There's a reason for tradition, or so the saying goes. Yes, and there is a reason for dramatic formulas. It is becasue, when they work, they can give the reader an insight into characters that might otherwise be lost in more unconventional storylines.
Altered State is, to say no more, a formula story. There is almost no turn in the plot that a reader cannot see coming a mile down the road. However, in this case, that is not a criticism. It is a read well worth the time, and it shows that even the Winchesters had a normal life - well, sort of - and that training to be a Hunter is not necessarily a defense against human recklesness, immaturity and cruelty.
Given what the Winchesters do for a living, any story that grounds them in the reality of normal life should be considered a plus. Part of what makes the boys engaging is that they are ordinary men with an extraordinary mission. However, that quality of ordinariness often gets lost in the bizzare tales on Supernatural. Stories like Altered State mitigate against that tendency.
However, if the story of Altered State works as formula, its Achille's Heel is charcterization. Not, oddly enough, of the supporting characters, who are reasonably well drawn for supporting players. Rather, it is Sam and Dean who do not shine, leaving the reader with a vague sense that something is a more familiar than it ought to be.
Part of the difficulty with writing "Weechester/Teenchester" stories is that the author is always stuck on the horns of a dilemma. He has to develop his Sam and Dean in such a way that they are recognizable, but yet has to keep in mind that they are not yet the men they will become and therefore have to be different.
This is also important for engaging the reader. Sam and Dean have to be subtly different, otherwise the reader will quickly realize that he is reading about a grown Sam and a grown Dean with, in effect, a "teenager" label slapped on their foreheads.
That is where Aleterd State falls a bit flat. Sam is everything we expect him to be. Shy, intellectual, studious and torn between the life he leads and the life he wants to lead. Even the story's revelation about Sam is not without antecedent (or is it precedent?) We have seen Sam get drunk while "on the job," (see "Playthings,") so the twist in the story is less striking than might be supposed.
Similarly, Dean is the Dean we already know. Cavalier, protective, hot tempered. It is all 100% Dean Winchester.
This is best illustrated in the way Dean deals with Sam's tormentor. Dean executes a clever plan that would have been perfectly consistent with the disciplined forethought of a mature 30 year old with years of experience under his belt. However, it is less plausible coming from an angry 20 year old. Twenty year olds simply are not that disciplined and controlled - especially less so in the case of Dean, whose impulsive nature as an adult is already a recurring theme of the show.
Therein lay the problem. While teenaged Winchesters will be more similar to their future selves than would, say for example, pre-school Winchesters, there should still be differences. Those differences are harder to bring out, but they require illustration both for purposes of dramatic development and because otherwise we are not reading a "Teenchester" story, but simply another Winchester story.
This is, in so many words, the problem with Altered State. The readers simply should not know these charcaters as well as we do. Because we do, the formula aspect of the plot serves no purpose. We don't see anything different, but rather we see Sam and Dean, only in this case, the monsters are teen agers, so to speak.
Happily, there is one tremendous exception to this failing in Altered State. The portrayal of John Winchester is nothing short of extraordinary.
It would have been so easy to portray John Winchester as the warrior automaton that so much fan fiction makes him out to be. Instead, what the author gives us is a John Winchester who is a tough, driven, but loving and compasionate father. Where the author could have made John a drill sargeant, she instead makes him a three dimensional dad reacting in the way any loving father would.
This the author brings out expertly in small scenes and vignettes. (Nothing beats in the whole story the moment when John kisses his unconscious son's forehead. There is more charcaterization in that single moment than in almost whole of the rest of the story.) Kudos to the author who shows that her portrayal of Sam and Dean is not the product of a lack of skill or talent.
To sum it up, John Winchester is "into" this story, while Sam and Dean seem to be a bit just going through the motions. Still, just for the portrayal of John Winchester alone, the author elevated what might have been an acceptable story into a genuinely good one.
In her response to one of her other reviewers, the author admits that she is more comfortable with Mr. Kripke's characters than with developing her own. One suspects that this is the root of the issue.
Because the author is more comfortable with Sam and Dean, she is less challenegd by them and therefore less inclined to push the dramatic envelope. (John is a Kripke character, but not much developed in the show and therefore the author takes more liberties.) Consequently, we get what we already know, but nothing more.
Still, one should not be too hard on the author. It is hard with two such iconic characters to tweak them, and adding in the age factor of the story, even some of the best Hollywood writers would have had a tough time. (If you want to see professionals mess up characterization, see three of the four post-writer's strike episodes of Supernatural.) So the author has nothing to be ashamed of.
To the general reader, Altered State is a workmanlike take on the life of Sam and Dean Winchester the way they were, so to speak, and a useful reminder that there is life outside of Hunting. That we are seeing Sam and Dean pretty much as the charcaters we already know is a weakness to be sure. But hey, there are worse things than seeing the boys in action, and it has made Mr. Kripke a lot of money after all, right?
*is gobsmacked*. Thank you for your constructive and extremely well thought-out feedback. I always ask for story feedback and you’ve not disappointed.
Firstly, in the cold light of day, I totally agree with your point about my characterisation of teen Sam and Dean. With Sam in particular, I feel especially keen now to attempt a story which focuses more on his character as a youngster and fleshes him out beyond the studious, shy teen we can all easily imagine him to have been. The problem with Altered State is that it was originally intended as a one-shot which (as I found out) was never going to happen. But I kept it as a short story – and this only allows for so much character study focus or else the plot never moves forward ...anyway that’s an excuse I guess.
However, I disagree about Dean’s actions in relation to Carl. I could imagine a young Dean doing something so restrained as beating the shit out of Carl and then having the cops pick him up – I don’t see that as a particularly clever plan (mainly because I thought of it). With Dean’s life experience and no doubt, with all the hunting, he’ll have been faced with seeing Sam injured before. I like to believe Dean would have a sense of maturity at twenty-one beyond that of people twice his age especially considering he’ll have faced more than horrors than most battle weary soldiers. Therefore it doesn’t strike me as odd that he would think out his actions and exact revenge in the way that he does in this story. It might have been interesting and ultimately more satisfying to see him totally lose it. But I think that would have been doing his character a disservice, Dean’s smarter than that and again, out on a hunt if Sam were injured by something supernatural, I could see Dean using his head, experience and instincts to ensure the creature (or whatever) is exterminated.
The Teenchester setting served in this story to show that Sam was at an age where Stanford was becoming a distinct possibility for him and therefore, in a fashion, gave him motive for taking pills – which is a bloody hard thing to sell at any rate. Anyway as I’ve said, I totally take your point about the Teenchester characterisation and that is something I shall take away with me and hopefully learn from. I certainly agree that because I am undeniably more comfortable with Kripke’s take on Sam and Dean that I didn’t attempt to make them my own – whereas I did feel a strange sense of license to ‘play with’ John’s character more. That you have so astutely focused on that has been a real eye opener to me because I would never have recognised it in my own writing. A very valuable lesson learned.
I only started writing fanfic, of any kind, in December 2007 and am working hard on improving as a writer. I certainly ‘miss’ more than I ‘hit’ and yet feel like I am learning. Your comments are refreshing, (and as I’ve already said) valuable and eye-opening so thank you for the time and effort you have taken. Liz x