As children, most of us emulated our favorite characters from TV and movies, aspiring to the qualities they embodied, be it bravery, cunning, insight, or comic relief. From Power Rangers to princesses, these figures are early role models, the opposite of our shortcomings. However, even as we grow, acquiring skills and backstories of our own, the distinct appeal of making fictional characters into reference points for the selves we want to be remains. But why? What compels us to care about, and even strive to be like people who stop existing when you turn off a screen or close a book?
A few possible, partial explanations for this phenomenon jump to mind. First, there’s the fact that these characters are simultaneously condensed and diluted, their personalities funneled into easily-understood, digestible frameworks. Our constant attempts to know ourselves are often futile, with ill-defined boundaries between the traits we naturally exhibit and those we deliberately imbue. Especially during childhood and adolescence, the internal world is as confusing and mysterious as the external, so the ability to outsource some certainty to a predictable entity takes away considerable stress.
Similarly, having a template for dealing with complex situations can alleviate the pressure that those situations bring. Take love, for example. Some people spend their whole lives looking for it and still never quite figure it out. Enter Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly, subjects of the primary romantic arc on the hit NBC mockumentary series “The Office”. Over the course of years, viewers watch as friendship turns into courtship, and later to a phase of comfortable dating, followed by a tension-wrought marriage as Jim has to choose between the family he’s created and his dream career. Evaluating our own relationships relative to Jim and Pam’s affirms our feelings about them, underscoring issues like compatibility, priorities, and behavioral dynamics that can seem foreign to us no matter how long we’ve been in the game.
Imitating fabricated characters has its dangers, though. On the screen and in the script, things tend to work out for the best; every good guy gets a good girl, karma’s hammer falls upon the wicked, and rarely does the impact of single decision extend past the closing credits. Traipsing through life with the assumption that it’ll play out the same way runs the risk of self-sabotage. After all, IRL objects of affection are not objects at all, but autonomous, decision-making individuals. When they reject an advance, it’s typically the end of the road, not an invitation to persist until they’re sufficiently worn down to kiss you in a parking lot.
Plus, while characters seldom face negative consequences incurred by their actions, the threat of those consequences generally deters people from committing similar ones. Action heroes don’t stand trial for—or even seriously consider—the slew of killings they commit, incorrigible doofuses (doofi?) like Michael Scott don’t answer for their idiocy, and chronically sarcastic curmudgeons aren’t abandoned to suffocate in clouds of their own smugness. In the realm of flesh and blood, all of the above are all-too-real possibilities. A false sense of confidence instilled by years of fantasy reinforcement can only make them all-too-realer.
After all, IRL objects of affection are not objects at all, but autonomous, decision-making individuals.
Of course, not all emulation is bad. Freaks and Geeks, in its modest one season of airing, managed to perfectly capture the tribulations of being an outcast in high school, a supremely empowering, terrifying, relatable experience. Navigating the morally ambiguous social minefield of experimentation, rebellion and growth is a daunting feat, especially without a Lindsay Weir to guide us. We get to ride alongside her on an emotional roller coaster that’s stimulating yet safe. Struggling to read her moral compass and yearning for acceptance, Lindsay slips up from time to time, as anyone in her position might, but the series’ inconclusive ending teaches us that no matter what you do, the future will always remain an enigma.
Navigating the morally ambiguous social minefield of experimentation, rebellion and growth is a daunting feat, especially without a Lindsay Weir to guide us.
The best part of living vicariously through characters is that, at any point, we can snap back to reality and enjoy our actual, factual world, filled with the beautiful complexities and frustrations that make us human. As much fun as it is to play Dexter Morgan or Nancy Botwin or Jack Donaghy, the true lives of those people would entail their own unique sets of challenges, and who’s to say they wouldn’t turn on the tube and find simplistic solace in a show about you?