My new publisher wants me to further develop my characters in the Inspector Ramirez mystery series. If you’ve read the books, you know they depend a lot on complicated, intricate plots. But when we met for dinner recently, and I said that my books were plot-driven, my publisher said that characters can develop without sacrificing plot.
I finally figured out what he meant when I started watching Breaking Bad. I was a late arrival to this series: I saw one of the last episodes first (the one where Walt warns Hank to “tread lightly”) and I knew immediately that I had to see the rest. My lawyer-pal, Mark Arbique, loaned me the DVDs for the first five seasons and I’ve spent the last three weeks catching up, watching two or three episodes at a sitting.
Now, this is brilliant storytelling. Now I totally get what my publisher means.
In Breaking Bad, the characters are constantly shifting and changing. In the early episodes, I thought Aaron Paul was miscast as the sort of dim-witted, light-hearted irresponsible junkie, Jesse Pinkman. Man, was I wrong! Aaron Paul has already won two well-deserved Emmys for his beautiful, layered portrayal of this character.
Not only do we begin to see Jesse’s inherent kindness as the series evolves, he becomes the moral core of the story. Unlike Walter, he makes mistakes, but he doesn’t try to rationalize them away. He is loyal to a fault; he knows right from wrong. He is intelligent, nuanced, conflicted. Apparently, Jesse was only supposed to last a single season, but Vince Gilligan saw something in the role and the chemistry between Jesse and Walt (Bryan Cranston) that caused him to change his mind. (Which happens to a lot of authors. We write a supporting character, and they start taking over the story.)
Dean Norris, as Hank, shows the same evolution. When we first encounter him, he comes off as a boorish lout. But as we follow him through his drug investigation, we see just what a brilliant investigator he is; he’s intuitive, competent, sure-footed. He’s a leader; he knows his stuff.
Walter White, on the other hand, starts off as a highly sympathetic character. He is a man with a terminal diagnosis, a pregnant wife, a disabled son, and insufficient funds to pay for the treatment that might buy him a little time. He’s a mild-mannered family man drawn into the criminal world because he wants to provide for his family, and not see them burdened with his medical expenses.
But as we get to know him, we see the man behind the mask: a man seething with resentment; a pathological liar, a narcissist, the consummate manipulator. We start off rooting for Walt, then for Hank. By the end of the series, we are still fascinated by Walt, but we’ve seen who he really is.
It’s a tribute to Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of this complex character that we don’t completely write him off. We still hope he’ll come to his senses before it’s too late, and in part that’s due to another brilliant performance by R. J. Mitte, as Walt, Jr. He loves his father so much that you don’t want Walt to fall, because it will break Walt, Jr’s heart. (R.J. Mitte, by the way, has cerebral palsy in real life: he brings a sweetness and honesty to the role that’s both genuine and heart-breaking.)
Our view of each character in this story changes as we get to know them better and as we see them respond to each other and to circumstances they face. With each episode, we find out a little more about them, in the same way we get to know our friends more deeply as we spend more time with them.
But none of this is done at the expense of plot. Breaking Bad has a brilliant plot, interwoven with a myriad of twists and turns and surprises. It’s through those twists that we discover who the characters really are, decide what we think of them, and then re-think our perceptions as the characters reveal more of who they are.
What I’ve learned from this is that character drives plot but plot shapes character. When it’s done as well as this (Breaking Bad may well be the best series ever been shown on television), it is very powerful stuff.