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Three Lessons Supernatural Taught me about Writing Authentic Characters

Image via bouncybunny3 at FanPop [1]
Image via bouncybunny3 at FanPop

If you’d asked me in January what my 2016 New Year’s Resolution was, I would have told you that it was to (finally) watch Supernatural, the WB series just going into its twelfth year. Set the bar low, right? Still, I wasn’t convinced I’d actually achieve it. I’d been hearing about how great the series was for the last eight years, and hadn’t managed it.

Forces conspired to make sure I had some extra time in early March, however, and one night I sat down to watch the first episode. Long story short, I watched all eleven seasons in a six week period. Then I fell into a bereft state, knowing the journey was, if not over, at least suspended. So I lost myself in YouTube videos of Supernatural Conventions, read articles, found other Supernatural fans to fangirl out with, and exhorted friends to watch it, just so I’d be able to talk to them about it. In June, when my obsession had died down enough to allow a few rational thoughts to bounce around my head, I started to wonder… why?

Why had the show affected me so much? There are other series I like; I have favourite movies and characters, but Supernatural hit me like a ton of  emotional belonging. And so I started to break it down.

The premise is right up my alley: brothers fighting supernatural monsters to avenge their mother’s death. But that’s not enough on its own. The story arcs are engaging. The soundtrack is incredibly well done — so much so that there’s a particular piece of piano music that inspires in me instant, Pavlovian sobbing. But good music does not an engaging TV series make. No, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what makes Supernatural great is the characters; or, rather, the way the characters are written, directed, and acted. They are some of the most authentic characters you’ll find on the screen. So, even on those occasions when the meta-story wandered off and got a bit lost (I’m looking at you, seasons six and seven), the characters kept me coming back again and again.

With that worked out, I went back and watch it again — yes, all eleven seasons — and, this time, I paid more attention to the writing; to the way the characters were give deep, emotional, authentic life. These are the top three things I noticed.

Oh, one more thing: The title of this post is something of a misnomer. None of the following points were new to me, much as I suspect they won’t be new to you. So I didn’t so much “learn” them from Supernatural, as I saw them brought to life in a way that resonated with me and will, I hope, make my writing stronger. But “Three Lessons on Writing Authentic Characters that are Perfectly Illustrated in Supernatural” doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly so well.

And so, with no further ado…

1. Characters rarely say what they actually think and feel.

Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) in their Impala.
Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) in their Impala.

As you know, one of the most annoying types of dialogue is “as you know” dialogue, where one character says something to another solely for the purpose of informing the audience.

One of the things I love about the characters in Supernatural is that, not only do the characters not do this, they also rarely, if ever, reveal their true thoughts and feelings — at least, not until they’re pushed into it through either intense fear or anger. There are often moments where the Dean and Sam are cruising around in their Chevy Impala, both with body language screaming “I’m in pain!” or “I’m scared!”, but not a line of dialogue is exchanged. The audience knows what’s going on in each character’s head — we can see it in the set of their jaws and the looks in their eyes — but they don’t talk about it. And that tension is exquisitely, painfully beautiful.

Part of the magic of those scenes lies with the writers, and part with the actors. We don’t have the luxury of visuals when we’re writing novels and short stories, but that doesn’t mean the lesson isn’t valid. As they say, actions speak louder than words.

2. A character’s past experiences informs her present choices.

Flashback: Dean (Ridge Canipe) and Sam (Colin Ford)
Flashback: Dean (Ridge Canipe) and Sam (Colin Ford)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Lisa Cron over the years, it’s the above sentence. But, generally, I can’t stand flashbacks in movies or TV shows. They’re all-too-often trite, overdone and, unnecessary.

Except when they’re not.

We don’t really get flashbacks in Supernatural until season three, and, by that time, the characters are well established. The purpose of the flashbacks is not to explain who the characters are or where they’ve come from — that’s done, and done well, in the present day stories. No, the purpose of flashbacks in Supernatural is to give context and depth to the emotionally-based decisions the characters make in the present day.

So often, I’ve heard writers — and writing teachers — talk about flashbacks as though they’re the second most evil thing you could include in your story. (The first, of course, would be adverbs.) And then there’s the old chestnut about “no backstory in the front half”. But, really, the best rule to follow when it comes to flashbacks is simply: No poorly motivated or executed flashbacks. Ever.

3. Antagonists don’t think of themselves as “bad guys.”

Mark Sheppard (Crowley), Mark Pellegrino (Lucifer), and James Patrick Stuart (Dick Roman).
Mark Sheppard (Crowley), Mark Pellegrino (Lucifer), and James Patrick Stuart (Dick Roman).

We all know that the antagonist is the hero of his own story. Stories where the antagonist is a two-dimensional figure of monolithic evil are so three centuries ago. But knowing it and executing it are two very different things.

Supernatural does a wonderful job of creating antagonists that are every bit as authentic and popular as the protagonists. I’m not talking about the “monster of the week” type bad guys, who are more henchmen of evil than anything else, but the more long-term story-arc antagonists. So, how do the writers do it?

Firstly, every antagonist has their own backstory. They have a reason for what they’re doing. They’re not stupid or self-destructive (unless that’s part of their backstory), and they don’t do evil things for no reason. And, more importantly, they really don’t care about the protagonists at all — at least, not until the protagonists get in their way.

At every Convention, the actors who play these antagonists get asked the same question: “What does it feel like to play the bad guy?” And I think the answers they give reveal a great deal about how to approach writing an authentic antagonist:

Mark Sheppard: He refers to Crowley as “the last sane man in the universe”. If everyone just did what he said, things would run smoothly, and there would never be any problems.

Mark Pellegrino: He doesn’t see Lucifer as a bad guy at all — he’s a guy who was betrayed by his family, and he wants revenge. Sure, Lucifer takes it a bit further than most of us would, but he’s understandable. He’s sympathetic.

James Patrick Stuart: “The ironic thing is that I am the good guy. They’re the bad guys. To me it’s the story of a couple of pr*cks who won’t do what I tell them to do.”

If we approach writing antagonists with that perspective, it will go a long way to making sure they’re as authentic as they can possibly be.

Are you a Supernatural fan? What are your favourite movies and TV shows for lessons on writing? Or, what do you think it the most important thing when creating authentic characters?

About Jo Eberhardt [2]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.