I know I owe some of you some replies -- and I will get to those -- but I wanted to post something lighter and Show-related to get my mind off my heavy heart. And talking about Dean is always a great escape. :)
Several weeks back, my friend thatgirlsix asked me to tell her why Dean Winchester was my hero -- however, she had some caveats. She wanted me to think of Supernatural as a book series rather than a TV show, and talk about Dean as one of the book's central characters. Put the parameter around the response that she had never seen Jensen bring Dean to life.
At first I thought that would be easy, but as I began to write it out I realized how much Jensen brings to the character of Dean, breathing life into words on a page and hooking me with a glance, a sigh, a grin, a tear. Still, I've written over thirty SPN-centric fics...I reasoned I couldn't have done that if the character hadn't also compelled me in some way. I ended up writing her a four-page, stream of consciousness-type reply (I know...you're shocked) and as October 8th is still a ways off, and I'm not quite ready to start posting "From Yesterday," I thought I'd share it with you.
Let me be sure to say that this: I'm in no way intending to malign or belittle the character of Sam by focusing on Dean in this character-ramble. As far as the Show is concerned, there can't be one brother without the other. I'm just taking a look at Dean and why I respond to him as I do. I would love your thoughts on the subject. It would be nice to chat about our Show for a bit mid-hiatus. :)
To start, I need to qualify what I mean by 'hero.' When I say that Dean is my hero, I'm looking at that label more like a muse -- the heroic image I most enjoy writing and reading about. There are heroes one aspires to be more like, who selflessly put others before themselves, who lay down their lives for the sake of their fellow man or who make decisions, take action, that ultimately change the face of the world we live in. Firefighters, soldiers, writers, little old ladies on a bus, the occasional politician.
Then there are the characters who embody that ideal and yet at the same time are damaged enough they are, somehow, relatable. We see a piece of ourselves in those characters and, in a way, that piece makes them more real to us than the actual, real-life heroes we might want to emulate. Those 'heroes' of story can be beaten and broken (figuratively or literally) but they go on. They continue. They fight and persevere. I think that's what makes them heroic.
For me, Dean is in the second category, not only because he’s, y’know, not real, but also because there’s a part of him I relate to. And a part of him I sometimes don’t like because I relate to it – because I don’t like it in myself. But it’s that very part that hooks me and hangs on tight.
There have been other characters who have done similar things to me – prompted me to want to create someone just like them because they became so real, so alive to me as I took part in their journey that I didn’t want the story to end. They grabbed me for different reasons, too. Not just because they were pretty, or could handle a weapon, or take a punch. Not just because they said clever, witty things, or were great in the sack. Not just because they’d been forced to grow up fast and fight for every moment of peace they’ve ever experienced.
For example, Atticus Finch was my first literary hero. I was captured by his way of being quietly capable, of seeing equality where others saw unbalance, of saying words like “unmitigated temerity”…. You get the idea. There have been many since then – in books, movies, TV but none of them captured me the way that Dean has. Perhaps it was just a perfect storm of real life circumstance, story, and acting. But I haven’t really looked away since.
There are five basic elements in any hero I gravitate toward: loyalty, bravery, self-sacrifice, humor, and a past. Dean has all five in technicolor. His bad traits -- because, yes, there are some -- only serve to enhance the draw of his good ones. Yes, he drinks too much, sleeps around, and is stubborn to a fault. Yes, his self-sacrifice could be seen as selfish as he would rather be hurt than deal with anyone he loves being hurt. Yes, he may lack faith and not see his own value nor the reason others value him. And yes, he can be a dick.
But behind every one of those bad traits runs a river of loyalty, bravery, self-sacrifice, humor, and a past that brings to light his (justifiable) reasons for acting the way he does at times.
The challenge with answering this question is the caveat that I have to separate the actor from the character. In this case, with this character, I think the actor actually brings the individual on paper to life. He breathes life into what might otherwise be just a sad cautionary tale. But I’m going to give it a go, because I’ve written multiple stories with this character and while I have the image of the actor in my head to help with imagining facial expressions and reactions, I like to think that the part of the character I bring to life in my stories is the true soul that drew me in at the start of it all before I knew who Jensen was.
Any story will describe their characters; we are visual people, we play the story in our minds and insert our own visionary depictions of the characters with or without aid of actor's images. When I write, I actually pick actors to ‘play’ my characters (in my mind) so that I can describe what I’m seeing. So, let me get the base attraction out of the way, thinking of the character as if he were to appear in a story without anything except words to bring him to life.
Dean is good-looking. Even without the actor playing him.
To be this charismatic person who is able to talk his way into different women’s beds, or convince law-enforcement officials that he’s the fake persona he’s claiming to be, or pull on the heart-strings or engender the trust of various individuals he encounters doing his job, he must be attractive to some degree. Laws of storytelling pretty much require there to be something visually appealing about the character for people to react to him as they do.
I’ve never read an SPN script, but if I were to write a script for the character of Dean, I would describe his physicality. For example, I'd say his eyes were mercurial. Aesthetically pleasing – their color depending on the writer’s desire, but green works just fine – with the ability to draw one in or shut one out with a blink. Giving him freckles adds to an illusion of youth and vulnerability, and a strong, squared jaw with insanely kissable lips simply make men want to be him and women want to bed him. It’s the character's ability to use those good looks to his advantage that make them toe-curling.
Moving on from the 'pretty' to the practical, then.
Dean is incredibly capable. He knows weapons, he knows cars, and therefore his hands and body reflect this knowledge. He fingers are dexterous, his grip solid so that he can field dress a weapon, throw a knife, overpower an opponent in a brawl. He completely rebuilt a classic car; that takes some muscle right there. He’s on the road all the time, doesn’t have a lot of money, has to be ready to run at a moment’s notice, so his body would reflect that build.
He past shows that he has been wounded on many occasions, without a lot of medical attention, so he would bear scars and scars are the footprint of stories. Stories make people interesting and because he can’t tell the truth each time his scars are called into question, he has to be a skilled liar. Not only that, to get the information he needs access to in order to do his job, he has to be able to keep his lies straight and tell ones close enough to the truth that he doesn’t set off the wrong person’s bullshit meter.
The amount of information he’s had to store in his head just to survive tells us that Dean is smart – while perhaps not book-smart, or Stanford-quality smart, he is intelligent enough to manipulate people, to determine the source of danger, and to remember lore and spells and ways of repelling supernatural baddies. His street-smarts are what keep him alive; he justified long ago that he didn’t need book-smarts for that and didn’t bother to over-burden himself with “unnecessary” learning. He can keep those around him alive; that’s all that matters to him.
Dean wears masks – the outward image he projects in a given scenario to either protect or defend. And even with those planted, purposeful masks, he has his tells. A lift of an eyebrow, curve a lip. The way he pushes his lips out when he’s doubtful or rolls them against his teeth when he’s thinking. The way his eyes slip from soulful and pleading to dead and cold depending on the situation. This is a character who has survived the unimaginable, who sacrificed everything, who has only one purpose in life: his family. And if that family is in trouble or hurting, his eyes – his whole self – is dangerous. If that family is hurting him, he can’t keep the pain from bleeding out of his eyes.
I can see all of that even without the actor’s portrayal because Dean is the emotional heart of the overall story. He’s the one who remains real inside a hurricane of impossible. He is gravity, the one component of the story the others anchor themselves to so that they don’t spin out of control. No matter how contrived or (dare I say it) ridiculous another character’s storyline might seem, if they’re in any way connected to Dean, it becomes plausible.
Dean is funny, irreverent, and in some ways, rather childlike. He’s both too old and too young. Circumstances forced him to grow up much too fast and therefore he missed out on an actual childhood where innocence is slowly, gradually replaced by the hard-edges of understanding and reality. He never really got a chance to create his own persona: he’s an amalgamation of his father, other hunters he observed, and his own natural inclinations. He likes Led Zeppelin because his father liked Led Zeppelin. He loves the Impala because she was his father’s car. He wore his father’s leather jacket and lives by the rules in his father’s journal.
It’s not until his father dies that Dean is forced to question why he is who he is or does what he does; that exploration of self usually comes when one is a teen or maybe early twenties. Because of this, Dean finds delight in little things that most people seem to take for granted: the hum of wheels on a highway, pie, music, his brother next to him, and, sometimes, even pretending to be someone he’s not. He finds enjoyment in escape – like movies, women, alcohol. His reality is too real; the only way to cope is to compartmentalize and ignore while focusing on something else. That's definitely something I can relate to.
The element of this character that I love the most is the same element that I dislike most: his self-sacrifice for the sake of those he loves. Friends and family. He's incredibly loyal and that loyalty has torn him up on occasion over the course of his story thus far. Dean would and has done anything to keep his family safe. In his mind, he isn’t important, they are. We’ll never know if this is learned or born in him as it became his reality when he was too young to have done anything different. He cannot be alone and be happy. In point of fact, it’s very hard for him to be alone, period.
All of these things combine to make a character that I drink in like water, a character I simply can't get enough of and have actively sought out ways to extend the time spent with him -- through writing and reading stories. No matter where canon ultimately takes Dean's story, the aspects of his character I've described so far are enough that I'll keep coming back to him as the benchmark by which I measure future muses.
I can’t think about Dean without thinking about Sam. They are very individual characters, but their journey is so intertwined that one without the other would end up a different character – and possibly not the hero I gravitate toward. There are aspects about Dean that stand alone, separate from his brother, but the core of him has a hard-line connection to Sam, to family, to purpose.
It’s this part of his story that is, in my opinion, truly tragic. Dean can’t see his own worth unless it’s reflected back from another. The aspect of his "heroic-ness" – the way he will metaphorically throw himself on the grenade to save Sam – that should be appreciated and rewarded is, more often than not, taken for granted and expected. When he does think of himself it never turns out well. Just about every satisfactory, happy moment in his life has come from putting himself last. Doesn't mean that's what he always chooses to do; just means that it's the easiest path to happiness for him. And it's one of the things I like least about him primarily because it hits way too close to home.
The constant core of this character is easy to love, no matter where the storyline takes him. I think the journey of this hero that I most enjoyed was following him from the pilot through going to Hell. I related to his need for family, his centering himself on their safety and needs, his constant search for approval and acceptance.
Returning from Hell, learning of angels and his and Sam’s destiny as vessels tilted the focus a bit. He was still gravity, still the character willing to take the bullet, make the tough call. But his damage went deeper. It wasn’t just a lost childhood, it was a lost life. It was facing up to his dark side.
In a slightly twisted way that really resonated with me, Dean got pleasure from his self-sacrifice. It made him feel good to be the one to stand between Sam and danger. For one, it was easier to deal with his own hurt than to deal with Sam being hurt. Not only that, he was doing his job; he was good at taking care of Sam, at saving people, at hunting things, and he gained satisfaction from a job well-done.
But how can he be that person – that hero – and also be the person who gave in to the pain of hellish torture and began torturing souls himself? The journey of the character from the grave to Stull was a darker, harder path but just made the soul of him shine that much brighter. The character was still the human, gravitational focal point of the story, but now he had a layer of self-loathing that hadn’t been as prevalent before.
Prior to Hell, he struggled to see his worth; post Hell, he deemed himself without worth.
But despite that, he pushed on. That’s what makes him a hero – not that he sacrificed, not that he suffered, but that he persevered. He fought to live the only way he knew how, the best way he knew how. He kept those around him alive as long as he could, and when he lost soldiers in the field he felt every one of their deaths. He stood up for what he knew to be right even when he was standing alone and he shielded his brother for as long as he could before he was physically taken down.
At the end of Season (or, in this analogy, 'Book') five, Dean shined for me, whole and heroic. And it had nothing to do with his lashes or his freckles or his kissable lips. It had nothing to do with his bowed-legs, his taste in music, or his way of making denim, plaid, and leather look sexy. It had nothing to do with his love for pie or little-boy sense of humor.
It had everything to do with the persona that we strive to be more like, the things about a character that make us want to be better people. It had to do with the things you like most about yourself and the things you want to hide from the world. He was all those things, though he'd lost everything that mattered to him. He was truly my muse.
After Stull, though, this character, this hero, floated. Were this simply a book series and not a show, I would have skimmed several chapters in books 6, 7, and 8, wondering what the author was doing with my hero, the character that anchors me and the others to this story. I saw him shining once more at the start of book 8 after he survived Purgatory, but he faltered again, almost as if he were lying in wait.
The self-sacrificing aspect of his heroism had always been to put himself in front of the bullet, not pull his brother away from the barrel of the gun. He’d been active before, but I was seeing him become passive.
That part of this journey has kept me going primarily because I know what this character is capable of and what I believe I’ll see in him once again. He's no less heroic; he’s just been a bit shadowed – not by Sam; by the weight of the story as a whole. But he’s worth the investment into finding out how he will overcome once more.
He’s found a way to accept the darkness inside of him – channeling it and using it in some cases. He’s grown older, finding his lack of a childhood, his uncertainty of his own persona something that, while not overcome, he can at least feel comfortable living with. And he’s still fighting the good fight. He’s been to Hell, he’s been beyond Hell, and he’s still standing, his soul real and clean and strong shining from his mercurial eyes.
So, I will keep following my hero's story, see how he bends, where he breaks, and how he (to quote Hemingway) becomes stronger in the broken parts. And I will revel in the emotional anchor he gives everyone around him and the grip he keeps on his innate loyalty, bravery, self-sacrifice, and humor.
Not sure if that answered the question, but it's what I see when I look at the character of Dean, and it's why I'm compelled to write about him -- and to create characters who emulate him.
So...thoughts? *braces self*