BREAKING BAD: Lessons in Character Profiles
Arriving late to the party, I’m just now into the second season of BREAKING BAD on Netflix. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s the story of a desperate high school chemistry teacher who begins cooking meth to make money. His reasons are valid and Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) is one of those villains who you love to hate and who you hope wins at something. I stray far away from drug-related and junkie stories. I have never liked that world, but I finally gave in during this pandemic isolation at the suggestion of my sons. I find myself cheering Walt on and hoping he can cook a batch of meth. The writers throw everything they have at these characters until there is no way they can possibly get out of the unbelievable mess they’re in.
If you HAVE watched Breaking Bad already, I urge you to watch the first season again with a creative writer’s eye and take notes. Pay attention to character traits and how they are used in the plotting.
Spoiler Alert: What makes Walter White so fascinating?
Walter White is a brilliant chemist whose college mates went on to make fortunes in successful corporate ventures. He teaches high school kids. His younger wife is pregnant, unplanned. His brother-in-law is a DEA agent. Walter has just been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and the treatments cost $90,000. How much worse could his life get? Hang on, because it does.
One good example of traits and plotting is Jesse Pinkman, (played by actor Aaron Paul) an ex-student of Walt’s who becomes his reluctant partner in the drug trade. As a junkie, Jesse coordinates the deals and maneuvers through the underbelly of the city. In one episode, a couple rolls Jesse for the product and steals his cash. Walt tells him to fix the problem and get their money back.
Jesse gets their name and address and goes to the house armed, prepared to do what he has to do. At this point in the story, what is the worst that can happen? There are numerous combinations of scenarios that could be played out.
- Jesse threatens the addicts, finds his money and builds a rep as someone you don’t want to double-cross.
- The man and woman overtake him in some way and injures or kills Jesse.
- Walt arrives to help.
- They have no money and no product. What can he do? Is he forced to kill them?
What is the absolute worst that can happen to Jesse? How can the outcome be so bad that it’s next to impossible for him to come out alive? We know Jesse is a junkie despite Walt telling him to not use the product. He makes horrible, stupid decisions but he’s a good guy at heart. He got thrown out of his parents’ home for the third time because he took heat for his little brothers joint that was found by the maid. So how can we show Jesse’s decent side but at the same time make his options seem unsurmountable?
SPOILER ALERT: The druggies aren’t home so Jesse waits on their living room sofa. An unkept, half-dressed child emerges and turns the television on. Jesse tries to talk to him, but he obviously lacks communication skills from his situation. Jesse tries to find him cartoons to watch, but the there is only one channel. And then the dirty little child turns to Jesse and says, “I’m hungry.” Long story short, the kid gets food, the parents come home and promise to pay Jesse back if he’ll help them break open an ATM machine they had stolen. Jesse gets knocked out by the woman, she takes his gun but doesn’t kill him, instead gets high. Jesse comes to. The man is drilling holes into the bottom of the ATM. The couple argues, she tips the machine over and crushes her husband’s head, and the ATM door swings open! Jesses takes the cash and calls 911. He hurries to the back bedroom and carries the little boy outside, sits him on the front porch and wraps the blanket around him, “Have a nice life,” he says.
This would be a fun exercise with your writing critique group. Analyze the characters from Breaking Bad and identify their good traits and bad traits. Every hero has a bad trait. Every villain has a good trait. Then have a brainstorming session on plotting. What is the worst that can happen? What happens next? What’s worse than that? Next, make it so horrible your main character has everything at stake with impossible odds. Don’t you love stories like that?