How to Introduce Characters Like in Breaking Bad: Show, Don’t Tell

What does it mean to introduce a character properly? When we write a first draft, we add a character into the scene and hope that through their actions and interactions with other characters will give a clear portrayal of who they are. So if that’s the case, you want to pick the right point in your story to showcase your character. Picking that moment is the key. 

Today, I want to look at how Vince Gilligan introduces the main characters in Breaking Bad and what moments he chooses to focus on. We are going to flashback in time to episode one where we meet Walt, Skyler and Jesse. 

Then I want to explore the techniques used during the introduction in both the script and in the show to see what was changed (for better or worse) and what we can learn from it. 

Walter White

In wonderful Breaking Bad fashion, the series opens at the climax of the episode. This leaves the audience wondering, what did I just get myself into? It acts as a hook. We all now want to know more about why this man wearing a mask in his underwear is racing through the desert in a smokey trailer. 

Then, Vince Gilligan does something interesting, he allows the character to introduce himself. Walter White finds a video camera and allows him to open up in this completely vulnerable way. He gives his full name “Walter Hartwell White”, he gives his address “Albuquerque New Mexico” in the script it’s Ontario, California. So now you know who this person is and where he lives. Easy. Then he says to the camera that this is not an admission of guilt… which adds a bit more intrigue, and finally, he addresses his family, his wife and son, and even mentions his unborn child. 

This introduction gives us all the basic boring details and leaves out all the juicy parts of the show, making us want to learn more. It’s done in a fashion that may feel blunt if it was used too often, but it doesn’t here because of the other nuances: the Winnebago, his underwear, and the sirens coming from the distance. If it was simply Walter talking to the camera without any of these external elements, then it would be a lazy intro, but here, it’s an astoundingly economic way of introducing Walt.   

Skyler White

Skyler’s introduction is more subtle but as effective. She brings Walt veggie bacon for his 50th birthday. Right away, we know that she is very concerned about her family’s health. Then she starts interrogating him on when he’s coming home. Skyler, we learn right away, is going to be a metaphorical thorn for everything Walt is going to do, even though she does it through love. It is setting up for drama to occur, because we feel this tension building between these two characters. Skyler wants Walt to do something but Walt’s mind is clearly somewhere else. 

Walter Jr.

Walter Jr. does a very good job at breaking the tension between his parents. We see him enter with his crutches and is right away snarky with his mother. Walter Jr. becomes Walt’s voice, everything that Walt is unable to say to his wife, Jr. doesn’t have a problem with saying to his mother. This shows us almost more about Walt, because we now see how crappy the veggie bacon is and how there isn’t enough hot water. We also see how he is sick, he doesn’t like confrontations, and he doesn’t have enough money to upgrade his home. All of this emasculates Walt.

The introduction of Skyler and Walter Jr shows that Walt is having a hard time taking care of his family, but it also shows how much his family loves him. As you introduce more characters, and they begin to interact with each other, especially with your protagonist, you reveal more about each of them. And that’s clearly something we see in this short breakfast scene. 

Marie Schrader

In the script, Walt’s birthday party takes place in an Applebee’s so the introduction happens quite differently. In the script, it indicates that Skyler and Marie are sisters by saying “We see the resemblance.”  Then Marie goes on to question and judge Skyler for drinking wine, who defended by saying it’s okay to drink after the first trimester, citing Newsweek. Which I’m not sure about. This part never made it onto the screen. Instead, the first time we encounter Marie in the show is in Skyler’s kitchen as she is pouring herself a glass of boxed wine. 

This is actually a very impressive scene. In the kitchen, it gives us an early impression of the animosity between the two sisters with so few words. 

A friend compliments Skyler’s lack of a belly, even though she’s pregnant, and Marie is unable to handle it. We are introduced to Marie and discovered that she’s unkind to Skyler. Immediately we know what type of person Marie is…  

Is Marie anyone’s favorite character? 

Hank Schrader

Hank’s intro in the script differs from how he is portrayed in the show as well. This is actually interesting to explore. 

Hank is introduced in the script during Walt’s birthday dinner at Applebee’s. Hank is responding to a story about Walt’s boss, who was named Amir. He says a bunch of offensive and ignorant things about the man’s culture and ethnicity. This is his way of putting down someone who has been giving Walt a hard time. He cannot believe the injustice that Walt, who’s super smart, has to work for this man that was clearly lesser than him. 

In the script, Hank is described as everything Walt isn’t: bold, brash, confident. And there is a line that says, Walt notices that Walter Jr. admires his uncle. 

In the show, Hank’s introduction is with him showing off his pistol in front of a group of spectators, a group of men including Walter Jr. right in the corner. Hank is a man’s man. Whatever that means. Then Hank handed the gun to Walter Jr. where he encourages his father to hold it. This shows that Walt is scared and weak, unlike Hank, especially when Hank starts busting his balls. 

In a script, it’s easy to say that Hank is the complete opposite of Walt, but how do you show it. In the first episode, Gillian used the gun. One held it with complete confidence even handing it off to a minor, while the other one holds it like Keith Richards with a glass of milk. 

Jesse Pinkman

One of the funniest thing I discovered when working on this specific project was that Jesse Pinkman’s name in the script was originally Marion Alan Dupree. This goes to show all writers that a name you choose for a character is never final. 

In the script, Jesse or Dupree is described as a white, gawky, early 20s — picture a hip Shaggy from Scooby Doo.” He comes falling out of the window like he does in the show. And yes, the housewife with the boobs hanging out was there in the script too. 

Jesse makes eye contact with Walt, who is the only one who sees him. We wonder about this connection between the two. Why isn’t Walt ratting him out? 

To be honest, I feel the introduction of Jesse is flawed. While many of the intros in the episode were economical, this one seemed rushed. Some reason, Jesse being outside his house when Walt approaches seems too convenient for me. So quickly Walt is blackmailing him and all I really know about Jesse in the short time is that he could somehow seduce a housewife, he lost his partner, and that he’s full of wisecracks. 

However, if you look at the story through Walt’s character arch, you realize how important it is to make this exchange fast. He had the leverage, and he needed to use it right away. This was his only connection to the world… the world where he breaks bad. There was a lot of focus on what the story of the first episode is about. It’s not about Jesse Pinkman; it’s about Walter White. He’s the hero of the story. 

Krazy 8

The last character I want to talk about in the first episode is Krazy 8. In the script, Krazy 8 is introduced as someone who is living in a place that is a cross between a frat house and a crack house — and he was playing NBA on PS2. 

This, of course, leads to many questions. How do you show a cross between a frat house and a crack house quickly and have it registered with the audience? Another thing is that Gillian wanted Krazy 8 to be more intimidating, so playing video games might not be the best activity. 

Instead, they changed it up so that Krazy 8 is training his dog to attack a lynched dummy. Even when Jesse walks in, Krazy 8 doesn’t stop, it shows that he doesn’t find Jesse that important. Only when Krazy 8 discovered that Jesse is selling that he shows interest. Krazy 8 doesn’t respond to everything Jesse says. He asks his own question. Even when Jesse had the goods, Krazy 8 holds dominance.  

This scene is a fantastic example of showing which character has the authority and which character is weak

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Too Many Main Characters: 3 Tips to Fix Your Story

In the first draft of your story, it’s not uncommon to introduce too many characters, especially too many main characters. That is exactly what I did in mine.

I wanted to write an epic story after all, and you can’t do that (you can) without having multiple combating characters your readers can root for.

While you can have different independent plot lines and protagonists, what you need to do is make sure that the way you organize your story, where you choose to transition from one character’s point of view to the next, is clear and purposeful in moving the entire story along and driving the characters’ arches. Without clear organization and thoughtful transitions, the story can end up being fragmented and convoluted.

Although it may still be a great story, it wouldn’t achieve its full potential.

In this video, I offer a few tips to help you manage the different protagonists so your story can be read and enjoyed smoothly.

  1. Have one POV character per scene or chapter
  2. Make sure readers know which character they are following ASAP
  3. When all characters are together, pick an ultimate main character, the one with most scenes

Word of the video: “Dinkus” (noun): three consecutive asterisks or ***

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