Did you know that fictional characters can be an important part of your social network?
Most people know that social interactions are important to your well being. And according to Dr. Laurie Santos, the Yale professor whose course “The Science of Well-being” I took, “. . . when we can’t get the real thing, we’re pretty good at finding creative ways to fill those gaps.”
There is a social surrogacy hypothesis that posits:
We can find a surrogate social connection with people we’ve never met or who don’t even exist—totally fictional people, like TV and book characters.
‘Parasocial’ relationships are especially useful for filling in gaps in our social lives. Santos uses the example of a busy mom who has a supportive husband and friends to hang out with, but lacks adventure in her life and may be seeking to fill in the excitement gap, so she became fake friends with Benedict Cumberbatch.
Why not be fake friends with Sherlock Holmes, either the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or the one played by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch? Why not seek wise counsel from Atticus Finch? Sports fans are allowed to have obsessive parasocial relationships with their favorite players who they don’t know at all, so the rest of us should be allowed to bond with fictional characters.
As an avid reader, I’ve got all kinds of fake social relationships. Right now, I’ve got my arms around the shoulders of my disturbed sixteen-year-old son, Holden Caulfield, as I’m rereading “The Catcher in the Rye” on my list of the “Most Important Novels in My Life.” I once had a very safe affair with Sabina, the erotic other woman in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” I’ve hung out with fellow writer T.S. Garp in “The World According to Garp.” I’ve talked advertising with Don Draper, from “Mad Men.” And I’ve been known to offer play-calling advice to Josh Allen, quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. These relationships are one-sided, but they still fulfill a need.
And as a writer, I’ve invented friends, parents, children, lovers, spouses, colleagues, enemies, murderers—and they’ve been some of the deepest relationships I’ve had. Not just invented these fictional characters, I’ve actually been them.
Does that sound unhealthy? I don’t think so, because I maintain real-world relationships too. I have close friends and a family I love. None of my fake friends are taking the place of my real relationships, but they do maintain an important role in my social life and fill in some of the gaps.
Characters from novels, movies, television shows, and even celebrities and athletes—they can be your friends. But hopefully not your only friends. If they are, I’d suggest seeking mental health support, but please, not from the cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. That wouldn’t end well.