What authors can learn from Supernatural’s upcoming 14th season
Just this past week, the CW show Supernatural was renewed for its fourteenth season. That’s an incredible run for any show, and an even more remarkable run for a show that most Americans heard about for the first time over a decade ago and forgot about within a few minutes. How in the hell has a show about two monster-hunting brothers managed to last longer than Seinfeld and Cheers?
It’s not that complicated, actually. Allow me to break it down.
First, full disclosure: I am a fan of the show Supernatural, which airs at God only knows what time and day because I just watch it on Netflix later.
Also, I do not think Supernatural is the best show ever made. In fact, there are some episodes/seasons that I found hard to watch and made me wonder when the show would be canceled.
Here’s the thing, though: I started wondering that back at season 6. And the show just got renewed for season 14. And you bet your butt I’m going to watch season 14. I am here for it.
So as snooty as a part of me wants to be about a show that jumped the shark while dressed as a shark riding on the back of a shark, I fully acknowledge that this show is doing something incredibly right to make sure I keep tuning in. And no, it’s not just casting two men who have inspired me on more than one occasion to use the term “Winchester sandwich” in my dream journal — but that is part of it, and I’ll get to that in a minute.
There is a lot to be learned from the longevity of this show, so authors: pay attention. I’ve done some of the thinking for you to extract lessons from this show’s success that you can use to better your writing career. It includes strategies that you can employ both on the page and off.
Lesson 1: Know your audience
Admittedly, Supernatural didn’t seem to know its audience fully until season 3, when it hit its stride and started implementing lesson 6. But it got there eventually and realized it was not a horror show like it wanted to be, but rather, the core of its fans watched despite the horror (seriously, I stopped watching at the Bloody Mary episode toward the start of season 1 and didn’t start again until someone convinced me it stopped being scary).
I assume the writers realized this was a problem too, because they pulled back on the legit scariness and stayed pulled back, and they listen to what their core base wanted, so obviously the number of people saying, “Not scary enough. This show is for snowflakes. ONE STAR!” was insignificant.
They also realized that their audience was drawn to the selflessness of the characters and how many freaking times each one was willing to be stuck in Hell “forever” just to save someone they loved or kinda liked or met one time at a truck stop in Minnesota. Once they’d pinpointed that about their demographic, they could send the Winchesters to Hell or Purgatory or Not-So-Great Heaven as many times as they wanted, stakes be damned, because the audience cared more about self-sacrifice for family than the “will he escape this time?!” tension.
You might be surprised what your readers do and don’t give two shits about, but figuring it out will save you headaches and keep you from accidentally driving away folks who stuck around for themes and messages you developed accidentally and obliterated without a second thought. Which brings me to lesson 2…
Lesson 2: Hone your central message
I can say with moderate certainty that some writer or producer of Supernatural has up on a wall a banner to the effect of “Family is everything.” They look at that shit every time they sit down to type up another episode, whether that episode involves Dean finding a six-month-old hamburger under his bed, eating it, dying, and becomes Dean Angel, only fanning the flames of the Destiel shippers (Dean + Castiel for you newbies), or whether it involves Sam dragging his horse through the Swamp of Sadness while he begs it to #AlwaysKeepFighting.
While the definition of “family” is expanded throughout the series to include close friends (“Winchester sandwich con Cass,” if you were wondering how I referred to it in my dream journal), the message stays the same: Family, however you define it, comes first. The season when the show strays away from that will be the last season of the show. Guaranteed.
Does that have to be the message for your stories? Hell no. But it is a good one. People like that message. A lot. But whatever you pick—money corrupts, each of us is more powerful than we know, old white dudes would get away with anything if it weren’t for those meddling kids (#scoobynatural/#enough)— do it purposefully and don’t stray, or those readers you’ve worked so hard to find, the ones who love the series “no matter what” will feel betrayed and not only bail but become your worst enemies.
Lesson 3: Make the good guys flawed and the bad guys likeable
Part one of this is making sure the good guys aren’t boring and annoyingly self-righteous. Supernatural does this constantly, and they do it in an incredibly sexy way, which plays into lesson 4. For example, Dean tends to keep secrets from Sam in an effort to protect his little bro. Not only does this often lead to trouble and occasionally cause Dean to make questionable decisions with the best intentions at heart, but it makes him kinda tortured, which is dreamy AF no matter how much you try to resist falling prey to that trope.
Then there was the season-ish where Sam literally has no soul. He did some evil shit, and everyone was kind of okay with it because we knew that it was not his fault. He was just suffering the temporary flaw of having no soul — he couldn’t help that! He wanted his soul back! Anyway, fanfic still won’t shut up about Evil Sam, and that was like … thirty-five seasons ago? It felt like thirty-five seasons ago.
Part two of this is making the bad guys likable. This is where most writers fail, honestly. In SPN, even Lucifer is ostensibly a sympathetic character. You love to hate him, sure, but you also shout “fuck yes!” every time he reappears after a long time away. Same with Crowley, the on-again-off-again King of Hell.
In the case of the villains, it is their victimhood that makes them sympathetic. Lucifer has serious daddy issues (talk about abandonment), and Crowley is up to his neck in mommy issues. If you were to weigh the two against each other, though, Crowley is the more likable one, and here’s why: he’s got a mad crush on Dean Winchester. You know who else has a mad crush on Dean Winchester? Everybody, audience included. So magically, boom, viewers can sympathize with Crowley and that makes him a fan favorite.
If you want your series to last for a while, you have to make your protagonists flawed so they have room to not only create problems but to grow as humans (or whatever creature they are). It makes them durable and keeps them from being stagnant. Likewise, if you want to avoid having to create a new villain every book or risk readers feeling like, “Just kill this damn guy already!” you have to make your antagonists sympathetic. Should you kill the King of Hell? Ideally, yeah. But do you want to kill the King of Hell? Not so much, because he provides such witty banter, and just when you think he’s evil all the way through, he shows up to save Dean’s ass in a pinch (maybe also to pinch Dean’s ass, which is what we call “subtexts,” kids). Speaking of pinching Dean’s ass…
Lesson 4: Make your main characters bangable, not only to readers but also to other characters
News flash: sexual tension fuels everything.
Yeah, yeah, this seems like a cheap one, but think about a book series or TV show that you’ve read and watched past the point where they are objectively “good.” I would bet that much of what propels you forward is either a crush on the protagonist or you want to see if the protagonist got to bang that character they’ve had incredible sexual tension with for so long.
Supernatural is not the exception to this rule. Are the fuckable main characters all men? Yes. Does this mean the show can’t keep around a straight male audience? Nope. It was actually two straight men who pressured me through separate efforts to start watching the show. And you know what? They both wanted to bang at least one of the Winchester brothers. They have their favorite (oddly, both lean Sam), proving that it is a thin line between wishing you were a character and wishing you were hitting it with that same character — so thin a line that it often ceases to exist.
By writing characters who erase the line for the readers, regardless of readers’ actual sexual orientation, you will keep them coming back for more. Period.
You can do this by not only making your characters badasses to admire, but also showing other characters actively trying to have sex with them. This is a hamfisted way to go about it, but it works like a charm. Readers might roll their eyes, but they’ll also keep turning pages.
Lesson 5: Create average characters who do extraordinary things
Readers like to see themselves in their main characters. That doesn’t mean your main characters have to spend more time on Twitter than saving the world for the entirety of the series. But it means that at some point, your amazing, badass protagonist must live a life that sort of resembles something attainable to the average reader.
In Supernatural we see that Sam was just your average brainy college kid with dumb hair and a one-dimensional girlfriend we’re supposed to care about before his dreamy big brother snatched him up to go find their missing father. And both of them are your average humans using their natural smarts and incredible good luck to battle monsters. Note that while the “average humans” thing becomes debatable as the seasons progress, the important part is that they start off believing they are just average humans, just as fans believe they themselves are average humans, just as Harry Potter believed he was an average human before Hagrid Kool-Aid-Man-ed into the world’s shittiest AirBNB in the middle of a lake and started Harry on his slow march toward death.
Readers want to go on a journey from where they are — average human — to the exceptional — Cain Dean (not to be confused with Dean Cain). They want to see that the possibility that they’re exceptional but haven’t yet tapped into it exists. Fool’s hope: pass it on.
Lesson 6: Don’t take yourself so seriously, and don’t let the characters do it either
You can only raise the stakes so high, as Supernatural found out when it had Sam and Dean thwart the apocalypse at the end of season 5 only to find out they were renewed for another season. Whoops! Where do you go from the End of Days? How can you make things more serious?
Ya can’t. They tried. They brought in leviathans, they made Sam lose his soul, they even brought Lucifer back for round two. But it was too late. The situation couldn’t become more dire.
So Supernatural did what it could do at that point: it fell into bouts of self-parody. The episode “The Real Ghostbusters” in the middle of season 5, where Sam and Dean wind up at a convention of fans of the book series Supernatural (all about the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester), tested the waters of meta-nonsense with the fans, and holy shit did its fans love it. They baptized their demon-marked babies in it.
While “The Real Ghostbusters” was not the first downright silly episode of Supernatural, it was, in my humble opinion, the most notably batshit insane. It was the point where the writers were just like, “Yeah, fuck it, let’s do this and see what happens. Why not? We are gods of this universe and we’re about to lose our jobs at the end of this season.” So they went self-aware, and it was one of the best episodes of the entire show. They did it again when Sam and Dean stumbled into an alternate reality where they were actors on the show Supernatural, and then there was the time when they ended up working a case at a high school that was putting on a musical production of Supernatural. And so on.
Coupled with the ongoing inside jokes and occasional shameless nods to Destiel and other fan-created hype, Supernatural not only employs enough humor to make it endearing, it reminds fans that it’s just a show. And that gives them a peek behind the curtain, which makes them feel like they’re a part of it, right there alongside Rocky and Bullwinkle, defeating monsters and unnecessarily reminding each other, “you’re my brother.”
The benefits of allowing your readers to peek behind the curtain should not be downplayed. As an author, you’ve made yourself the god of a world that people love. Sharing some of that power (or creating the illusion of sharing the power) gives readers buy-in to the world. They’re not going to abandon a world they feel like they’ve contributed to. Not easily, at least.
Lesson 7: Intertwine your life with your art and be super hamfisted about it
The examples of this in Supernatural are myriad, and many are, or at least appear, accidental. For instance, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, who portray the Winchester brothers, are BFFs in real life. This leads to no end of adorable Instagram posts that are liked hundreds of thousands of times. Jared also met his wife, Genevieve, on the set of the show (the two characters eventually bone). And more recently, Jensen’s wife, Danneel, joined the cast.
If you like Sam Winchester, you like Jared Padalecki. If you like Dean Winchester, you like Jensen Ackles. If you like Castiel, you like Misha Collins. And vice versa. The characters and the actors who play them are so closely connected that it’s straight-up enmeshment. And this works because when fans root for Sam, Dean, and Castiel, they’re also rooting for Jared, Jensen, and Misha. And that’s insanely powerful.
This power goes back to buy in.
If readers are personally invested in your story world, they’re unlikely to abandon it over something trifling. But if readers are personally invested in the real-life people behind the world (that’s predominantly you, the author), not only will they read every last page of this series, but they’ll read every last word you ever write.
Forging a connection between the reader and characters is great, but forging one between reader and author means that not only are people rooting for the characters they like, but they’re rooting for the author to do a great job and be successful. And those people will shout your name from the highest mountaintop if given the chance.
Lesson 8: Your readers are your family, not your fans
Supernatural has thoughtfully shaped its fanbase. It’s created an intentional culture that adheres with the central message. This was stupid genius on someone’s part. Everyone from writers to actors to producers on the show refer to fans as the SPN Family. And family is everything, right? In this case, yes. But also, SPN Family means more job security for the talent than any actor could sanely hope for. And because family is everything, and the fans are family, the Supernatural fanbase is a veritable army for whatever its patriarchs ask of it.
Readers already know they’re fans. It’s not an especially comfortable power structure, though, because it makes readers feel like they’re expendable and unimportant. But if you allow them to feel like they have power in your world, they no longer feel like nobodies and you gotta ditch the god/worshipper dynamic. That doesn’t mean you run constant reader polls to decide what happens next. You’re still in charge, and they should know that. But you’re in charge the way a parent is in charge of her child. The goal is to create an environment where readers feel heard and accepted, and if you can build that culture into one that flows coherently with your series’ central message, you’re going to crush it.
But note that, while the SPN Family would set fire to orphanages en masse if Jared or Jensen so much as hinted it should be done, the leaders of the family would never ask that. In fact, they go out of their way to ask things of their family that make their family members better people, which leads us to lesson 9…
Lesson 9: Let your fans help you and others
When Jared Padalecki was mourning the loss of a friend to suicide in 2015, he started the Always Keep Fighting clothing brand. It incorporated Supernatural designs, inside jokes, and so forth with the words Always Keep Fighting. And the proceeds went toward suicide prevention programs. And he launched it alongside an episode of Supernatural that dealt with suicide. I mean, are you starting to understand how insanely genius and masterfully-orchestrated this all is?! (For the record, that doesn’t mean I think it’s underhanded or disingenuous, just well thought-out.) And guess what happened when moose and squirrel asked their fans to buy some of that swag?
Yeah, the SPN Family went ape shit over it because family is everything, and the SPN Family is made up of good people, or that’s what the SPN Family has been groomed to believe with their heart and soul.
And then, a month later, when Jared had to abandon the press tour because he was not doing so hot and needed to head home to be with his real family (but where is the line actually, since he married Ruby?), the outpouring of support from fans was pathologically insane, the kind of insanity an author dreams of having in a readership.
And this goes back to buy in. As an author, if you’ve opened the door for readers to feel like empowered members of your world, and you ask for help, what you’re doing is showing vulnerability and temporarily handing them more power, and you bet they’re going to soak it up like a dry sponge.
And here’s a secret of humanity: deep down, everyone wants a benevolent ruler. I mean, think about it. Someone else takes care of trouble for you and provides everything you need? SIGN ME UP! And while you’re at it, sign up everyone.
“But Claire, I love my independence! I don’t want a benevolent ruler!”
False. You absolutely do. You only love your independence because you’ve given up hope of a benevolent ruler existing, and independence beats a malevolent ruler.
So when Prime Minister Ackles and President Paladecki tell the SPN Family to go help others, the SPN Family listens and is grateful to have found benevolent rulers who provide them opportunities to not only do good, but also gain a stronger sense of identity within the group by doing so.
And you know to whom your readers will owe that sense of self-satisfaction and increased self-esteem if you heed this lesson? You. They will owe it to you, and you will become the source of it, and they will never want to stray too far from the font.
While this is slightly Machiavellian, so long as you don’t flip it around and then ask your readers to do terrible things, I think it’s acceptable. After all, people look up to plenty of other powerful figures, catering to their every whim, who are not bringing out the best in people. Some folks simply demand a leader to follow, so you might as well be it and be a benevolent one.
Lesson 10: Always keep fighting
This applies to all the other lessons. It’s the nice bow holding it all together. The characters on Supernatural make Always Keep Fighting their creed. No matter what happens, no matter how many times their dead parents and grandparents travel to the present from the past and then get killed off again, no matter how many times Sam goes to Hell or prison or camp or rides again, the Winchesters and their angel sidekick, Castiel, always keep fighting. And so does this show, getting renewed season after season.
And so must your characters if you want your readers to do the same. For the love of Chuck, do not kill off one of your beloved characters without bringing her or him right back. Seriously. You’re not writing literary fiction here. You’re trying to write books that sell. If you think it’s cool to kill off one of your main characters who isn’t the archetypal mentor (who everyone expects to die), then you’re doing it wrong.
But if your characters endure, if they always keep fighting, and if you as an author always keep writing, and when you hit the snags in the road, always keep sharing those things with your readers, allowing them to share in those ups and downs with you, you’re going to have a hit. Not only that, your future projects will be hits because you’ll have a family behind you. Not just your stories, but you.
Just prepare yourself, because if you follow all these lessons, you’ll easily find yourself on book 14 of your series with a loyal and rabid readership who will always keep reading, and that’s a lot of goddamn pressure.
But it’s also a lot of money.