The Insider Who Is an Outsider

3 Oct

I was thinking the other day about characters in fiction because I was thinking about how when I write fiction I tend to write the same types of characters over and over, and I was thinking about why I might do this–why I’m  not very adventurous and what attracts me to them in the first place.

And I decided that the character who often appears is the insider who is an outsider.

That is to say, a character who knows about the fictional world it inhabits and is privy to vital information in this world but who is emotionally (or physically, sometimes) distanced from it.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this happens all the time in fiction–not just my own.

For example, Nick from The Great Gatsby is a part of East Egg culture by birth and manners and means and education, but he emotionally connects with Gatsby and is physically distanced from the East Eggers, as well.  He is an insider to the culture he’s narrating about, but he is also, because of his sympathy for Gatsby and his current location, an outsider.

“I volunteer to be your narrator!”

For another example, Katniss from The Hunger Games knows about this Hunger Game world and participates in it, but she is an outsider for a couple reasons.  One, she’s from the least glamorous district, which distances her from the dominant culture of The Capitol and the other districts that hold The Capitol as their zenith of class.  And two, she is isolated even from the others in her district because she hunts illegally, she’s reclusive and introverted, and she volunteers for the games–something no one in her district has ever done.

But what makes the insider/outsider so attractive?  This character instantly gains the audience’s trust because we’re taken into his or her confidence.  We, the readers, are outsiders to the constructed world and need a guide.  We want an effective, reliable narrator to show us the ropes.  We get just this from Nick and Katniss–someone who can tell us the ins and outs, whom we can trust because they, too, are disenfranchised in some way.  They know the goods and the bads, and they have their own biases, but we trust them.

This also works in another narrative way–in a metafiction-y way:  The insider who is an outsider telling us a story gives credence to why the story’s being told in the first place–that there’s something wrong with the setting, that the conflict in the story has real consequences that we can see in these isolated characters.  Not every story has a convenient framing device such as “the long-lost personal diary of So-and-So” or “from the letters of Who’s-a-What” or “this is written to my future children.”  Often stories are just told, without the narrator telling us why.  With this type of character at the fore, we can infer the why a little better.

Additionally, we all want to feel special and unique, and these insiders who are outsiders give us a character we can identify with, someone who is special like us and sees all the problems in his or her world like us, but who can tell us a new story about a new place we’ve never been to or have not been to with different eyes.

Additional examples:

Lucy from I Love Lucy is an insider because she’s a homemaker, and she knows her culture, but she is an outsider because she’s always scheming to get into show business or make money.  She is silly and klutzy and does what she wants–always bouncing off the patriarchal walls of her world.

Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind, that pinnacle of Southern femininity, accepts and doesn’t accept the constructs of her society.  She knows exactly what’s right and good to do and often does the exact opposite.

“Yippee ki-yi-yay, narrative devices.”

John McClane of Die Hard is not supposed to be in that office building, but he is, and his knowledge of the building and police tactics allow him to take control of the situation, although he’s pretty much a disgraced cop and not-great husband.  He is even more of an insider than usual because his presence is secret for the first part of the film and so he is able to hear secret conversations.  But he is still an outsider because he is not there in an official, sanctioned capacity.

Ellen from Damages serves as our guide in season 1.  She is new at the firm and has no idea what Patty Hewes is capable of, but because of her presence, we get to see all the awful stuff Patty’s up to.  She’s not classically an insider (classically as defined five paragraphs or so ago.  lol.) because she has little special knowledge that we don’t have, but she gives us access to the world nevertheless.

And I’m sure there are plenty more.  Now that I’ve thought about it, this is nearly everywhere!

12 Responses to “The Insider Who Is an Outsider”

  1. Jennifer Stuart 3 October 2012 at 2:17 PM #

    I like thinking about this, as well. It’s always interesting to me to look at why certain things affect me the way that they do. Maybe on some level, we all feel like insiders/outsiders, we are the only ones privy to our own internal world and yet are constantly in situations where nobody else knows about that internal world as much as we do. On the screen, we empathize with someone, and it does end up feeling more real because they have that depth that we have in normal life…or something like that 🙂

    • TheBestofAlexandra 3 October 2012 at 5:01 PM #

      Absolutely what I was trying to get at. Also, can we talk about how much I love your gmail pun? Because I love it immensely. 🙂

      • Jennifer Stuart 3 October 2012 at 5:03 PM #

        Haha we can talk about it, but sadly, my friend made it for me so I can’t take any credit. I’ve had it for like, over six years now. Wow. And now I like Sci-Fi more than I did then and I even try to write it perhaps it was a seed for something larger!

  2. sternflammende 5 October 2012 at 3:51 PM #

    I totally agree with you article, but what do you think of those outsiders that ultimately end up fitting in in the plot? Take Glee’s Rachel Berry, for example: in the first season, she was introduced as an outcast because she had higher expectations than the average highschool kid. She threw many tantrums, said mean things but the viewer ended up loving her flaws. Then, her character morphed into the cool all-american girl by the end of season 3, and she lost that quirkiness we had come to terms with.

    • TheBestofAlexandra 5 October 2012 at 7:32 PM #

      I’m not very familiar with Glee, but I’d say an insider/outsider could certainly develop into just an insider. Whether this is positive or negative depends, I guess.

  3. kitchenmudge 5 October 2012 at 6:08 PM #

    It’s an extremely old theme. Think of any demigod, such as Jesus or Hercules. In another sense, Jesus came from backwoods Galilee. Joan of Arc was a peasant who came to the court, Arthur was an unknown boy until he pulled the sword…. It goes on.

    • TheBestofAlexandra 5 October 2012 at 7:27 PM #

      I agree that it’s a very old theme, but I’ll have to disagree on some of your examples. Joan of Arc and King Arthur are almost completely uninitiated: They require much tutelage before they can save anybody, so they cannot really be called insiders. And I’d argue that Jesus fits a different category, as well, because He’s an insider because of His omniscience and an outsider because the world hates Him. He is both fully insider and fully outsider just as He is fully God and fully man. He both exposes (fulfills The Law) a la the insider/outsider and fixes (dies for our sins) a la the outsider/insider.

      • kitchenmudge 5 October 2012 at 7:48 PM #

        Not sure Joan required much tutelage. She had a direct line to the Virgin. Arthur, well, had the “blood” of Uther in him, and that ostensibly gave him some great power genetically. Ancient people were kinda strange about nature/nurture. The contradiction of “fully God and fully man” was something christians had to make up to distinguish themselves from pagans, who had been worshipping demigods all along. But the virgin birth story is a pretty obvious appeal to that pagan theme.

      • TheBestofAlexandra 5 October 2012 at 8:05 PM #

        You’re right. Perhaps “tutelage” was the wrong word. Guidance, maybe? I mean, without the messages from above, Joan wouldn’t have put on her armor. And Arthur surely had the capacity, but Merlin spurred him on. Whether you believe it’s made up or not, the fully God and fully man thing is part of the Jesus story and firmly puts Him in a different category. I had plans to do another post about the omniscient insider who is also an outsider. I only have two characters so far: Jesus and the gal from Revenge. Any other ideas? 😉

  4. kitchenmudge 5 October 2012 at 9:21 PM #

    The first omniscient, or near-omniscient character that comes to mind is Gandalf, of course. He knows a lot more than he’s telling all through the story, and you find out at the end that he had one of the elven rings. It might apply to any number of witches or wizards in many stories. How much “inside” or “outside” they might be can vary quite a lot. Think of the witches in Macbeth. Are they there to move Macbeth to action (inside), or just doing their witchy thing when he happens across them (outside)?


  1. The Outsider Who Is an Insider « I Started Late and Forgot the Dog. - 4 October 2012

    […] the flip side of the insider who is an outsider, we have the outsider who is an insider: A character from outside the constructed world who is […]

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