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Supernatural University: The Rainbow Connection, Or Can You See What I See?

Addressing the emotional fan reaction on the internet to catastrophic events in The Rains Of Castamere episode of HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Game Of Thrones, Smithsonian Magazine tweeted an excellent article on how and why we bond so strongly with fictional characters. The neatest thing – to me, anyway – about the theory put forth in that article is that it would also explain very simply why we Supernatural fans can all watch the same show and yet have such vastly differing, strongly held interpretations of the characters of Sam and Dean, not to mention other characters in the show. Here's a little Supernatural University psychology and physics discussion about why fandom fights about characters will always be fruitless and never resolve into sense.

The Smithsonian article was a short description of a longer 2009 essay by Howard Sklar of the University of Helsinki, which itself was an adaptation of just one chapter of Sklar's 2008 dissertation. The essence of this one portion of Sklar's argument was that we bond emotionally with fictional characters in much the same way as we bond with real people because we come to know both real and fictional people in much the same way, assembling what we think of them based on partial information augmented with intuition drawn from our own personal life experience, in both cases creating our own picture of who they are.

Sklar began by pointing out that our knowledge of real people is necessarily incomplete. We know only the events and behaviors we see directly and what the subject or other people tell us about them (which may or may not be truthful). We don't know everything they experience, feel, or think, so we often don't have a full understanding of why they do particular things or make certain choices.

The situation is the same with fictional characters. We know only what the writers (and actors, for TV, film, or stage) specifically tell us and show us during a book, a show, a play, or a film. Sometimes we see far more personal aspects of a fictional character than we would ever perceive from a real person – we may share a vision of their dreams, for example, or hear their thoughts – but we never see or are told everything. We couldn't be; ironically enough, the story wouldn't feel real to us if it was perfect and complete, because life doesn't work that way.

This is where the fun comes in. Sklar posits that in both situations, we make do with the fragmentary information we have by filling in the gaps with hunches, ideas, feelings, or impressions based on our own experiences with people, our sense of places, and other factors. We apply our own logic and intuition to make largely unconscious assumptions about who people are, how they feel, and why they do things. Thus, the image of characters (and even real people) we each assemble is unique, based on our own lives as well as what we know about theirs. We fill in the missing details of a character's picture with information our own life experience has provided.

That does two things. Sklar's hypothesis was that it provides a powerful sense of reality even to fictional characters because we build them in part from our own reality, the same way we do with real people. Thus, even though we know they're fictional, we invest ourselves in them and make them part of our reality, and so we share their joys and grieve their sorrows and feel personal pain when they are hurt, die, or get cancelled.

My addendum is that it also means each of us sees those characters (and real people) differently from each other in fundamental ways because we're partially constructing them out of our own unique perspective shaped by our individual life experiences.

That tells me that we each see and are emotionally invested in our own unique versions of Sam, Dean, Castiel, Bobby, John, Kevin, Charlie, and every other character from Supernatural. We're all looking at the same character depictions – we're all seeing the same actors in the same images on our TV sets or tablets or computer screens delivering the same dialogue – but essential pieces of who we each understand those characters to be are of necessity different because we're different, and we are each separately creating part of the reality of the characters we see.

None of us are actually seeing the same Sam and Dean, the same way that no two people ever see the same rainbow.

Think about it. A rainbow forms when water droplets in the air refract and reflect light, breaking white rays into a spectrum of color. Two people in a place standing side by side and looking in the same direction will both see a rainbow, but it won't be precisely the same rainbow. Their angles of observation are different, so they're each seeing different rays of light bent by and bounced off of different water droplets. They're seeing different rainbows. Their difference in perception is minor, based simply on the physical location of their eyes, and it doesn't matter because the rainbow is purely an observational event with no emotional involvement. The observers don't need to apply anything from their own experience to complete the picture of the rainbow, so it's qualitatively very different from fans looking at fictional characters.

My point in all of this is that, with respect to fan viewpoints, Sam and Dean are rainbows (but not ones farted by unicorns!). We fans are never going to share a single common understanding of these characters because we're all perceiving different Sams and Deans. Some of us are close to each other in our perceptions, because – like people standing close together and looking at a rainbow – the life experiences and intuitions affecting our perceptions are similar. We tend to agree with each other because we interpret things in similar ways.

But we also interpret things very differently from people with significantly different life experiences and intuition sets. And the kicker is that we're never going to be able to argue each other out of impressions we've developed through our experiential mindsets, precisely because we're emotionally invested in our own realities. The truism is that you can't reason someone out of a position they weren't reasoned into, and our emotional reality has nothing to do with logic or rationality, so making arguments based in logic, reason, or someone else's emotional orientation won't do anything to persuade us to change our minds.

Your perception of Sam and Dean is going to be different than mine. Our differences may be minor, or I may wonder what the hell show you were watching and you may wonder what I was smoking. But precisely because we stand in different places and invest ourselves emotionally in the characters we perceive from those distinct perspectives, we will never be able to argue or logic each other out of what we believe. Logic and reason aren't the point. Belief is. Emotion is. If I can change your emotional basis, I may be able to change your perceptions. But my chance of doing that is vey small, because you've built your understanding unconsciously through all the years of your life, the same way I have.

My bottom line is that fandom disagreements about characters are fundamentally unresolvable. You're going to believe what you believe no matter what I say, unless I happen upon an explanation that fits your emotional reality and both allows and persuades you to change your point of view. Trust me, those occasions are few and far between. I've seen it happen a few times over the course of the show, but not often.

If you take nothing else away from this little article, take this: we all have reasons for what we think and believe about the characters we've all watched and loved. We've all created parts of those characters from our own experience. On that level, we've established the validity of our interpretations of the characters through our own lives. My life isn't the same as yours, and neither of us has experienced the other's. I can't expect you to see things from my perspective, and you can't make me see things through the life of your eyes.

My approach has always been to not engage in debate about my view of the Winchester brothers, because arguing for the sake of argument is a waste of energy and a recipe for frustration and anger. Think about whether you might do the same.

We can still enjoy watching the rainbow together. Look: there's Sam. And there's Dean.

Aren't they gorgeous?

Class dismissed.

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