Monday, 3 October 2011

The Outsider

In most books, there’s a character (or characters) who I like to call the Outsider. An Outsider is a character who doesn’t belong in a book’s world, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi, or even a police procedural or medical drama. Because they don’t belong in the world, they ask lots of questions, and give the author the chance to explain things.

For example, Harry Potter in an Outsider in JK Rowling’s wizarding world because he doesn’t know what all the magical terms and items are. In Pirate of the Caribbean, Elizabeth Swan serves as an Outsider, because she’s clueless about all the pirate-y stuff.

Outsiders are important, because they act as an extension of the reader inside the book. Readers are effectively Outsiders too, but they can’t ask questions. If you’re writing a fantasy, your readers don’t know why the Kingdom of Somefarawayland has the best stronghold in the land, but they can’t exactly ask the writer, can they? This is where the Outsider is important. They can ask why the Kingdom of Somefarawayland has the best stronghold, and then the All Powerful Wizard can explain why.

Outsiders can also occur in earth-settings, such as in police stations and hospitals. An Outsider to a hospital might be the mother of a sick child who needs a doctor to explain to her (and the readers) why the child needs to be given a certain drug.

There can be several different Outsiders in each story, and they can all be different Outsiders for different settings. In my WIP, the protagonist is an Outsider in the mercenary world, while the sidekick is an Outsider to the world of archaeology.

Without an Outsider, writers have to insert (sometimes lengthy) descriptions to things, without being able to break it up into dialogue. I once read a book without an Outsider, and the author always had to break up the action to include a description of legal procedures and law terminology.

For the comments, who are your Outsiders, and what worlds do they help readers to understand? Let me know!


  1. I saw the title on the WO! Forum, and I thought you were talking about the book The Outsiders... I was disappointed. :P
    But this is good, regardless. :)
    Um, my outsider... Probably the MC, since she's been thrown into the world of the Irish Mob. She might have a little previous experience, but not much.

  2. This is a great post! Very observant. I've actually thought about it before, and come across the problem of trying to convey -- in a non-telly way -- a situation where my MC is in The Know, but the readers are not. It can be very tough!

    Outsiders. Hmm. MY MC right now is an outsider in one aspect. Then I have a couple others in another aspect. They do ask all the questions/learn the answers through experience. *nods*

    Good post, Matt!

  3. This is a very good point to keep in mind. I've also struggled with how to include information when my MC's in the know. Usually, if no one's there that isn't in the know, I try to weave it into natural thought patterns. (I don't know how natural-sounding they turn out, but that's how I attempt it. =D)

    That reminds me of a show I saw, where the Outsider was badly done (it usually happens in the pilot episode, but this one was in the 3rd season, and so especially awkward). Two doctors were treating a patient who'd collapsed and was convulsing. Doc #1 asked Doc #2 to go get some tools, and when Doc #2 came back, Doc #1 proceeded to explain to Doc #2 what was wrong. Being an experienced doctor, Doc #2 already knew what was going on, but the writers knew the audience didn't, so Doc #1 needed an outlet for his explanation. And this isn't the first time this has happened.

    So, the moral of the story is...stay true to character? Authenticity is everything? If they put their minds to it, Hollywood can overuse and misuse anything? =P

    Great post! =)

  4. Constance: I've never heard of The Outsiders; I'll have to look it up to see what it's about! Hop you weren't too disappointed :P

    Maggie: I guess all characters are, to some degree, Outsiders. I'm glad you enjoyed the post :)

    Renee: I've never thought about weaving information in through thought patterns. I do it almost exclusively through dialogue. Thanks for reading! :D

  5. Pretty much all the truths of my world are kept under wraps from the people, so all of my characters get to ask "outsider" questions. This results in them thinking about the truth's contradiction to their culture/what they've believed, thus revealing to the reader both the cultural norm, and the truth. Two birds with one stone! =D And the magical powers are new to the characters, too, so we get to learn about their abilities as they learn and grow into them. Seems to work out pretty well for me. ^_^

  6. Amanda:It certainly does work out well for you! Thanks for reading!