Characters and the stories that happen to them should pair like wine and food. In a good pairing, sips make the wine sit better on the tongue. The wine, in turn, improves the food. It’s symbiotic. Each one complimenting the other. Now consider good characters and the compelling stories they inhabit. The relationship is the same.
Breaking Bad is the story about the rise and fall of a drug empire. That story — just the plot, by itself — could have been told with anyone in the lead. It has been. Give us a badass criminal like Pablo Escobar and the story becomes Narcos. Give us Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown and it becomes New Jack City. Hell, give us Seth Rogen and it could be Pineapple Express. The story is only a framework — a base to which flavor must always be added to make it whole. Only adding Walter White could have made it Breaking Bad.
Show creator Vince Gilligan said Breaking Bad is “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” That meant that he had to find a Mr. Chips to fill the lead role. As it took shape, the show’s writers had to find a way to make him as “Mr. Chips-like” as possible. Nice guy, everyday folk, beaten into a vanilla existence by the life he finds all around him. In the Breaking Bad pilot, Walt is a doormat. His wife finds him hum-drum, the students in his high school class don’t respect him, his second boss at the car wash treats him like a lowlife, and his manly DEA agent brother-in-law emasculates him.
But the dishrag side of Walt isn’t all we see in that pilot, and especially throughout the first season. We also learn he’s brilliant and could have been part of a rich, respected startup if he’d grabbed hard enough for that brass ring. We see his arrogance, beaten into submission.
When Walt analyzes the competition’s meth versus his own, he scoffs at its inferior chemical purity. The undercurrent of I’m better than this and deserve better than this is essential to his character, which in turn is elemental to the change that his character undergoes throughout the show’s run, which in turn determines the events of the story itself.
It’s not his ruthlessness by Season 5 that fascinated viewers, so much as his transformation into a ruthless kingpin from the milksop loser they saw waking up back in that first episode.
The events of a compelling story force characters — particularly the lead — to change.
And in turn, that character’s unique personality determines each choice. And those decisions, in turn, shape the story.
Remember that. Character and plot are not independent. And like ropes in a braid, they are stronger because they’re intertwined. In enduring stories, protagonists are never interchangeable. Breaking Bad isn’t Breaking Bad without Walter White. And conversely, Walter White would have lived a very different life if the events of Breaking Bad hadn’t tickled him in the pilot.
Walt learns he has terminal cancer, his car wash boss pushes him too far and he quits, his family faces troubled finances, and his brother-in-law Hank shows the family video of a meth bust, with piles of cash seized by the DEA.
Without those events, Walt would never have had 1) the motivation to act (lack of money), 2) the attitude of why not (because he’s dying soon, anyway), and 3) the idea to make that money in meth.
And yet any other man wouldn’t have reacted as Walt did. Only Walt, experiencing those same events, would have thought 1) I could do that (because he knows chemistry), 2) I could do that better, without getting caught (because he’s arrogant and finds the criminals on Hank’s video stupid, embarrassing chemists), and 3) If I did that, I’d be providing for my family after I die (because he’d just gotten that cancer diagnosis).
As you refine your story’s hook, ask what kind of person would fully live it, exploring all of its nuance and beauty. The hook is the food, and you’re the wine. Or vice-versa. What aspects of your character — or the character you could be, if you really put your mind to it — would best pair with the story you’re trying to tell?
As authors, after Sean and I have birthed any character and know who she is, we immediately ask ourselves what she wants. A character, to be one worth reading, needs three basic ingredients.
The first is desire.
The second is something standing in her way.
The third is something to lose, also known as the stakes of the story.
In other words, a character needs to want something she can’t have. She can also want things she can easily get, but stories about low-hanging fruit are rarely worth reading.
The Grapes of Wrath, easy version: The Joads travel from Oklahoma to California and get rich instantly.
The Shawshank Redemption, easy version: Andy Dufresne is falsely accused of murdering his wife, but all the misunderstandings get straightened out.
Moby Dick, easy version: Ahab hunts the white whale and finds it first time out.
We spend a lot of time avoiding obstacles when we should be seeking the right ones instead.
That’s what we call a “quality problem.” When your wallet is out of room because there’s too much money, that’s a quality problem. When you get an annoying nickname because you’re just so healthy and fit all the time, that’s a quality problem. Similarly, having a worthy obstacle to overcome is a quality problem.
But what about the rest of your cast? No story has only one character in it, right?
When we populate our books with additional characters, we always ask ourselves how they’ll interact with the protagonist. That’s their job, to help the protagonist do, realize, or believe something they need to do, realize, or believe.
So we ask:
- Will this new character bring out the best in our protagonist, or the worst?
- Will she be an advisor? A friend? A foe?
- Will she be an example of what the protagonist aspires to be, or an example of what she must not become?
One trick we use all the time is to create a secondary character as a foil for the protagonist — a person who reflects the hero back at themselves or surfaces qualities within them that the reader might not otherwise see. The need for this person tends to present itself like a flaw in food. You sample it, then realize immediately that something must be added to reduce excess sweetness or a harsh aftertaste.
This happened once after I’d begun work on one of Sean’s outlines for a dark romance. The story was percolating along fine until the hero appeared, and I realized something had to change.
The problem is, the hero is reprehensible throughout most of the book — and yet, the goal of a romance is to get the reader falling in love with him. Our guy did have a soft spot, but it was very well hidden. I needed a way to show his other side so our reader wouldn’t hate him, but it’s not like I could have him pacing his office thinking about how secretly sweet he really is.
We judge characters by how they interact with others, and this guy was a bastard to others. Except for … his sister. The thought hit me like a lightning bolt. He needed a sister. So I added one, and she turned out to be formidable. She didn’t just soften our prickly hero; she stood up to him. The reader got to see — through her — that his worst edges were only bluster, built to protect old psychological wounds. The right heroine might even be able to break through his armor. That’s gold for a romance, and it only came about because we added a secondary character as a prism through which to see our hero’s behavior.
Remember, main characters aren’t immovable monoliths. Good stories are not the records of unchanging, solid-as-steel people who bulldoze their way through myriad events and circumstances to arrive inevitably at their destinations.
Protagonists are always malleable — fragile, in some ways. The spark that triggers their change — especially at the story’s beginning — is often external. Something happens or another character influences them, and then it’s off to the races.
Remember what tipped Walter White toward breaking bad? It started with a trip to the doctor and a video. Luke Skywalker was getting along fine on Tatooine until some assholes killed his aunt and uncle — good thing he’d heard a thing or two about old Ben Kenobi and how he could help right a few of those wrongs. Anastasia was innocent until she met Christian Grey, and Harry Potter would have graduated muggle high school while still in his cupboard under the stairs if Albus Dumbledore and Hagrid hadn’t interfered — or if Voldemort hadn’t gotten in his way as a baby.
Now, the key to all of this? Your supporting cast does not make your decision for you. In story terms, the above paragraph is stuffed with examples of “secondary characters generating inciting incidents for the hero.”
This excerpt was taken out of the book The Story Solution by Sean M. Platt & Johnny Truant. The Story Solution isn't just about writing, it's about the story of your life. While StoryShop University is hitting on the points that may help you in writing, if you want to take charge of your life and construct your story the way a writer does, The Story Solution is for you.
Next Week: Plot