I watched Breaking Bad for the first time last fall and wrote a detailed blog post on character motivation, or the lack thereof for Walter White, the show’s main character. You can read it here.
Here’s the gist: While I enjoyed Breaking Bad overall, the lacking backstories for the show’s main characters sometimes left me questioning their decisions.
For me, character motivation is everything, especially in fiction (and more so in books than TV; I can be more forgiving of TV, like I was with Breaking Bad; more as to why I feel this way in a second).
Character motivation can make or break a story. If the character does something that doesn’t make sense to that character based on what we, as the reader, have come to know about the character, it can leave the reader questioning whether he or she should trust the story (and, as a result, the author).
This doesn’t mean characters can’t surprise us (just as people do in real life). But if all the character ever does is surprise the reader and do things over and over that are completely out of character, this *usually* indicates the author doesn’t have a strong grip of her character’s backstory OR that the character she originally presented to readers isn’t necessarily the character she was striving to create. Nothing foils a story faster than an inconsistent character.
I see this a lot with early drafts — my own as well as my fellow writer scribes’ works-in-progress. In those early drafts, we’re getting to know our characters: who they are now; who they were as kids; who they were five, ten, twenty years ago; who they want to be. Our histories shape us in real life, and our characters’ histories should influence who they become on the page.
As fiction writers, we must address and fix inconsistent character issues from early drafts to final drafts, simply because we have time. Showrunners don’t have that luxury.
To understand what I mean, think about the differences between novel writing and TV writing. A novelist writes a complete book. By the time the book is published, provided the author and editors have done their jobs well, the characters are fully formed and developed. The author especially knows her characters inside and out, right down to things like childhood traumas, flaws (and their origins), dreams and ambitions (and their origins as well).
When showrunners come up with an idea for a show and write the pilot, that’s often as far as they get with the story in terms of understanding the characters. Sure, they might have some hazy knowledge about the characters and the world the characters inhabit, but what they don’t know is if they’re going to get the opportunity to tell the full story. They produce a pilot, a network might order up a bunch of episodes based on the strength of the pilot, and they build from there. And if they don’t get the green light, they have to move on to other stories, other characters. (Yes, there are exceptions regarding this process. But I’m talking in general.) To wit: Showrunner Vince Gilligan revealed in this interview that he didn’t start getting a feel for Walter White’s character and backstory until the fourth season.
This brings me to Better Call Saul, the prequel to Breaking Bad. For those not familiar with Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman is the shyster lawyer who represents criminals and ambulance chasers. He runs stereotypical bad TV ads (that’s where the “Better Call Saul” tagline comes into play). In fact, Saul effectively lives up to every stereotype you can think of when you hear the words “shady lawyer.”
During one episode of Breaking Bad, viewers learn that Saul Goodman wasn’t always Saul Goodman. He used to be Jimmy McGill. We don’t learn much more than that, which left a wonderful prequel opportunity that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould ran with when they created Better Call Saul.
Better Call Saul is a wonderful journey through deep backstory development. Essentially, we know how things played out for Saul Goodman at the end of Breaking Bad. What we didn’t know is how he got from Jimmy McGill to the Saul Goodman we saw in the final episodes of Breaking Bad.
Better Call Saul is a slow dance. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching. Well, that’s not true. I expected that the journey to the Saul Goodman we got to know in Breaking Bad would happen much sooner. But it didn’t.
From a craft perspective, I love that Gilligan and Gould are taking their time revealing this wonderful portrait of a man who’s on this path to Shady Lawyerville, including how he ends up on this path and how he desperately tries to get off this path. The journey down this path doesn’t happen overnight (just like in real life). Instead, viewers learn Jimmy McGill’s backstory over ten episodes, backstory rich with details, nuance, and the occasional red herring. Jimmy McGill becomes a wholly formed character and utterly human in the process.
As fiction writers, it’s our responsibility to understand our main characters (and even minor characters) as deeply as Gilligan and Gould know Saul. This doesn’t mean all of those stories and details will make it into your novel. In fact, most of them won’t. But if you, as the writer, know each character’s backstory, you’ll be able to create a much more fully developed and believable character. You won’t leave readers questioning their motivations.
This doesn’t mean readers will agree or condone characters’ bad choices, but if the reader can understand why the character is making the choice, the reader will happily go along for the ride (yes, provided everything else like pacing, storyline, and so forth are buttoned up as well, but that’s a post for another day).
Start with character. It drives everything else. Don’t be afraid to go back and change things from the beginning — even scenes and details you love — if they don’t adequately reflect the full-grown character you have at the end of your story. Your readers will thank you.