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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at West Chester chapter.

What makes a great TV show? This is a question that people always ask. We finish binge watching an epic, action packed show, and we go, “Wow, that was a great show,” but sometimes it’s hard to articulate why exactly it hit so well. Perhaps because it’s something we’ve never seen before, maybe it’s because of how good the soundtrack is, or perhaps, maybe it’s because of the characters and how they’ve impacted us.

And then we wonder why those characters impacted us, what made those characters so influential. What made those characters so great?

As someone who is spending four years getting a degree in psychology, and as someone who loves watching shows and movies, I enjoy looking closer into media and characters that interest me. I watch every analysis video on Youtube until I’ve understood the reasoning behind their decision;

I can find the gray in their black and white behavior.

I know what some of you are thinking. That I’m one of those psychology majors that likes to psychoanalyze every person I meet. For the record, you’re wrong, that’s only happened to me once. (Or twice.)

Figuring out gray characters has to be the most intricate, fun thing to do. I’ve found a lot of times that these gray characters are what keeps viewers hooked. Complex, unique, and interesting characters make people feel connected to the stories, it keeps them longing for more.

And on the flip side, an ineffective use of complex characters can break a show altogether, leaving fans hopeless and cynical about an entire series.

Let’s take a look at a few shows and discuss at length what made them great, or not so great, based on their characters and character growth. So be mindful of spoilers for seasons of Breaking Bad (but not Better Call Saul because I’m not caught up so don’t talk to me about it), and Game of Thrones

Examples of Great Complex Character’s and Why They’re Impactful

Breaking Bad first came out in 2008, and right from the start, it gripped so many people with its concept, cinematography, and dialogue. Breaking Bad follows a man named Walter White, a highschool chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer living an unsatisfying and unfulfilled life in New Mexico.  Determined to leave behind enough money for his wife, Skyler, his son, Walt Jr., and their soon to be born child, he decides to start working in the meth business alongside a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman. 

Right off the bat, the first most important thing about Breaking Bad is this: I don’t believe any of the characters are necessarily “good,” at least in terms of morality. Most of the characters have done some wrong in their life at some point; whether it’s Skylar joining in on Walter’s game and money laundering, to the uncle in law, Hank, who might be a great cop but who lets Walter slip through his fingers many times. Even beloved characters such as Saul, Mike, and Jesse, have all done terrible things from threatening people’s lives, to killing people, to ya know, selling meth in general. 

Yet we all love these characters and hate these characters at the same time. The story of Breaking Bad is not about the hero earning enough money to save his family before he dies, but a villain origin story following a man who wants to help his family and then slowly falls in love with the power he possesses and the money he could have. 

Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, once said, “I’m very glad people love the show ‘Breaking Bad,’ but the harder character to write is the good character that’s as interesting and as engaging as the bad guy.” 

And I think he’s right to some extent about this, if you create a character that’s so perfect and so nice to everyone, then it’s hard to make the viewers feel a connection or an interest in them. It’s why so many stories and concepts gravitate towards characters who aren’t good, who are complex as we discussed. 

People love Jesse because of how caring of a person he is, how good he can be if he had made different life decisions earlier on. We have seen throughout the entire show how much Jesse loses from both of his girlfriends who die, to being homeless, to living with depression after killing Gale, to finally being trapped himself when he’s captured and is left to live the rest of his life being chained up, forced to continue making meth even though he had wanted to stop a long time ago. Seeing this character that has been put through hell and back finally being freed by Walter White, busting out of the prison that they had kept him in and finding new peace and solitude finally after having struggled for so long in his life, felt so satisfying because of how much we had wanted this for Jesse all this time. To finally be free of it all. 

These were incredibly impactful characters that showed not only how dark each and every one of us can go, but also how we can somehow climb ourselves out of our pit and still make a life for us even after all the terrible we had done.

It’s like what most people said when I was going to watch this show. Breaking Bad is simply that: brilliant.

Examples of Not So Great Complex Characters

Now, Game of Thrones is a bit harder to talk about, and it doesn’t start out terrible. In fact, between Breaking Bad and the early seasons of Game of Thrones, TV had reached a new pinnacle that no one had ever seen coming. Each show topped each other in Emmy wins and Oscar nominations and at every awards ceremony, most of the time, these shows were the runners up for getting an award.

The first four seasons of Game of Thrones, I would say, are some of the most brilliant storytelling I have ever watched (before I saw Breaking Bad of course.) The characters were intelligent, the problems stacked over the course of the seasons, main characters could get killed at any chance. It was brutal and emotional and also rewarding to see consequences to people’s actions and how it impacted the rest of the characters overall.

George RR Martin, when talking about this book series, said that he wanted his characters to feel real even in a fantasy world. And in those four seasons, this was all clearly laid out. The groundwork was set, the stakes were made, and the game of thrones had begun.

And then seasons five through eight came out, and the games soon became a very boring experience in which the writing grew sloppy and the characters became stupid and no one could see anything on their screens.

When talking about the Breaking Bad finale, most say it wasn’t what the fans wanted, but it was what the characters needed. It was the perfect end to every single one of the characters.

When you hear people talking about the season finale of Game of Thrones, most say it wasn’t what the fans wanted. Because what the fans wanted was something that was good.

(As you can tell, it’s been a few years and I’m still very salty about this season finale so bear with me for a few seconds.)

The main problem with season eight of Game of Thrones is that the writers reverted so many characters back to their season one selves as a way to shock viewers, or in their words, “subvert their expectations.” In reality, all that did was hurt them. 

Making Daenarys a villain because her nephew wouldn’t sleep with her and because her friend died is not an excuse for a character becoming evil, when she had spent seven seasons helping the people and caring for them. Now this twist could have worked if there had been more build up or more hints, similar to Breaking Bad how they slowly and surely made Walter a worse person, but instead they chose to jump to the twist and make her a villain anyways.

The ending was never going to please everyone seeing as ‘who is going to be on the throne’ was the main mystery starting from season one and was built up with so much anticipation and hype that there was no way they were going to live up to everyone’s hopes and dreams. But the fact that they didn’t even stay true to the characters’ foundations that were there from the beginning is heartbreaking. Most people can’t watch the show overall anymore because they know how truly terrible the end of it was and how, through all of the build up and anticipation, it all ultimately led to nothing.


So, now that I’ve rambled and ranted about my favorite and not so favorite character progressions, how does this make a case for my original argument? How can you tell that a character is ‘gray’ and what value does that have in providing a better, more intriguing story for the viewers?

Well, looking through the characters mentioned, I believe it proves the point that great characters are essential in creating a fascinating and intriguing show. Without characters, there is nothing. A great concept cannot be as good if it does not have great characters to go alongside it.

And what makes a great character is, ultimately, one that we feel connected to. A character that starts somewhere and ends in a completely, but also understandably, different place. A character that has an arc that leaves the viewers satisfied in their time well spent on a character over multiple seasons. 

And on the flip side, what makes a terrible character, is one that can be built up for so many years to be one way and then randomly flip at the last second to add to ‘dramatic tension.’ Especially when these characters started out as well-rounded, fleshed out characters who, in the end, became a mockery of themselves, completely flipping on the character they had been building up to for years.

Overall, even with the greatness of Game of Thrones and the mystery and intrigue that came with it, the sped up character arcs, the bad dialogue, the unsatisfying conclusion to it all will forever be in its shadows even in the beginning seasons.

The greatness of Breaking Bad is only solidified because of its ending, because of how good the ending was and how well it all wrapped up. It only leads to people, a decade later, continuing to watch this show and explore its greatness because of just how impactful it was. 

So, the next time you’re left satisfied with a show but you can’t tell why, perhaps become like me and look a little deeper into just the basics of ‘I like this character.’ Just don’t become too much like me, where you stay up till 2 in the morning, psychoanalyzing the characters and wondering why Hank’s wife, Marie, wears so much damn purple. 

Sanjana Vinjamuri

West Chester '25

Hello! My name is Sanjana and I'm a writer for Her Campus! Besides writing, I love watching movies and TV shows, reading, and hanging out with friends!