Discovering how to write a book with character development is a high-level skill necessary for successful writing. The properly designed character sets a trajectory that is capable of delivering your story to eager readers.
To achieve three-dimensional depth for that character requires careful design though. Memorable characters are rarely happy accidents.
When we describe a well-known protagonist such as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, it is best to start with the most basic terms. Walter is a bedraggled family man and high school science teacher who upon discovering that he has a rare form of cancer decides he must come up with a way to pay for his expensive treatment.
Right there you have a classic set-up.
Walter White is a guy with a problem that he has to reach far outside himself to solve. He could have curled up in a ball and accepted his fate, but that would not make for very interesting storytelling. He has to break bad, as the title tells us, in order to transcend the story to the next level.
White makes the informed decision to start cooking methamphetamine in order to make that kind of money. White is a High School science teacher. That means he can’t go and ask his boss for a raise. He has to reach outside of his world to drum up any serious cash. His job inhibits him on one hand but it enables him too. White knows chemistry. Beakers and flasks and gas masks are his native environment.
To develop memorable characters, keep in mind that they don’t just need a problem. They must have something working against them achieving their goal. That opposing force should seem insurmountable. It isn’t enough that White has to buy a broken-down old Winnebago and lie to his wife in order to do cook up his drugs. The complications must escalate further and in a unique manner.
Walter White can cook the meth but he doesn’t know the first thing about selling methamphetamine. So, Walter is forced to enlist the help of his former student, the equally compelling character of Jesse Pinkman.
Herein you find the unique seed of a series-long conflict. White is an absolute control freak. The linear trajectory of his plan to manufacture and sell drugs is complicated by Pinkman’s more chaotic nature. The guy is a total screw up. His bumbling academic incompetence is precisely why he stuck out to White in the first place.
How do we escalate a story problem from the main character like in Breaking Bad? Here are a couple of questions I like to ask when I develop memorable characters to get to a deeper level.
Who Is The Character’s Natural Opposite?
I ask this question often throughout the story design stages. Who opposes my main character and their journey? Answering this comes both inside and outside of that character’s team of supposed allies.
In Breaking Bad there are enough competing cartel operatives, street toughs and DEA agents to complicate White’s improbable ascendance to meth kingpin. Those are complications from outside of White’s circle.
Character development becomes interesting when you antagonize from inside of the protagonist’s circle as well. Jesse Pinkman is as much an antagonist for White as he is a sales associate. Jessie offers a natural personality conflict to the power-hungry White but they must struggle to work together.
Neither White nor Pinkman can thrive in this new world without the other’s skill set.
Who Are The Characters That Are Too Similar?
Here is where this can get even more interesting. Discovering how to write a book with memorable characters requires you to pull some strings. When creating a character arc, I like to look into the story at who is so similar to my main character that their purposes intersect and complicate one another.
Take Skyler White, Walter’s supposed loving wife. At first the reality of her husband’s drug dealings are abhorrent to her. Then the taste of money and control gets to Skyler and she begins to like it… almost. It feeds her in a way that is new and exciting to her.
Much of Breaking Bad is spent in a cat-and-mouse game between Walter and Skyler. Early on he does whatever he can to keep this revelation from her. The series becomes even more interesting (and I would argue attains legendary status) when they become two cats after the same mouse.