What Happens When You Send a Character Out of Their Comfort Zone?

I know good character writing when I see it.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who loved Thursday night’s midseason Grey’s Anatomy premiere, and those who wished it never happened.

Granted, this is a serial drama and I don’t expect every viewer to over-analyze characterization in every script. It’s not their fault they’re upset about not having their expectations met (do we really still expect that from TV?). But I can’t help myself. I over-analyze everything. I’m a writer. It’s what I do.

I’m not going to spend this entire post on a Grey’s rant. But I do have a point to make. Bear with me.

The majority of negative commentary following the episode related to an argument I’m not going to get into right now. But a lot of it also criticized the writing. They did not like the environment, or the characters. It was not what they were used to.

The episode took place in a prison instead of a hospital for reasons we’re not fully certain of yet (I can guarantee that will become clearer – because TV shows do random things to make you come back next week, because it’s TV).

As I expected, this drastic change of scenery meant the three familiar MCs we followed throughout the episode were completely out of their element, even in performing a medical procedure.

Especially notable was the general criticism of Dr. Miranda Bailey and how she “did not act like herself.” Many – far too many, in my opinion – blamed this on “bad writing.” Assuming that anytime a character does not display familiar behavior, it’s a poorly written TV episode.

I’m not an expert in TV writing by any means. But I do know a little something about good character writing. It would have been disappointing if, put in a completely new situation, every character acted the exact same way they always do. That’s flat, it’s unrealistic, and I’m glad they had more sense than that.

Bailey acted strange. Sure. Because this was not a typical day for her. Change changes people. It may be a fictional story, but it’s supposed to be as realistic as possible. Right?

This was not bad writing. I won’t exaggerate and call it brilliant, but it was no mistake.

We saw a character already being put through challenge after challenge pushed to her breaking point. We saw her in an environment in which she was not in control – a place where her uncertainty, long buried beneath the shell of her comfort zone, exposed. And even throughout a single episode we saw her begin to adapt to being in this position she did not want to be in.

This is called character development. Driven by plot, it shows (in this case the viewer) how a beloved character is still flawed – vulnerable – imperfect, even after 13 seasons. The moment we stop challenging our characters, they become uninteresting. We stop caring.

“This is not the Bailey we know and love.” Well of course not. This is not the place she calls home. What did you expect?

Do you think and behave the exact same way at home as you do at work? Are you always confident – or always shy, especially when put in a completely unfamiliar situation? No. And neither are your characters.

Everyone has their comfort zone, and in order to write dynamic characters, you need to take them out of that comfort zone. That is how you facilitate growth – by forcing characters into uncomfortable circumstances, over and over again until they have no choice but to adapt.

That is my challenge for you this upcoming week. Write down things that make your round characters uncomfortable. Then figure out how to launch them into a journey of development and self-discovery by putting them through the exact things that make them feel doubtful, afraid, self-conscious, etc. That is a core writing principle that we all need to implement into our stories more often.

Dynamic characters are affected drastically by the plots that surround them. Every setting should bring out different behaviors. Personalities shift – sort of – depending on where a person is, who they are with, what they are doing. That is how it works in the real world. The same thing needs to happen in stories, too – because characters need to be relatable. Realistic.

Write good characters. Challenge them. Make them uncomfortable. It’s fun, once you get into the habit.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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