I’ve spent most of my life relating to fictional characters, and I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. It happens with everything from books to TV shows, from movies to musicals. My fangirling knows no bounds, and I find myself going through the emotional spectrum with the characters I grow to love. When they’re hurting, I hurt. When they’re happy, I’m happy for them. I get so involved that I’m usually not even aware I’m doing it until I’m curled up in giddiness or distress and hear my boyfriend say, “I can feel you all the way over here.” I could write an essay on how many characters I’ve related to over the years, but today I’m going to focus on just two of them: Sam and Dean Winchester from the TV show “Supernatural.”
For the uninitiated, “Supernatural” is a show about Sam and Dean Winchester, brothers who travel across the country and hunt monsters. At the end of season three, Dean is literally being dragged to Hell. In the very first episode of season four, I was faced with the slightly alarming realization that I actually understood how Dean Winchester felt. Dean is a selfless older brother who has spent his whole life taking care of Sam. So when Sam dies at the end of season two (there’s really a lot of dying in this show), Dean would do anything to save his brother. “Anything” includes selling his soul to a demon in exchange for Sammy’s life, giving Dean one year left to live. This brings us back to the first episode in season four. He has no idea how he’s alive and spends most of the episode trying to figure out what yanked him out of Hell. Enter Castiel, an angel. When Cas tells Dean that he’s the one who pulled him out of Hell, Dean is understandably disbelieving. He eventually gives in, and all he wants to know is why. Why him? What makes him so special? Castiel looks at Dean, this man he rescued from Hell and put back together again, and says, “You don’t think you deserve to be saved.”
The way Cas looks at him when he realizes that’s exactly what Dean thinks and how Dean’s expression shifts to reflect that truth – that’s what broke me. This scene struck me so hard at the time that it took my breath away. I have been Dean Winchester. Sometimes I still am Dean Winchester. I’ve never had high self-esteem. Dean doesn’t see himself the way Sam or Cas or even I see him, and that’s the kicker: I don’t see myself how anyone else sees me either. But, like Dean, I don’t allow myself to see myself the way they see me. In this moment, I understood exactly why my friends got so upset when I talked down on myself. Because while I was talking to my television, telling Dean that of course he deserved to be saved, I realized people were telling me the same thing.
While I always found myself relating more to Dean rather than Sam, there was a moment at the end of season eight where I really felt as connected to him as I did to his brother. There’s a lot leading up to this moment, but in short—Sam is trying to complete these trials that will effectively close the gates of Hell and prevent demons from getting on earth anymore. He’s at the very last one, but Dean finds out if Sam completes the trials, Sam will die. He relays this information to Sam, who replies with—and it still pains me to think about this as I type it—“So?” Like Dean, Sam can only see all the bad he’s done. He sees sacrificing himself for the good of the world as a way to atone for all his sins. He does not see in himself what his brother sees in him. He feels he’s let him down too many times and in too many ways to ever come back from it.
Now, there was a time when I legitimately wanted to die. I wanted to die so much so that I planned it out, divvied up my belongings, and composed a list of people who deserved to get a note when I went. But, like Sam, I didn’t think my death would matter. I focused on all my failures, all the pain I’d caused my family when they found out I was self-harming in high school, and all the ways I wasn’t living up to my own expectations. I didn’t see any reason why it would matter if I died. I was Sam Winchester. I was Sam, and it hurt so much to see a character I loved feel the way I was feeling. Luckily for me, I had more than one “Dean” around to help me see what I could not see myself. Despite all Sam’s mistakes, and despite all my own, we both were still loved and valued. People wanted to keep us around for a reason.
I cried so hard during that scene because all I wanted to do was hug Sam and tell him he was not defined by his mistakes. I wanted that for him because it had been given to me when I needed it most, even if my friends didn’t know I was feeling that way at the time. I realized that if I didn’t want this outcome for Sam, I shouldn’t want it for myself either.
I’ve often wondered why I let myself get so attached to these characters – and then I think of Sam and Dean. I think of them along with the many other characters I’ve found myself relating to over the years, and it all makes sense to me. Ultimately, it’s because they give me hope. And who couldn’t use a little more hope in their lives? I can see a piece of me in their darkness, but I can also see a piece of me in their light. They make me believe in good in the face of evil, even if the “evil” is within myself. They become real to me because I allow myself to see them as real people and to see myself reflected within them. They help me realize I’m worth so much more than I think, and if I didn’t care about them so much, I might not make that connection. And if that’s not the most beautiful thing about fiction, I don’t know what is.