So this will have tons of spoilers. If you haven’t watched up to Breaking Bad’s latest episode “Ozymandias” then you probably should stop reading now. And if you haven’t watched this episode, do yourself a favor: get caught up and bask in the splendor that is Breaking Bad’s direction, writing, and acting.
That said, let’s talk.
It’s not often I cry from watching TV shows and it’s even less common for me to cry from reading a book. I actually can’t think of any time I’ve cried reading save The Green Mile in which I felt genuine sadness. Sure, parts of A Game of Thrones had me screaming “NO!” but crying? No. Pissed off? Yes.
The latest episode of Breaking Bad is an example of art on its highest level. The pay off from years of strained relationships, bad decisions, and questionable practices. It’s this kind of emotion that I feel genre writers in general should strive to feed on. Fantasy and sci-fi is known for high adventure, comedy, and plenty of monsters and aliens. However, it’s not always known for being highly emotional. Things have changed over the years and speculative fiction is getting more recognizable as high art and not as mindless entertainment.
Breaking Bad is a perfect blend of high art and entertaining fiction. Walter White’s evolution (devolution?) from everyman chemistry teacher to ruthless meth kingpin is one of the most intriguing character developments in all of TV. His relationships flip flop and change because of his genius ability to manipulate others to do what he wants. So what does fantasy writing have to do with this?
Allow me to explain.
1. Character and Plot Equally Important
Most fantasy either feels like it’s character driven or plot driven. The best kind is both. Breaking Bad is this perfect marriage. The characters may be morally conflicted and gray in most cases, but there’s no mistaking the choices characters make become ingrained in them. They seep into their souls and rot them from the inside. Well, everyone except Walter. Up until “Ozymandias” there was this interpretation that Walt could somehow redeem himself. Some believe he is beyond redemption. He’s just gone too far. That moment when Walt Jr. is crouching in front of his mother, calling the police, while Walter shouts “What the hell are you doing? We’re family!” is the final moment when Walt realizes he’s reached the end. The one thing he was trying to convince himself was keeping him going, his family, is now gone. The look on everyone’s faces in that scene speaks volumes.
So in fantasy writing, how is it possible to get these kind of gut-churning reactions? By having characters that waver, that question their choices, who always have that one goal or thing they’re clinging to. If your character is a wandering swordsman looking to get revenge on the warlord that torched his village and killed his family, what else is at stake? There have been plenty of fantasy plots with dead families needing to be avenged. The key would be the swordsman’s character. Perhaps he does questionable things as Walt or Jesse have done. Things that haunt him and follow him the whole story. Maybe he kills one of the warlord’s followers only to then be hunted by the man’s widowed wife? How does he handle the situation?
Making characters that make difficult decisions, as many Breaking Bad characters have done, can propel an engaging plot into the stratosphere. And that’s another reason the show succeeds on so many levels. Each decision, each plot twist or turn, no matter how seemingly insignificant, makes sense somewhere down the line. A tightly wound plot that provides decision after decision that matter is what carries the characters to greatness.
Walt’s ill-fated decision to leave his Walt Whitman book laying out was his unraveling. A man who is often so careful and guarded let his guard down. Hank’s discovery is his ultimate undoing. A poor decision leads to everything falling apart. Such is life.
2. Character Relationships
Walt-Jesse. Walt-Skyler. Skyler-Marie. Walt-Skyler-Walt Jr.. Marie-Hank. Walt-Saul. Gus-Walt.
I could go on and on. If you look at every single one of these relationships, you can see why Breaking Bad is such a stellar show. Every relationship evolves and grows, has a rollercoaster ride that keeps the viewer guessing every single moment, every single scene. What’s going to happen this time? Each relationship has its own nuances and power struggles that tilt back and forth.
In order to create engaging fantasy characters, these relationships have to exist. They need to grow, evolve, even dissolve. A Song of Ice and Fire is a book series that executes this perfectly. Even just thinking about the Stark children, they each have their own relationships with each other that change over time.
In my opinion, for these relationships to be engaging, the characters need to be similar to Breaking Bad’s characters: distinct, with their own goals and aspirations.
a. Walt-provide money for his family before he dies
b. Skyler-protect her family from both Walt and whoever else
c. Jesse-to find a direction in his life after losing so many things and making bad choices
d. Hank-to capture Heisenburg
e. Saul-to make loads of money while delicately balancing volatile clients
Each character here has a distinct goal that differs from the others. If you have a fantasy book with a group of traveling adventurers, if they’re all just interested in slaying a dragon and that’s it, it can make the story harder to stay with. Take this group for instance:
a. Jaral-a mercenary that wants to slay a dragon to make money
b. Yagoth-a dwarf that wants to slay a dragon to make money
c. Majeri-an elven princess who wants to slay the dragon that’s invading her land
d. Tazul-a wizard who wants to slay the dragon to extract its teeth for spells.
OK, everyone here has simple goals with slightly different motivations. Not horrible by any means, but not terribly engaging. It’s going to really depend a great deal on the character relationships to carry this particular story.
For example, let’s develop Jaral-Yagoth. They both have the same exact goals. Why do you need both of them then? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you can combine them together. However, if you make their relationship interesting, this could provide a ton of tension.
Perhaps Jaral killed Yagoth’s brother recently for about 20 gold coins. Yagoth doesn’t know this, but if he finds out, that’s going to put quite a damper on their dragon slaying expedition. What if Yagoth actually really likes Jaral. He thinks he’s funny and makes a great drinking partner. This puts even further tension on the relationship because you know it’s going to be bad when Yagoth finds out about Jaral’s horrible deed.
Much like Walt’s knowledge of Jane’s death, it held this dark cloud over his relationship with Jesse. That is until he finally let him have it after Hank’s death. This is one of the key moments the viewer has been waiting for. It’s at that moment where there’s absolutely no going back in this relationship. It’s severed.
So thinking more about inter-personal relationships in your fantasy story can be a great way to drive your plot forward and ratchet up tension.
If anything, Breaking Bad know show to payoff on a plot point. When Walt offers 80 million dollars to save Hank’s life, we know that there is truth to what he’s expounded on over and over again: family is most important. When Hank dies, this is the culmination of every bad decision he’s made finally coming home to roost. A member of his family is dead and he’s to blame. It’s a major plot point being resolved in two ways: we learn that Walt still cares deeply about family and the one person that could stop Walt is now dead. Things, of course, escalate from there.
One thing with fantasy writing is that the payoff should evoke these same emotions. SPOILERS for A Game of Thrones below.
When Ned is executed, it’s the big payoff of the number of possible chances Ned had to walk away. To pretend he didn’t know about Cersei and Jaime. But his honor would not allow him to do so. So he paid the price for his decision. Any other payoff would have felt cheap and easy. This payoff sets so many things in motion, I couldn’t imagine it being done any other way.
If your fantasy story’s goal is to capture a gem that will protect the world from an evil dark lord, then the payoff better be pretty significant. If it’s just like “We got the gem. It’s over” it feels flat and unsatisfying. How they get the gem and what they go through to get it is what’s going to make the payoff that much better. This requires plenty of failed attempts to get the gem. It’s almost in their grasp, but they lose it. Things like this will make the payoff that much more gratifying. Gratifying doesn’t always mean happy though. Walt’s defeat of Gus felt gratifying in a good way. Walt’s witnessing Hank’s death and sentencing Jesse to rot were gratifying because they fit with the Heisenberg character.
All in all, I believe any and all writers should study how Breaking Bad succeeds on so many levels. This can do nothing but create fantasy stories that evoke emotion, have engaging characters and plots, and help writers dig deeper than the surface level.
Write a fantasy book that makes me cry. I dare you.
Until then, good luck and remember all fantasy, all the time!
And if you don’t know who I am, I suggest you tread lightly.