by Michael Chasin Screenwriting Mentor, IAFT/Miami
The acclaimed series Breaking Bad serves as a great case study on the value and masterful use of backstory—events that occurred before the present story.
Breaking Bad begins with high school chemistry teacher Walt White being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He decides to use his chemistry skills to make crystal meth to provide money for the pregnant wife and disabled son he will soon leave behind.
A backstory is introduced of events of twenty years earlier—Walt was a founding partner of biotech firm which he sold out of for thousands—that is now worth millions.
Brilliantly, that backstory injected in a season one episode (with no guarantee of any future seasons) served as the larger motivation for Walt’s journey—and descent.
Crafting character backstory is usually stream-of-consciousness writing: the characters have had happen to them…wherever your fingers on the keyboard go.
Backstory touch-points may include circumstances of birth, family relationships, romances, influential people, and major life events—all leading to the start of your story.
While most of the backstory that you create will not be used, it is of great benefit in deepening your characters and will often amazingly reveal to you—their true core.
Walt White’s backstory defines his core—a man who believes he should be running an empire. He sold out one opportunity twenty years earlier. The drug business is his second chance—one that he will not—this time—sell out.
As in real life, people’s present actions resonate so much more deeply when we know their past triumphs and tragedies. This is also true of the characters we create.
Write characters’ backstories.
You will then easily know when you place those characters in crisis—whether they will act heroically—or break badly.