I love Grey’s Anatomy.
Okay, it might never be high-fallutin’ storytelling, more akin to a soap opera than high drama. But, honestly, that’s just more to my taste. Give me a campy, lively story over some dry and pretentious literary one any day. And, whatever your thoughts about the show, you do have to admit: wrapping up 15 seasons, they must be doing something right.
Okay, I might have some beef with Shonda and crew with how they’re ending Season 15 (no spoilers!), and some of the relationships they destroyed in the past, but still. I’ve got to admit that I’ve got an emotional investment in the show.
A lot of that, I have to admit, is damn good acting. But, behind the good acting, there’s good writing. And that’s the key.
There are some lessons that you and I — even if we’re not writing the next hit medical drama — can pull out of this story.
#1 Character is Key
Dear God, this should be emblazoned across the front of every writing craft book in the world. If you want to keep people interested, make them care about your characters. And, hopefully, not just the protagonist.
Your characters need to be strong. They need to be as real as humanly possible, knocking around in your gray matter up there. To hell with the plot (for now), if you create real, fleshed-out characters that readers have a stake in, they will spend a decade and a half following you to the ends of the Earth with them.
In a similar vein, one thing that Grey’s does really well is that it takes a monolithic group of people who could — stereotypically, perhaps — be reduced down to a single stereotype. Type A, semi-neurotic nerds who are stressed-out of their minds, hyper-rational, always factual. It’s so easy to look at people and groups in one dimensional.
Just looking at the wealth of characters on Grey’s and the wealth of differences between all of these doctors, and all the tension it brings.
It’s absolutely beautiful.
#2 Make Your Characters Amazing
I know this is a good one, because I later read it in a Donald Maass book. But I first got it from Grey’s.
The doctors at Grey-Sloan Memorial are the best in their field. Most of them are chasing down the most prestigious award in their entire industry, the (formerly-known-as) Harper Avery award. In the early seasons, there’s a moment where they’re all waiting around the computer waiting to see how the school compares in a ranking of different medical schools, with disappointing results.
They want to be the best. More than maybe anything else, which sometimes, is to their detriment.
Your characters should be the same. Donald Maass says (paraphrasing, really) that nobody really wants to read about the ordinary, everyday adventures of an ordinary, everyday Joe.
Make your character amazing. Make something amazing happen to them. Something larger-than-life, even. Something horrible. Something wonderful.
Ho-hum won’t get you very far.
#3 Play Around With Figures of Speech
I don’t like Derek Shepherd very much. He just always struck me as a smarmy asshole with too-perfect hair. And he knew how perfect he was, which made him vain.
I guess that’s just the type for one of the top brain surgeons in the world.
Though I do have one favorite moment with him. He’s in a surgery, cutting and poking into somebody’s brain, with intern Heather Brooks, who’s doing her typical yammering on. And this exchange happens.
Derek: Brooks, you know how sometimes people downplay the difficulty of the task by saying “it’s not brain surgery”?
Derek: This IS brain surgery.
That’s legitimately my favorite scene of his. And it’s been stuck in my head ever since.
We have a lot of figures of speech in English, and so many of them are trite and cliche. But if you can turn them on their heads — use them in an unexpected way, or, perhaps, combine them into a great malaphor — my favorite is “I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.” — You can take a boring cliche or an everyday turn of phrase and make it memorable.
#4 Make Your Characters Suffer — To The Extreme
Most of us love our characters. We want to be nice to them.
For me, as the sort of God of their universe, I kind of feel the need to smooth things out. Make things not as bad as they could be. To dry away their tears and to blunt out the edges of pain, loss, injury, and grief.
I have the power to make things easier for these people. I don’t have that power in the real world but, by God, I can do it for these characters.
(I don’t think Shonda has this particular issue. I’m sure she’s just happy as can be throwing thunderbolts a la Zeus. Especially when the actors in question piss her off.)
Maybe my kindness an admirable impulse, but it’s totally wrong.
You’ve got to make your characters suffer.
You’ve got to make them hurt. You’ve got to put them up in a tree and set it on fire, to use one of my favorite lessons. Big trees, small trees, Oh my God she’s having a heart attack trees.
You’ve got to ruin their lives, and guide them through stitching things back together. You’ve got to make them cry and wail and gnash their teeth.
And, yes, sometimes you’re going to have kill people that they love. People that you love. You’re going to have to write them through the pain, the mourning, the scarring — and the healing, if that ever happens.
If you’re too nice, like me, you’ll have to harden your heart. Or just cry like a baby while you’re writing. (There’s no shame in that, I promise.)
This has often been a criticism of Grey’s — there’s always some kind of tragedy going on. Either an actual, emergent tragedy, or some kind of relationship drama and heartbreak.
Big, important characters need big, important stakes. And, sometimes, they just need to be burnt down. Either to their death, or to rise from the ashes.