Siim Sorokin, fresh from becoming a Doctor of Cultural Sciences, dedicated his thesis to the ways in which people relate to fictional characters, more specifically those from the TV show “Breaking Bad.”
Sorokin found his way toward the topic of science fiction in rather mundane circumstances: he has been an avid follower of TV series himself, according to Universitas Tartuenis, the journal of the University of Tartu.
He was especially enchanted by the series’ aspect of serialization (being a constant flow of events), as well as the long-lasting, nuanced building of the world and the characters in it. “In other words, you’re watching a show and an episode ends, but really it’s no end at all, but a component of the show indeed – a piece of the puzzle,” Sorokin said.
Soon he discovered that there’s an active and substantive discussion going on over the more popular TV shows, especially in the linguistic space of the English language. Sorokin started to follow the discussion too, after watching each new episode.
“One could say I that didn’t have a full viewing experience, if I didn’t know what people were talking about afterwards,” he said.
According to Sorokin, one of the reasons for choosing “Breaking Bad” was the important position the show (and how it was received) holds in the history of US TV production. Another reason was the way the series was being discussed on Internet messageboards, where one could spot people gradually becoming linked to the characters.
The Peculiarities of Relating
The first glitch appeared right in the beginning of the study, as the viewers’ discussion looked like they were discussing the behavior of a close friend or, say, a neighbor. “But the scientific literature was claiming that it should be the other way – both the viewers of films and TV, as well as book readers, were supposed to relate to themselves – to model their experience in the mold of the characters. They were supposed to see themselves in a character, to use it as a crutch in an adventure game, thus experiencing forbiddendesires and passions,” Sorokin described.
Because of these things, he had to expand the scope of the study and work out a theoretical framework of terms.
For example, a concept of parasocial integration from the field of media psychology helped in putting into words the main argument of the work: the everyday-speak one can find while reading the discussions on blogs and boards dedicated to TV depends on the (para)social connections that viewers develop with narrative persons.
“I deliberately chose the word ‘person’ to highlight that viewers-commenters clearly take such a position toward the characters that implies that the latter are like ‘other persons’ – individuals who are autonomous and independent in their own world, and to whom one can adapt their own personal history and everyday reality,” Sorokin said.
Such argumentation created a situation wherein there wasn’t much use of more or less solipsistic previous discussions, those turned inward into human consciousness, as, based on those, the character (as well as lot of other things, including the real world and people in it) wouldn’t amount to more than a mere idea in the mind of the receiver.
Sorokin needed a theoretical background system that would accept the existence of both outside world and the flesh-and-blood “other person” without the shadow of philosophical skepticism.
“So, I finally arrived at a really lengthy discussion of ideas and matter – something that probably no doctoral study could embrace in a satisfying manner. So this really specific argumentwas excluded from my thesis, as well – its inclusion hadn’t actually been my goal anyway.
In spite of this, I can say that these background arguments played a part in molding my thinking, the development of my thesis, and maybe even its final conclusions,” Sorokin said.
Additionally, he considered it necessary to touch on the concepts of realitization and narrcept. Realitization refers to the phenomenon that in the communal conversation of the Internet, the characters being observed are implicitly being taken as narrative persons – other persons whose lives are being watched.
“Thus, the self-centered question ‘What would I do if I was (the main character of the series) Walter White?’ would have no place in this conversation,” Sorokin said.
Narrcept is a composite term, put together from two words: “narrative” and “pre-reception.” It refers to the perception (of the other) that is being narratively delivered in a digital conversation.
Such perception of the other is based on the assumption that insofar as there is a common sense conception of the perceivable outside world, there also implicitly exists a conception of a perception always functioning as directed toward the other (for example, the other person). From here, it’s logical to suspect that a similar attitude transfers to the ways we give meaning to so-called fictional persons.
Siim Sorokin used the term “beacon” as well – the narrcepts of the commenters have many worlds hidden inside, with the beacon aligning them, helping to specify and describe them analytically.
Dangers of Relating
Getting lost in the world of a series has its dangers too, as there happens a sort of osmosis of factual societal realities into the process of experiencing fiction. For example, Anna Gunn, the female lead of “Breaking Bad,” received negative comments. In addition to hate groups on Facebook, the actress even received death threats.
“I think that the approaches where the blurring of the line separating the reality and fiction are explained away as psychopathology or naive realism aren’t necessarily making it possible to tell the whole story,” Sorokin said.
According to him, many such “darker” aspects are both caused and amplified by the inequalities and hegemony present in the society. That’s why it’s important that the analysis of not only the narratives but also what the viewers are saying would be critical and socially sensible when it comes to such vital topics. That’s why fiction and its reception should be taken as extension of everyday life.
“Extension, not reflection,” Sorokin stressed. His thesis could contribute to this, as a discussion of fictional characters as communally realitized narrative persons could throw some novel, context-responsive light at the previous practices and theoretics.
The Effect of Binge Watching
Siim Sorokin stresses the specifics of serialized narrative. Modern, “complex” televisual narratives such as “Breaking Bad,” a daily soap opera, and Charles Dickens’ stories published in serialbooklets all have one thing in common – the anticipation they produce.
In addition to that, between parts of the series, the viewer is prone to think what might happen next, which plot twists the authors will choose, and if the choices made this far are compatible with the history of a narrative person. All of this is like a chance to contribute to an authoring process accessible to everyone.
But the phenomenon of binge watching – when the viewer doesn’t wait for the next part of a series, instead devouring all episodes, or many of them, one after another – is detrimental to having the experience just described. “I think that it suppresses the experience of viewing and discussing a serial narrative. We are talking about compressing the months-long season of a TV show into, say, a single day. I don’t think that both experiences amount to the same thing,” Sorokin said. He saw some ways his work could be helpful in the Estonian TV world. “It might be useful for local critics of TV and film, as it would most definitely be exciting and encouraging if the local popular TV shows amassed such digital narrative cultures and communities. Sometimes the process needs a little help to reach fruition,” he said.