Olivia Benson, Meredith Grey and Chandler Bing are names that might sound familiar. This is because they are characters in popular television shows, some of which have been on for years.
Despite being fictional, TV characters can have millions of people who are fans of them, with the Internet providing a platform for social media fan pages or even entire websites devoted to the character. It’s not too unusual to be on social media and see people discussing the latest episode of TV shows, or even live tweeting during the episode itself, expressing their comments and observations on the show or a particular character.
So why are we so fixated on people that aren’t even real?
People’s connections to TV characters dates back to even before the Internet enabled the creation of these fan bases. One 2018 Insider article cites favorite TV characters from shows ranging from the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy to the 2010s drama series The Walking Dead. Television itself is seen as a popular form of escape from the stresses of life, with one Forbes survey finding that 36 percent of Americans named watching TV as a way of relaxing.
One reason why we gravitate towards fictional characters is because they can remind us of people and experiences in our own lives. According to 2KnowMyself, identifying with these characters creates a sense of familiarity, comfort and other positive feelings. Characters can also represent someone or something that we want in our own lives. Who hasn’t thought about living in the big city, having your dream job or other similar goals every now and then?
Looking at it from a psychological point of view, experts say we emotionally connect with pretend people because of our natural ability to recognize a human emotion. As described in an Elite Daily article, when a fictional character portrays a specific emotion, our brain picks up on that feeling and begins to form a bond with that person, even though they aren’t real.
It’s pretty common to have favorite TV characters, but sometimes the attachment can have a negative impact on our well-being. For example, as explained in a Refinery29 article, there’s nothing wrong with finding a certain TV character on a show, but the feeling shouldn’t be preventing you from having a real-life relationship. Also, if having an attachment to characters means binge-watching a TV show most nights and weekends instead of having social interactions with friends and family, then it might be time to take a step back.
On the other hand, looking up to a TV character can have a positive effect on our lives. For instance, Mariska Hargitay, who plays Lieutenant Olivia Benson on the popular crime drama Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, has spoken several times on how her character has given people a platform to share their personal experiences similar to the cases portrayed on the show. This in turn has inspired her to establish a foundation and produce a documentary to help real-life survivors of crime.