The Castiel Problem

Actor Misha Collins portrays our unfortunate angel  — Image from Wikimedia Commons

(Warning: Since this is about Supernatural and its approach to plot and characterization, there’ll be unmarked spoilers all the way up to Season 9.)

While I’m posting disclaimers, I should include another biggie: I really love Supernatural. It’s a fun show, I watch it every week, and Castiel is by far my favorite character.

That said, he’s also the character I would probably change the most dramatically if I was writing the show, if not cut him out entirely. And here’s why:

Same verse, same as the first

Castiel has a bit of a cycle: He trusts the wrong person, does bad things on their behalf thinking it’s For The Greater Good, is betrayed by said person, mucks everything up, and gets redeemed by the Winchesters (usually within an episode or so of them finding out about it). Somewhere along the way, he’ll be stripped of his (pick as many of you like):

  • Powers
  • Wings
  • Memories
  • Morality
  • Autonomy
  • Life

But only for a few episodes– just enough for a quick “DUN DUN DUN” and maybe some brief scenes of him adjusting to the new status quo. But before there’s any real chance to fully explore the complications and long-term consequences of this major change, it’s fixed… just in time for him to meet the next wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s gotten so common that I’m wondering why he doesn’t introduce himself with “Hello, I’m Castiel, and you’re probably going to betray me.”

I don’t know why the show is written the way it is– clearly people are aware of this cycle, since several times the characters have pointed out that it keeps happening to the poor guy– but this blog isn’t about picking apart other works. It’s about learning from them.

What we can learn from Castiel:

A character can be too powerful

I firmly believe that one of the reasons Castiel keeps getting nerfed is because he’s simply too powerful. The guy unsank the Titanic for an episode, for Chuck’s sake. Time, space, the laws of physics– none of these actually matter to this guy when he’s at full strength. It’s pretty awesome when his opponents play by the same rules, but not so much when you’re dealing with werewolves, vampires, and other puny mortals. For an added bonus, he’s not even the protagonist, which means that the real protagonists of the show– puny mortals that they are– keep getting overshadowed by their literal Deus Ex Machina best friend unless you depower him, turn him evil, or punt him out of the picture.

Characters have to learn from their experiences in order to be dynamic

The first time Cas went through the cycle, it was gut-wrenching. He lost his faith and went on a huge drinking binge, only to learn that it didn’t actually fix anything. He had to learn how to be useful with his knowledge, his ingenuity, and with puny human weapons like shotguns and molotov cocktails. He saw his friends in pain and need, and had to deal with the anger, blame and guilt of not being able to help them when he could have before.  As a result, he had to completely re-evaluate his perspective, his loyalties, and the way he thought of himself.

Fast-forward four seasons. We’ve learned the hard way that every time he gets put in cosmic time out, he’s pulled back again. Rather than adjusting to a new way of life and learning from what happened, he gets a pat on the shoulder, an assurance that “we can fix this,” and a heaping helping of Winchester brand self-loathing. He doesn’t learn from these mistakes, because if he did, the same plot wouldn’t keep happening to him over and over again. In short, it drags character growth to a near halt. Rather than exploring the way a permanent change can affect relationship dynamics and approaches to old problems, we’re stuck in a sort of plot purgatory, reliving the same developments over and over again.

If you’re going to pull a game-changer, be willing to commit to it

I recently saw a post on Tumblr comparing the first three seasons of Supernatural to the recent seasons, calling the former a genuinely frightening horror series and the latter a “soap opera”. And as much as I recoiled from that statement when I read it, I can’t argue against it. As a viewer, it’s hard to take major developments seriously anymore. Death stops being a threat when Dean looks at his murderer and declares “When I get back, I’m gonna be pissed.” Death, possession, de-powering, even major psychotic breaks are fixed within half a season– which, while it doesn’t take away the fun of watching it happen, takes away the legitimate drama of those events and brings them into the realm of melodrama.

If you want your audience to take you seriously, you have to be willing to do the same to them. Don’t pull any punches. If we’re told that “this is going to change everything,” let it actually change everything.

Be careful of repeating yourself

One of the issue’s with Castiel’s character arc is that it keeps repeating itself so precisely. It’s one thing to repeat themes or motifs throughout a story, but if you recycle the same conflict or plot point over and over again, your audience will notice. Do it blatantly enough, and they may even get bored and move on.

If any of this is hard to remember, I can sum it all up in one simple point:

Chuck is God, the Status Quo is not

Don’t keep trying to drag the story back to its baseline. Don’t keep trying to turn a character back into who they used to be. Don’t keep tempting us with major changes and then bailing out at the last minute. Allow the story, the characters, and the situations to grow and change organically, without shoehorning them back into their old shape.

Your readers will thank you.

(Though if Supernatural is any indication, your characters might not.)

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