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 we know in our life, such as our boss or a parent. They might even be a famous person such as a Ghandi or Ali. Sometimes however it’s a person that doesn’t even exist. Can we really be inspired by people that are but the figment of someone’s imagination?
A recent study explored the validity of attempts to use such fictional characters to inspire us to great deeds. It (hopefully) goes without saying that the distinction between a real and a fictional person is an obvious one. The dividing line between our perceived connections with imaginary people, however, is much fuzzier.
Take for instance Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. You may regard yourself as sharing some of the characteristics of this inspirational leader of men that you’ve created for him in your mental model of the character. In this sense, it’s not really a whole lot different from forming a connection with a living person that we don’t personally know.
They’re what’s known as parasocial relationships, and as they largely exist in our heads, they exist free from the risks inherent in more regular relationships. I mean it’s unlikely that you’ll be rejected or hurt by someone that exists largely in your head, right?
Can these people be inspirations though?
Let’s begin by exploring how people tend to inspire us in the first place. Real life inspirations tend to occur when a person/s prompts us to expand our knowledge and perspectives based upon the input that person has on our lives. So your 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. Which is great.
So can fictional people do that too? Well, the study suggests they most certainly can. Participants in the study were asked to read a short story about a young man running a race. After reading the story they were asked to rate this character on things such as likability and how relevant they were to themselves. 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.
Who was most ’inspirational’?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the close friends were found to be most inspirational. Next up was the favourite TV character, followed by the other TV character and with casual acquaintances bringing up the rear. The key to the inspiration quotient was the similarity of the individual to the participants ideal self.
Broadly speaking it’s a positive sign, as it shows that our potential pool of inspirational characters is almost limitless. As the authors explain.
“[I]mmersion into narrative worlds can create opportunities for growth in which experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of fictional characters prompt readers’ own development,” the authors maintain, pointing out that parasocial relationships can provide role models “especially for those who are temporarily or chronically isolated, those who have limited social relationships, or those with homogenous social groups.”
Who would be the fictional inspiration for your own career?