Why (and how) do we identify with characters?
October 8, 2008 7:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for theoretical / psychological explanations of how and why people identify themselves with characters in books or with pop cultural figures.

One of my students last year regularly wore an "I am Hermione" shirt to class. I've met an Elvis impersonator who took the bond to religious levels. I want to understand what makes identification tick in a sounder or more theoretical way than I've found so far. I'm currently going on Hayakawa's model that identification goes according to

1) Recognizing yourself in a depiction
2) Having a character that fulfills some wish or fantasy

Can anyone get me more insight from any field? I'm particularly interested in how short-term identification may help make or change long-term identity. Personal anecdotes on works you've identified with strongly are welcome.
posted by LucretiusJones to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Para-social interaction is the term that you're looking for.
posted by k8t at 10:25 AM on October 8, 2008

Here's Wikipedia on it.
posted by k8t at 10:26 AM on October 8, 2008

I would look alos into mirror neurons.
posted by bru at 10:34 AM on October 8, 2008

I wonder if you could glean anything from Joseph Campbell's work regarding hero mythology. The Power of Myth. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Over and over we tell and retell ourselves stories about the archetypal hero's journey, and it's somehow central to interpreting our own journey and forming our own identity. Characters and celebrities are elevated to something like hero status and are mythologized, so maybe something similar is at work there. We want to take their same journey and have their same transformation.

This guy talks about the idea of the hero's journey in literature, and references this guy who talks about the more psychological side of it. Both appear to just be amateur thinkers as opposed to big shot academics. Maybe you can use those as jumping off points into more research.

I want to be Luke Skywalker!
posted by kookoobirdz at 10:44 AM on October 8, 2008

Best answer: k8t I don't think para-social interaction is what Lucretius is going for here, b/c those one-soded relationships can exist without the fan feeling an identification with the the character (as in I am like ____).

I don't have a copy of Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers here, but I'm pretty sure that he talks about this phenomenon. If I'm remembering correctly, based on his interviews with science fiction fans, many of whom dress up or otherwise immerse themselves and their identities in a fictional universe, part of the motivation was a feeling of isolation from the "regular" social world. I think that many of the people he interviewed talked about not fitting in, not knowing who they were, etc., until they were exposed to Star Trek, for example, and then they suddenly found a place where they belonged, and found characters who seemed to be like them. So perhaps identifying with a fictional (or famous) character/persona is a way of resolving a pre-existing identity crisis.

But you should probably read his book to make sure I'm not getting this totally wrong.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:05 PM on October 8, 2008

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