When Laura Moore, a business school student in Toronto, first "met" Liz Lemon on "30 Rock" she thought, “I've found my soul mate and she is on TV.” The clincher: A season one episode when Liz, explaining to Jenna how her new relationship is going, said “Terrible. I just want to go home and watch that show about midgets and eat a block of cheese.”
For Laura, the line was a revelation. “I’ve thought that exact same thing!” she says. She’s been a fan ever since, relieved by the thought that someone else thinks like she does.
Television has returned after its summer hiatus, but if you’re a little too excited to hear about your favorite characters’ adventures and heartbreaks (and maybe caught a few reruns just to “hang out” with them over their agonizingly long vacations), rest assured: You are not insane.
Feeling like you’re friends with a fictional character is a common phenomenon—one that psychologists call “parasocial interaction”—and it can even be good for you.
Parasocial interaction is psych-speak for relationships that, unlike real friendships, only go one way. (As in, Friends’ Rachel Green has no idea that you exist even though you know that she once owed fifteen dollars in a poker game and watched her daughter’s birth.) These fictional friendships are surprisingly similar to real-life friendships and go from first meeting to intimacy to breakup, just like any real-world affair.
Stage 1: The “Getting To Know You” Phase
When Chris Basler, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, was in high school, he had what he calls “an intense personal connection” with David Fisher of "Six Feet Under." David’s plot line in the first season centered around coming out to his family—something Chris had yet to do—so watching the show every week with his parents hit very close to home. “It was really painful,” he says. “I knew that his struggle was the same struggle I was going through.”
Seeing ourselves in a character can help us establish a bond, explains Dara Greenwood, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Vassar College. That connection can feel intensely personal, especially since we get to witness their inner struggles.
Since Chris works behind the scenes, he knows that fictional struggles come from somewhere real. “Writers write what they know. If they’re writing a gay couple dealing with adoption, that’s coming from a real place,” he says. “Watching it on TV lets you know what’s normal and what other people are dealing with.”
While some characters show us the person we are, others show us who we aspire to be, and can even help us get there. (Don’t we all want our conversations to be as punchy and witty as "Seinfeld"?)
“Some research suggests that individuals with lower self-esteem may benefit from feeling connected to a character who is more in line with their ‘ideal self.’ It can help them internalize that perspective,” says Greenwood. Ultimately, it may come down to whether the qualities you admire are healthy and achievable. If they are, idealization can be good for you.
In a television landscape littered with stick-thin, sickly-sweet female role models, women who came of age in the nineties may remember MTV’s "Daria" as a welcome breath of fresh air. Laura, the business student, certainly does. “Watching Daria—this sarcastic, sardonic girl who was vaguely angry and felt above everyone else—she was like a beacon of light.” Daria reminded Laura that there were other girls like her, even if they didn’t exist en masse in her hometown.
Even with characters we might not like in real life (think: Don Draper or Dr. House), we develop strong connections. In some ways, it’s an exercise in empathy. “Even the most hated characters have traits that make them capable of loving other people and make other people capable of loving them,” says Chris. “We don’t fall for people who are perfect; we fall for ones who also have flaws.”
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