When you’re starting out on your career path, it’s always useful to have someone you can look up to, someone who can inspire you to bigger and better things. Ordinarily, these inspirational characters will be someone you know in your life, such as a boss or a parent. They might even be someone famous who motivates us to push forward. But what if the person who inspires you doesn’t actually exist?
For instance, you may regard yourself as sharing some of the characteristics of an inspirational leader of men, so you model yourself after such a character. In this sense, it isn’t much different from forming a connection with a living person that we don’t personally know.
There is a technical term to describe such relationships: parasocial. Parasocial relationships exist largely in our heads, free from the risks and constraints of more typical “real-life” relationships.
Real-life inspirations tend to occur when a person motivates us to expand our knowledge and perspectives. So, a real-life inspiration may be particularly wise or go about their work in a particularly interesting way. Whatever they offer, they help us to envision a better version of ourselves, thus driving us to work to achieve that version.
But can fictional people do that, too? Psychological studies suggest that they can. For example, participants in one study were asked to read a short story about a young man running a race. After reading the story, they were asked to rate how likable the character was and how relevant the character was to them. They were also asked to do the same thing for a couple of television characters (one of their choosing, the other chosen for them) and two people from their own lives.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, close friends were found to be most inspirational. Next up was the self-selected TV character, followed by the other TV character, with casual acquaintances bringing up the rear. The key to the inspiration quotient was the similarity of the individual to the participant’s ideal self.
Broadly speaking, this is a positive sign, as it shows that our potential pool of inspirational characters is almost limitless. Indeed, immersion into narrative worlds can create opportunities for growth in which experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of fictional characters prompt readers’ own development. Parasocial relationships can provide role models, especially for those who are temporarily or chronically isolated, those who have limited social relationships, and/or those with homogenous social groups.
So, if you’re ever looking for someone to look up to, consider a fictional inspiration to help encourage you to progress and find your lost enthusiasm — especially in the absence of a real life role model.