Like roughly a zillion other mother-daughter pairs in the early 2000s, my mom and I were deeply devoted to Gilmore Girls, the television show chronicling the close relationship between 30-something Lorelai and her teenage daughter, Rory. We sang along to the opening credits, gleefully discussing the fact that I was more of a Rory (shy, studious), and she was more of a Lorelai (chatty, confident). We reveled in the tidiness of it, the neat symmetry between our lives and theirs — even though, in truth, there really wasn’t much of a resemblance there at all. (We didn’t live in a tiny, quirky Connecticut town; our nuclear family was bigger than just us two; our lexicon of snappy cultural references was sorely lacking.)
When we learned that Netflix was working on a four-episode revival of Gilmore Girls, a decade after the series had ended, we sent a lot of emails that consisted mostly of exclamation points. “It’s back!” we e-shouted at each other, knowing that it referred to that cozy feeling of specialness we got from watching the show as much as it did to the show itself.
That’s the striking thing about the show’s return: It feels personal, even though it’s the least personal thing in the world. As my mom and I were having our own little celebration over the show’s return, mothers and daughters across the country were doing exactly the same thing. Moms and daughters across the country have, for that matter, built the same connections to the characters of Gilmore Girls, and watched with the same devotion. But still, our reaction to its return felt like one that only we could have — like we were welcoming back something that was uniquely ours.
What turns fictional characters into such important touchstones of our real lives? Psychologists have been digging into this question for at least half a century — and as the way we consume stories continues to change, their answers do, too.
The term “parasocial relationship” was originally coined by psychologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956 to describe this one-sided sense of connectedness between a person and a fictional character. They called the feeling “intimacy at a distance,” noting that the burgeoning media landscape of the time seemed to promote these sorts of lopsided relationships. “One of the striking characteristics of the new mass media – radio, television, and the movies – is that they give the illusion of face-to-face relationships with the performer,” they wrote in the journal Psychiatry. “The most remote and illustrious men are met as if they were in a circle of one’s peers; the same is true of a character in a story who comes to life in these media.”
Like any relationship, a parasocial relationship can take time to develop, and can take on varying levels of (perceived) intimacy. A parasocial interaction can be a onetime, isolated thing — even someone who isn’t a die-hard Harry Potter fan, for example, may still yell at Harry to turn around when they see Voldemort sneaking up behind him onscreen. But, over time, a series of parasocial interactions may turn into a deeper, more lasting sense of kinship with the character.
“It’s a really rich social experience that’s going on there. People think watching TV is antisocial, but it’s actually deeply social,” says Karen Dill-Shackleford, a media psychologist at Fairfield University who studies fandom. “Story worlds allow us to explore our own identities, our own understandings of our relationships, our values, what we think is meaningful in life.”
Since the concept of parasocial relationships was first introduced, researchers have figured out a lot more about their nature — how they’re similar to, and different from, the two-sided bonds we form with other living, breathing humans. A parasocial relationship, Dill-Shackleford explains, is a two-part affair: On one hand, we build a connection through empathy, imagining ourselves in the character’s shoes; on the other, we respond emotionally to commonalities between their circumstances and ours. When a character goes through a breakup, for example, you might be sad for them, and also sad because of the memories it brings to the surface.
So on one level, when we feel a connection to a fictional character, we experience the character kind of like an avatar, vicariously living out the experiences we see (or read, or hear) as they unfold in front of us. (A 1990 study of people’s emotional responses to graphic horror scenes identified “fictional involvement,” or the ability to engage with a story, as a key component of empathy.) “But simultaneously,” Dill-Shackleford says, “there’s a really personal thing that’s happening,” as we relate the fictional events unfolding in front of us back to our own lives.
Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto, explains these two processes as a sort of metaphor linking character and viewer: “We ourselves can become metaphorical. We can stay ourselves and also be Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary,” he says. That transformation, he says, can be explained by something called the actor-observer effect, or the division between experiencing a scene and simply taking it in from a distance. “If I walk across the room and someone’s left a toy on the floor and I nearly trip over it, I tend to say, ‘Oh, that shouldn’t have been left on the floor.’ I’m the actor in that scene,” he says. “[But] if I see someone else do exactly what I was doing, I would say, ‘That person is careless,’ or ‘That person is clumsy.’”
But when we’re repeatedly exposed to a fictional character in action, whether through a book or a TV series, “we tend to see them more from the inside than we do in everyday life,” he says. The division between actor and observer is erased — if we’ve built up a connection to a protagonist and then see that protagonist trip over a toy, we’re more likely to feel their frustration than we are to assign them blame for the fall.
In some cases, parasocial relationships can also mimic real ones, acting as a form of “social surrogacy” to fill the same social need that a real friendship would. In a 2008 study in the journal Social Cognition, participants viewed images of either a favorite television character or a random control character before completing a few problem-solving tasks. The people in the “presence” of their favorite character tended to follow the pattern of past research on “social facilitation,” or the idea that people perform better on simple tasks and worse on more complicated ones when they’re around other people — suggesting, the authors wrote, that “feelings for the character may play an important role in encouraging the anthropomorphism of television characters.” The more they liked the character, in other words, the more likely they were to perceive the character as being real and in the room with them.
And even as people are reporting having fewer and fewer real-life close social relationships — part of a disturbing long-term trend reported in Bowling Alone and elsewhere — parasocial relationships may be on the upswing, a consequence of a media environment rich in shows that invite intense parasocial interaction. Mary Beth Oliver, a communications professor at Penn State who studies media psychology, says that the rise of binge-watching may mean that parasocial relationships are stronger and more common than they were when Horton and Wohl first published their article. “It’s like going on vacation with a friend — you get this heavy dose, you spend a lot of time together,” she says.
But parasocial relationships, like any relationships, can also come to abrupt, uncomfortable ends. One study investigating the effects of “parasocial breakups” found that people expected to feel as distraught about their favorite TV characters going off the air as they would about the dissolution of a real-life friendship.
In some cases, people can ease the loss by reviving the characters on their own, imagining what they went on to do after the show ended, or solidifying those musings into fanfiction. “There’s this sort of leaky line of who owns the story world,” Dill-Shackleford says — once the official story is over, the aftermath belongs to the fans.
At times, though, those two worlds — the original story, and the one dreamed up by fans — can clash. Dill-Shackleford offers another example from Harry Potter: When the actor Richard Harris, who played Albus Dumbledore in the movie series, was replaced by Michael Gambon after his death, she was dismayed. Gambon’s portrayal didn’t jibe with how she imagined Dumbledore would behave.
“We love it when we feel that the producers, writers, actors are taking care of our story world, and we don’t like when they violate it,” she says, in part because it can feel like a violation of a deeper-seated principle.
“Why do I love Dumbledore? He’s an authority figure in a child’s world, and I connect with that feeling. We’ve all had the experience of being a kid and having a teacher you loved or looked up to,” she said. “Those relationships are sacred to us.”
Teasers of the upcoming Gilmore Girls revival, meanwhile, hinted that Rory had become a teacher rather than the journalist she set out to be in the series finale — a departure, in all likelihood, from the life that many fans had built for her in their minds. “It would be analogous to going to your hig- school reunion,” Oliver says, “and seeing that the big man on campus is fat and bald.”
I know what she means. Rory became a journalist; so did I — I loved that. It fit so satisfyingly with everything else about those mother-daughter binge-watching sessions. But real people disappoint us all the time, too. If it’s genuine affection, we adjust our expectations and welcome them back into our lives. Do fictional characters have to be any different?