maddie -- by showing an alternate timeline where Maddie married Vlad. He is shown to be a Control Freak, controlling his wife's movements and preventing her from pursuing her passion in ghost hunting, while Maddie is still in love with Jack (who in this reality, took Vlad's place as the first halfa). This is because Vlad is in love with the idea of having Maddie rather than Maddie herself. Hence in the canon timeline, he is a Hopeless Suitor who has no chance with her, regardless of her genuinely happy marriage with Jack.
- In Hey Arnold, Arnold had a crush on an older girl named Ruth McDougal. She never really became an active player on the show, since Arnold simply admired her from afar. In the Valentine's Day episode he finally has a chance to talk to her and realizes that she's kind of a Brainless Beauty, making him lose interest.
- Fans, whether fangirls of fanboys. Many fans of both 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.
- 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, but many women also fall here yet society never acknowledges them) are not attracted to real persons of either gender because they become so fixated on the images.
- One could argue that all crushes and 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 created as a solution to the true problem of loneliness.