Bill the Mathematician has just sent me a link to ‘David Chang’s Unified Theory of Deliciousness.’ As it happens, nine years later than the rest of the world, I’m currently hooked on the Breaking Bad TV series, and I have to wonder whether there’s a connection between Chang’s theory of deliciousness and a formula for creating great characters in fiction.
As Chang says:
A chef can go crazy figuring out how much salt to add to a dish. But I believe there is an objectively correct amount of salt, and it is rooted in a counterintuitive idea. Normally we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that’s wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time…
It’s a little bit like the famous liar’s paradox… Here’s one version of it: “The following sentence is true. The preceding sentence is false.” As soon as you accept the first sentence, you validate the second sentence, which invalidates the first sentence, which invalidates the second, which validates the first, and on and on.
Most people won’t ever notice this sensation; they’ll just appreciate that the food tastes good. But under the surface, the saltiness paradox has a very powerful effect, because it makes you very aware of what you’re eating and your own reaction to it. It nags at you, and it keeps you in the moment, thinking about what you’re tasting. And that’s what makes it delicious…
It has occurred to me that this first ‘law’ that Chang discovered relates to the way Walter White, Breaking Bad’s compelling main protagonist, as he descends a slippery slope from milquetoast chemistry teacher to progressively more brutal drug dealer, vacillates between being a thoroughly empathetic character and a thug. Jessie Pinkman, White’s partner in crime, is given a similarly dissonant portrayal. The lawyer Saul Goodman plays a minor role in this series so far as I’ve got (second season), but he’s even more clearly that sort of individual, one that I’ve been told was so successful that the character spawned Better Call Saul, another blockbuster series.
As with culinary saltiness, it would be easy for actors or writers to slip too far to one side or the other. With the Breaking Bad cast (pretty well the whole gang, it now occurs to me), that doesn’t seem to happen — viewers remain compulsively engaged, maybe in part because they constantly have to resolve these ambivalent, ever-shifting judgments in light of dramatic developments.
Chang doesn’t stop there. This notion of perfect saltiness
… was an important realization for me, because it seemed like I’d discovered an unequivocal law. And I figured if I could find one, there had to be more—a set of base patterns that people inherently respond to. So then the challenge became discovering those patterns and replicating them in dish after dish. If you could do that, you’d be like the Berry Gordy of cooking; you’d be able to crank out the hits.
One more Chang insight:
A dish can be delicious precisely because it is unsettling.
Chang: “When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time.”
Me (tentatively): When characters are perfectly realized, they will be both one way and its opposite, both good and bad, both courageous and cowardly, both attractive and repellent. They are fully committed to being both at the same time. But never too good or too bad, overall, or at least only a bit and sometimes.
Even granting that such abstract principles point to something real in fiction, can they provide practical guidance for writers? Some version of them certainly can. Here’s something I found after having written the foregoing: ‘Character Consistency and When to Break It.’ Good advice, no doubt, so far as it goes, though it doesn’t extend to saying characters should be “fully committed to being both at the same time.”
I’m trying to think of characters from novels that might illustrate Chang’s laws. Any ideas?