Reverse Engineering a Character

I came across the term “reverse engineering” when reading a story about the development of the “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.” The term was used to describe the process of taking the Saul Goodman character in “Breaking Bad,” and developing a back story to trace how he became a sleazy lawyer for drug kingpins, assorted con artists, and scammers. In the first episode we learn Saul’s real name is Jimmy McGill. In the opening episode, Jimmy is scraping out a meager living by taking public defender cases. He drives a rickety little car, and lives in his tiny office in the back of a nail salon.

The process of taking a fully evolved character and constructing a narrative to explain how he reached his status in a story is a fascinating challenge. I was intrigued with the idea of “reverse engineering.” If a writer is fortunate, a fully formed character will present himself, but for most of us, the process of constructing a multi-dimensional character takes a lot of work.

So how does a writer “reverse engineer” a character? First, let’s look at the definition of reverse engineering. According to a definition posted in Wikipedia, reverse engineering is “the process of extracting knowledge or design information from anything man-made and reproducing it or reproducing anything based on the extracted information.”

So what do viewers know about Saul Goodman by the end of “Breaking Bad?” He was corrupt. He attracted a clientele that was not exactly comprised of model citizens. His clients were on the fringes of society. They operated in a dark nether world. He helped criminals launder their money. He could even help a criminal to disappear if the heat got too close. He had a mordant sense of humor. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but it didn’t seem to bother him, at least on the outside.

Given that description, if I was designing this character, my first question would be this: Was Saul/Jimmy always corrupt? Did something happen early in his life or his career that led him to take that path? What was it? Did someone put the fear of God in him? Did he start with small sins and then work his way to larger misdeeds? Who in his life influenced him the most? In what ways? What was his upbringing like? Were his parents bad people? Was there alcoholism in his family? Cheating? What was his relationship with his family? Siblings? What was the turning point for him?

One can see how just be asking a few simple questions, story possibilities have emerged. The process of developing this prequel is not unlike creating a back story for a character in fiction. When writers come up with a character, they don’t write their story from childhood (unless it’s a Young Adult novel). The character is introduced to the reader “in medias res,” in the middle of the narrative. The character at the beginning of a novel will soon face a problem and the reader knows the character will face mounting challenges to reach her goal. The reader doesn’t know the character’s full history, but the writer should.

Here are some questions to address when reverse engineering a character (this will sound a lot like a character sketch) :

–What drives or motivates the character? Is it an emotional need? Where did this motivation come from?

–What was the character’s family life like? What were the character’s socio-economic circumstances growing up? How did the character’s upbringing shape who the character became in the story?

–What is a key turning point in the character’s life? What does it reveal about the character? How can the writer show this key turning point?

–What actions or events have led the character to her current status?

–What crises has the character faced? What key decisions has the character made in response to these crises?

–What or who does the character fear? How can the writer show the character in a situation where she must face that fear?

–What is the character’s key relationship? How did it develop? What is the source of conflict in this relationship?

–Who are the character’s adversaries? How did they become adversaries? Can the writer create a scene that shows that?

Take your main character in your work in progress and answer these questions in relation to that character. Think about scenes you can develop to show the answers. Re-read a favorite book and pay attention to how the author “engineered” the main character.

What do you think of the idea of reverse engineering in fiction writing?



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6 responses to “Reverse Engineering a Character

  1. Very interesting, not least because my first novel came about through a level of reverse engineering– I started with a scene in my head, and then said to myself, but What happened before then? Who is this girl that allowed that accident to happen, and how did it come to that?

    I think the fuller, more aware version of that is worth pursuing in future. I feel it can bring something useful to my process.

    • Thanks for your comment. I tend to have an idea in my head for a character and a story, and I think the reverse engineering process happens without conscious intent. I know other writers who have to sit down and come up with a detailed biography for their character. I admire that degree of planning, but I don’t generally do that, at least not at the outset. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. you always have such interesting and intelligent posts on writing – I always read and enjoy in my email inbox, even if I don’t stop by to comment.

    • Kat, thanks for your kind words. I have been enjoying your blog as well and I am happy to see you are posting again. I know it is a lot of work to keep up a blog, but it is worth it. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I love this! I’m starting a new book now, so I may be putting this to use!

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