Character Study: Breaking Bad’s Walter White

Memorable characters in fiction possess one essential quality: complexity. Fiction writers can draw valuable lessons from watching the progression over five seasons of the main character Walter White in the AMC Emmy Award-winning series, Breaking Bad. Characters don’t get more complex than Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.

White’s evolution from a down-on-his-luck high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer to a drug kingpin might strain credibility, but series creator Vince Gilligan pulls it off brilliantly. At first, the viewer sympathizes with Walter’s plight as he goes into business with a former slacker student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cooking and selling methamphetamine. The motivation behind the meth business is Walter’s desire to pay for his medical treatment and leave a nest egg for his wife and family after he is gone.

In his excellent craft book, Plot and Structure, author James Scott Bell discussed the three-act structure. Bell stated that writers at the end of Act One must thrust their main character into the main conflict by having him walk through a door through which he could never return. This is manifested by key decisions the character must make that put him to the test. For example, a character must kill another person to protect himself, even though it violates his moral code. Walter White walks through many such doors and each time, he loses much of his former self.

What viewers discovered as the series progressed was that there were two Walter Whites: the downtrodden school teacher and faithful, nebbish parent, and the bright, driven chemist who hungers for power and respect. This hidden side of Walter is embodied by his pseudonym, Heisenberg, which came from the physicist whose uncertainty principle meant that the presence of an observer changed what was being observed.

For a period of time, Walter White leads two lives: the dying parent struggling to keep it together with his family and the grim, determined drug lord, decisive and cunning. It’s an absorbing character study. As the drug trade puts Walter and Jesse in increasingly dangerous situations, Walter’s true nature emerges. The meek high school teacher becomes a ruthless, win-at-all-costs maverick who still wants to hold onto his family, though his activities put them in grave danger.

As the New York Times critic A.O. Scott points out in a lengthy piece on Breaking Bad, Walter White justifies his monstrous behavior again and again. “Walter is almost as good at self-justification as he is at cooking meth, and over the course of the series, he has not hesitated to give high-minded reasons for his lowest actions,” Scott wrote. “In his own mind, he remains a righteous figure, an apostle of family values, free enterprise and scientific progress.”

It’s a fascinating character study that every fiction writer should examine.

What characters from contemporary television and film do you find most memorable?


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7 responses to “Character Study: Breaking Bad’s Walter White

  1. This is brilliant! I haven’t watched Breaking Bad in a while, but I’m definitely going to revisit it now for character study. Thank you!

  2. I loved your comment about how a character needs to be thrust into the action and not be able to return. That was great advice for my current WIP. I haven’t seen Breaking Bad yet but I’ve heard all about it. It’s probably one of those things that I’d be obsessed with because I’m fascinated by the main character. Thanks for a great article!

    • Katie,
      Thanks for your comment. One of the most important things I’ve learned about character development is to put characters in the most difficult situations where they must make a decision fraught with risk. You should check out Breaking Bad. It is a gripping series–well written and acted. Thanks again.

  3. I think Walter White is a great character to study. He’s one of the only villainous heroes I’ve come across. It’s definitely inspired me to add more complexity to my characters.

    • Mariah,
      I agree. He is a fascinating character. My opinion of him has changed one hundred and eighty degrees over the course of the five seasons of Breaking Bad. He’s a great study for fiction writers. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Matthew Hallisey

    Hi Chris, I only recently started watching Breaking Bad and, upon recalling your enjoying the series, I looked up your commentary. I found it brilliant and spot-on. I have binge-watched into the beginning of season 3 and Walter White’s character has grown more complex. He may be multi-faceted but, like many ordinary humans – and criminals – he does not always think of the consequences. He is a brilliant chemistry teacher and chemist, but not the most sophisticated criminal. Indeed, he repeatedly states he is not such, perhaps wanting to make it so despite circumstances that in part led him to take up a life of crime. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating program, which leaves me asking: why do we find it so gripping?
    I hope this finds you well and you will continue writing your excellent blog and insightful commentary.
    – Matt

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