Parasocial Relationships With Fictional Characters

One of the references in this lecture, which compares and contrasts Twilight by Stephanie Myer with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, is Greenfield’s Absent Minded Heroine: Or, Elizabeth Bennett Has A Thought, an analysis which looks very much at the idea of absence: how to fall in love when the person isn’t actually there. It looks at the idealisation of another person, love at first sight, and at the unreliability of appearance.

Here’s something I never noticed about Pride and Prejudice until it was pointed out to me: Lizzie only falls in love with Darcy when he is not there. Between her rejection of his proposal when apparently he was the ‘last’ man she would marry and then his reappearance at her house having solved the problem, Greenfield has worked out that Lizzie has seen him for perhaps three hours total. Yet she has fallen in love with him. She builds her epistemology upon how things appear, and it’s only when there’s no appearance there that she learns what Darcy is really like.

Darcy, on the other hand, falls in love with Elizabeth when he sees her in her natural state, after tramping across a muddy field. Likewise, when Elizabeth sees Darcy again after reassessing his character he is walking across a field (unlike in the BBC adaptation in which case we have Colin Firth in a wet shirt — note that this scene isn’t in the book — Darcy simply walks across the field towards them).

Similarly with Bella Swan in Twilight, it’s when she’s being tracked by a group of guys intent on raping her and is saved by Edward (who takes her to a coffee shop) that Bella is separated from her ditzy friends (who are off shopping) and falls in love. Bella and Edward are now alone, and later they’re alone again, among the flowers in the woods. In both stories, the natural environment is important and symbolic: Get rid of artificiality then let nature take its course.

A storyline of Love at First Sight is too corny for most modern novelists, so the modern romantic storyline is likely to start with some sort of misunderstanding.

Lizzie Bennett needs only three hours to fall in love with Darcy. Edward needs only to ask Bella to sit with him in the canteen and wow, they’re in love.

How gendered is this? The girl has to wait for the boy to solve the problem until they can live happily ever after.

A subsequent lecture from the same series is called Romance and Vampires. The first part of this lecture looks at the evolution of the vampire as a character in fiction, from the vampire as monster right through to the modern vampire, who is sexualised and sympathetic. After talking about the significance of Twilight and the author’s Mormon background upon the storyline, Beagley talks about The Readers of Vampire Fiction and how Twilight has led to a critical revolution:

Over 100 million copies of Twilight have been sold. People never thought Harry Potter would be knocked off the top of the best sellers list. [I’m pretty sure the publishers never expected that either — otherwise the first book in the Twilight series might have been more thoughtfully copy-edited at a line level.]

Twilight Fandom

Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of by the folk.

Henry Jenkins, Director of Media Studies, MIT

Myer didn’t set out to write such a popular series [and says the idea for the story came to her as a sort of divine inspiration], but the response online from fans has been huge. The mechanism is the fansite, to which anyone can register. Users of the fansite can blog, share and ask questions and write their own fan fiction. Fans are creating their own parts of the story, then posting them online for other fans to read. A lot of the fanfic includes the raunchy sex scenes which Myer left out. [This indirectly lead to Fifty Shades Of Grey, another phenomenon.] Stephanie Myer is happy to embrace and actively support some of the actual fansites. Users tend to use pseudonyms. We don’t know who is male, who is female, who is young or old. This anonymity is empowering. There are also a lot of negative responses on fansites as well. My Twilight Purgatory is an anti-fansite on Tumblr.


According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 80% of adolescents use online social network sites, 38% share original creative work online, and 21% remix their own transformative works, inspired by others’ words and images (Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, & Purcell, 2010; Lenhart, Madden, Smith, Purcell, Zickuhr, & Rainie, 2011).

Reading Today Online

In the past five years, this sort of fan activity has lead to a critical revolution leading to a new question: What is a reader and what is an author? The line has completely blurred.  These fans are ‘prosumers’ – consumers who produce. The reader and the author are starting to blend and are now the same thing.

Myer’s own website lists (at the time of the lecture) 488 different fansites all about Twilight. They’re even arranged by different languages. There are at least 30 different languages. (There are plenty more unrecognised fansites.)

Peer Reviewed, Schmeer Reviewed

Most of it is ‘gush and squeal’ about Edward or Jacob, and how these characters are so hot. But there is also a lot of serious commentary and worth reading. Why do we at universities make such a fuss of peer reviewed, serious academic literature when the blogs on the fansites are talking about the same things? This is causing a huge change in the nature of literary commentary.

Why Do Some People Get So… Fanatic About Fictional Characters?

Fictional Attraction may clear a lot of this up. This very interesting podcast from Stuff Mom Never Told You covers some of the research that has been carried out regarding what’s known as ‘Para social relationships’ or PSR. The same stories keep coming up: Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and of course in YA book world, Harry Potter and Twilight. These are stories in which a certain segment of fans are at the extreme end of involved — they may write fanfiction or talk about the characters on fan boards across the Internet, or with their real-life friends, reading the books or watching the shows over and over again. People most likely to develop these para social relationships with fictional characters are those going through a transition (so, teenagers) and the lonely (so, elderly people). But there is also some gendered difference: people whose relationship style  is avoidant are less likely to be interested in forming attachments with fictional characters either, but for women, being in a secure relationship makes her more likely to become interested in fictional relationships, whereas for men the state of being anxious about one’s real world relationships makes him more likely to seek out fictional ones. Fictional relationships are not necessarily a bad thing, and correlate with extroversion. They generally should be considered an extension of social life rather than a problematic competitor.

However, I did last week watch a documentary about Mechanophiles (My Car Is My Lover, 2008). Disturbing at times, these men show that humans have a huge capacity for love, but also for imagination, specifically for imagining people (and in this case objects) can love us in return.

Parasocial Relationships

One-sided relationships we have with people we don’t really know, such as celebrities and podcast hosts, are called parasocial relationships.

Fan fiction is collaborative.