Q&A

How Do I Take My Protagonist Out of Their Comfort Zone?

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I read time and time again that the best way to exploit your characters is to take them out of their comfort zones.

So I decided to write a story about a rule-obsessed official, riddled with OCD and fanatically devoted to her government, who ends up discovering the very system she has been serving is corrupt and has to join the Opposition (and a whole cast of weirdos and outcasts) to fight for the rule of law she supports.

Now the thing I struggle a bit with is how to make her take the first steps in that direction. How and what would push a fanatic who’s always been content with her place to look at stuff she never wanted to look at before, and how she could be dedicated to digging into stuff threatening her worldview (which she for sure doesn’t “want” to) before the actual tipping point, where she would be truly committed in fighting the unjust system.

How would she investigate when her indoctrination would obviously hold her back?

Do you have any tips to make this all look convincing?

Thanks in advance.
-Thomas

Hey Thomas, thanks for writing in!

First, I want to talk a little about the general premise of taking a character out of their comfort zone. The goal here is to raise tension, something even light stories want, and that generally requires taking a character out of their comfort zone to some degree, but it doesn’t always have to be so extreme.

For example, you could have a story about a battle-hardened berserker having to navigate the complex etiquette of a high society ball. That would be about as far out of their comfort zone as they could get. However, if your story is more focused on the battlefield, then you could do something like introduce a new type of enemy that the berserker doesn’t know how to fight. The key is to create a conflict that your hero can’t easily resolve, which leads to higher tension. If the story is business as usual for the hero, then it’ll feel like business as usual for the reader.

In the specific case of your character, it sounds like the issue is that you’ve created a character who doesn’t want to join the rebellion even though you need her to join the rebellion in order for the plot to work. I see two broad approaches you could take here:

  • You could create some kind of really intense event that makes her realize the government is evil.
    • Perhaps she’s doing the books and discovers some secret black-ops projects and the horror they’ve inflicted or what have you.
      • Whatever she discovers, it has to be intense enough to break her devotion.
    • A problem with this approach is that such an intense event may not fit in your story.
      • At the same time, you may get questions about how the character didn’t realize this before.
      • You might even get problems where the reader just doesn’t like this character who’s working for an obviously evil government.
  • Alternatively, you can tone down her devotion to the government and instead focus on other ways to get her out of her comfort zone.
    • If she’s a government official used to dealing with bureaucracy and working in an office, then the life of an outlaw rebel is plenty outside her comfort zone.
      • She doesn’t need to be fanatically loyal to the government to make that work.
    • Just remember to make sure she still has agency while being a fish out of water. It would be easy for a former official to feel useless in a group of veteran rebels.

Finally, I want to recommend some caution when giving a character obsessive-compulsive disorder. Remember that OCD is a condition that affects a lot of real people, and its symptoms are a lot more complex than just being devoted to the rules or wanting everything to be neat. If you’re not prepared to do the extra research and work necessary to properly portray OCD, I’d recommend just leaving that part out, as it’ll still be perfectly believable that a lifelong official is devoted to the rules.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Another way to have your character lose faith in the system would be if the system turns against her – she’s accused of some crime she didn’t commit and the system only wants *a* perpetrator, it doesn’t have to be *the* perpetrator. Or, perhaps, they have a remodeling of the city going on and are just evicting people in areas where they want to rebuild and she’s thrown out of her home. If something negative comes out of the system and it happens to a character who has been supporting it so far, it makes them rethink what they think.

    If she’s unjustly imprisoned, for instance, she can meet a memeber of the resistance and help them to break out. She gets taken along and the resistance is, in essence, the only place she can stay. Perhaps her talents in organisation also are very useful to the resistance – everyone needs someone who can keep things running in the background.

  2. Kenneth Mackay

    Perhaps the first clue that something’s wrong with the system could be that she discovers a ‘glitch’ in the rules – two rules that apparently contradict each other – and starts digging to find an interpretation that satisfies both rules, only to find that her superiors have been exploiting the contradiction, ignoring or breaking the rules for their own benefit.

  3. Angelo Pardi

    I’d recommend making the government looks good on principle, so that her loyalty to it is build on “I work for the government because it seems aligned with my ethical stance” rather than “I’m a mindless drone”. Then you can make her discover that something is wrong in the way things are done, something that contradict her moral.

    Bonus conflict (and subversion of a sexist trope) if she has emotional attachments to some people in the government camp and switch sides due to rationally deciding her initial side is wrong.

  4. Grady Elliott

    It’s easy to support a system that only harms others, especially if you never have to see the harm it’s doing first-hand, or if you’re convinced that harm is necessary, acceptable, deserved, or non-existent. (Sound familiar?)

    But as soon as that system harms *you* then your entire world view begins to change.

  5. Jeppsson

    A thought: Suppose you really wanna go with “initially, the MC supports the evil government and follows all the rules because it’s so important for her to follow rules”.
    A better explanation than “she’s just like that because of fanaticism and OCD” could be that she’s seen some real chaos first-hand, that got really bad, people died, etc.
    Could have been before the evil government took power, or maybe during an eventually failed uprising against said government. Then she might think “ok, the government IS bad, but even a bad government is preferable to chaos. The rules might be bad, but a bad kind of stability is never as bad as chaos”. Eventually, though, she comes to the conclusion (although it’s a really tough one for her) that no, the government is SO bad that it needs to be overthrown. It’s NOT the case that ANYTHING is preferable to an uprising and chaos after all.

  6. Brigitta M.

    A couple of possibilities that weren’t mentioned as it relates to someone who is loyal to the government and then switches sides. First, you have background…military family would be really good for ensuring patriotism here. Granted, military family doesn’t guarantee it, but it helps secure it…and if the parent who was army or whatever was low enough ranking (real world comparison: Seargent/enlisted as opposed to a Colonel/high ranking officer), it would make sense as to the seeds of complete devotion.

    Then the character could continue that devotion into her work life and eventually moving her way up the government ladder. Maybe…mail clerk to office pool…and then accountant or whatever where it’s at that point she discovers the underlying corruption in the system.

    So…she couldn’t have found out before because she simply didn’t have access to the data and she’s loyal to her country…and by extension the government because she always has been and until she discovers this new info she doesn’t really have a reason to change that devotion.

    (stealing massive amounts from taxpayers while saying it’s going to other causes, finding out that wars are fake and staged in order to funnel even more taxpayer dollars. Government controls the media a lot more than she believed…all of those combined…those data pieces…could make for a slow waking up as opposed to an overnight discovery that they’re all I dunno…evil child killers or something because that would be…just too much for fiction).

    –Bri

  7. Koeleria

    Most big organizations, including governments, say they do things a certain way. These instructions and values are in the employee handbook, written regulations, mission statements, publicity, and propaganda. Then there is the way things are actually done. The gap between the two varies in size and subtlety depending on the organization.

    Your character could be fanatically devoted to to doing things the way the government says they should be done. But either, oblivious to, or disapproving of, the way things are actually done. By compulsively following the wrong set of rules she will inevitably come into conflict with her government. She does’t have to decide to revolt, her government will turn on her. Joining the rebels would be logical for her if the rebel’s actual values are similar to what the government claims to be.

  8. Bellis

    If your character is rather young and/or inexperienced at the start of the story, it would explain (and excuse in the eyes of the readers) why she works for an evil government. Maybe she liked the theoretical ideas of how things were run and got top grades at beaurocracy school, but has a rude awakening once she actually starts working a real job there and finds out that those ideals aren’t put into praxis.
    Or maybe she only gained knowledge of some dirty secret after being promoted and that’s what disillusions her.
    There could even be a series of small things that sow doubts and add up, until one bigger discovery or realisation makes her decide once and for all that she can no longer support the government.

    It’s also possible that she was unaware of or had been indoctrinated with prejudice against any alternatives. This only works if it’s relatable for the audience, though. It would be difficult to relate to your main character in chapter one if she just accepts that there is no alternative to eating babies and slaughtering puppies for entertainment. But thinking that “tough” measures are necessary for keeping order (especially if she doesn’t know the details of how that plays out)? Thinking that chaos would be worse or believing propaganda lies about how cruel and inferiour the rebels are? Those are believable starting points.

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