I’ve just emerged bleary and elated from a 3 week binge of the acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad. I was late to the series about Mr Chips morphing to Scarface but only saw the full splendour of it half way into season 2. Then I was hooked.
We are in a golden age of TV writing and crime is the thing. Just look at the most critically acclaimed TV programs of the last 10 years and ponder the morality of the central driving premise. The Sopranos. The Wire. Breaking Bad. A compelling cavalcade of bad boys. Men behaving badly. That’s because anti-heroes create compelling drama. Villains are evil and predictable. We know they will do bad stuff because they are all, well, just evil. Think of some of the great villains of literature, from Bram Stokers Dracula to Sherlock Holmes nemesis Moriarty to Hannibal Lecter. Villains are fun because they are bad and they give our hero something to push against and to restore order to the universe. What would Lord of the Rings be without the Evil Sauron for little Frodo to outwit and restore the world in Lord of the Rings to normality?
I think that anti-heroes are much more interesting characters. They are bad by nature or circumstance and they sometimes take on the villain and often win. If written skilfully, layers of contradictions and motives are gradually revealed. Anti-heroes can be more realised human characters then heroes. Some of the great anti-heroes in fiction would be Jay Gatsby from the Great Gatsby, Holden Caulfield from A Catcher in the Rye, Alex from A Clockwork Orange. The list is long and proud.
In Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan has created one of the greatest anti-heroes of all time. Even though his alter-ego Heisenberg becomes truly, murderously evil the Walter White he was and still is just wants to look after his family. Breaking Bad is the high water mark of TV writing. Over 6 seasons, the entire character arc of Walter White was skilfully sustained. We saw his inevitable transformation from nerdish science teacher with cancer to a methamphetamine drug kingpin. We watched the moral justifications he created to explain the trail of human tragedy behind him. Breaking Bad never missed a single beat in 6 seasons. From teacher to monster. The ultimate anti-hero. But through it all, still making his choices for his family, disastrous as they are.
So what am I getting at here? Why talk TV in a blog about writing? My point is simply that writers shouldn’t ignore other texts. Even though it was created for TV Breaking Bad was novelesque in its scope. A huge, astounding, compelling and ultimately reflective saga of the dark side of the American Dream. The finest 62 hour movie ever made. A writing achievement every bit as satisfying as a dirty great book like Les Miserables. Good writing is writing whether on the page or screen.
What made Breaking Bad such compelling drama was the depiction of one mans twisted ambition and the utter destruction his pursuit of it has on his family and friends. To sustain this over 6 seasons is truly astonishing. I recently blogged about the Heroes Journey. Breaking Bad is a TV masterclass in the anti-heroes journey.
So what can you learn from Breaking Bad? You should take a leaf out of Vince Gilligan’s book (writer and creator) – who knew the arc from the outset. Walter White chooses a life of crime initially because of his cancer diagnosis. He chooses a career as a methamphetamine manufacture to make sure his family are financially taken care of. Throughout 62 hours, Gilligan quite deliberately removes all the excuses White has for life of crime. The cancer goes into remission, he kills his biggest rival. One by one the barriers are stripped away until….I won’t spoil!
If you haven’t seen it yet- grab the entire season and watch it from beginning to end as a masterclass in screenwriting…and put an anti-hero/heroine into your own story.
Who are your favourite antiheroes? Leave a note below.