Tag Archives: Breaking Bad

Good Girl Gone Bad or Shades of Gray?

How good is your hero? How bad is your villain? Discussing character development recently with a group of writer friends, I expressed my dislike for protagonists who are too good and antagonists who are too evil. Main characters must have flaws; otherwise they could never surmount the serious challenges that pay off in transformative change.

Most writers get this, but there is a different kind of protagonist, embodied in film by Michael Corleone and, more recently, by Walter White. These are characters that start out virtuous and sympathetic but, as Walter’s series title sums it up, break bad. Michael Corleone was the good son in The Godfather. He was the one who enlisted and fought in the war. He was the one who Don Corleone wanted to keep out of the family business. Circumstances forced Michael to make a choice. He rationalized his killings by reasoning he was going to get the Corleone family out of organized crime. At one point, after deciding to go into the casino business in Las Vegas, he states that in ten years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate. It surprised nobody when that didn’t happen.

Similarly Walter White embarks on a life in the drug trade with the best intentions. Given a terminal cancer diagnosis, the high school chemistry teacher and soon to be dad starts cooking meth to leave a nest egg to his family. Walter fools himself into believing he can get out any time he wants. Not only can he not exit the drug culture, he makes a series of decisions that plunge him deeper into the world of corruption. When he commits murder for the first time, he rationalizes it by convincing himself the man he killed was going to murder his family. And that might have been the case, but soon he is killing for less clear reasons. He evolves from a character who is protecting his family from danger to a person who boasts, “I am the danger.”

A good example from literature is Scarlett O’Hara. At first blush, she comes off as a domineering, self centered harlot, but as the Civil War rages on and her family and community are in danger, she almost singlehandedly protects her loved ones from mortal danger, including her nemesis, Melanie Wilkes. In the end, I had mixed feelings about Scarlett. Was she a hero? She was a tragic figure, too blinded by her love for someone she couldn’t have that she failed to see how much Rhett Butler really loved her.

I like my heroes to have flaws, that is, to be human. And I like my villains to have redeeming qualities. In fact have you noticed a trend in films and television series of drawing heroes who are loaded with flaws and demons? Ultimately complexity in characterization is a good thing.

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Blockbuster Implosion: Formulas Fail Writers

Screenwriter Damon Lindelof knows a thing or two about movie scripts. The noted script doctor described this summer’s cinematic fare as “summer disaster porn flicks.” This prescient observation followed comments by Steven Spielberg, who predicted in June that Hollywood was headed for an “implosion” because an industry that only makes mega-movies cannot sustain itself.

Lindelof’s insights, given in an interview with Vulture, were right on target. “We live in a commercial world where you’ve gotta come up with ‘trailer moments’ and make the thing feel big and impressive and satisfying, especially in that summer-movie-theater construct. But ultimate I do feel—even as a purveyor of it—slightly turned off by this destruction porn that has emerged and become very bold-faced this past summer,” he said.

“And, again, guilty as charged. It’s hard not to do it, especially because a movie, if properly executed, feels like it’s escalating.”

One could substitute the word “ book” for “movie” in this commentary. Lindelof went on to say, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world. And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there. In the old days, it was just as satisfying that all Superman has to do was basically save Lois from this earthquake in California. The stakes in that movie are that the San Andreas Fault line opens up and half of California is going to fall in the ocean. That felt big enough, but there is a sense of bigger, better, faster, seen it before, done that.”

This is evident in literature, when one looks at the best-seller list. It’s filled with proven commodities and genre fiction. It can feel formulaic, just as in screenwriting some claim the movie formula was laid out in Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat.

Nathan Bransford blogged about this trend recently in this post.

As usual, Bransford has nailed it. I would urge writers to resist the temptation to follow a proven formula. That doesn’t mean a writer should not learn about formulas. Formulas are really story structures and there are many that are tried and true. The three-act structure is as reliable and sturdy a formula as there is out there. Structure is fine and necessary, but when the story becomes a slave to a formula, the writer is robbed of the creative tools to shape it to its unique potential. If a writer envisions a story in which the inevitable conclusion is for the main character to die due to his own sins or weaknesses, it makes no sense to change the ending on the mistaken belief that readers want a happy ending.

So what is a writer to do, when there are formulas that enhance the chances of success? Here are a few ideas:

• Know the rules and then don’t be afraid to break them. The old adage, “You have to know the rules before you can break them” is true. Learn about the different types of story structures and the craft of fiction. Understand the importance of character development to the overall story.
• Own your story. A story is the writer’s creation. It belongs to the writer. The arc should be determined by the writer’s vision and execution, not by some arbitrary rule that dictates a particular event must happen by page 75.
• Read unconventional novels like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and watch cutting-edge programs like Breaking Bad, which takes the tired “send ‘em home happy” dictum and gives it a swift kick in the butt.
• Write from the heart. If the writer doesn’t feel passionate about the story, the reader won’t, either.

Are you tired of movies or novels that follow a formula? What examples of unconventional stories can you name?

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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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