The Outsider Who Is an Insider

4 Oct

On 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 thrust into the world, often to effect some change, who has a varying degree of cognizance about his or her setting and role within that setting.

The character who inspired this post is Emma Swan from Once Upon a Time.  She lives in the TV version of real life, but her long-lost-put-up-for-closed-adoption son shows up one day to tell her everyone in his small town is a fairy tale character, they live under a curse enacted by his adopted mother, and Emma’s the only one who can save them.  We learn through her eyes–and apart from her eyes–that all of this is true.  She is an outsider because she does not actually know anything about the citizens of Storybrooke or their plight, but she is an insider by both birth and destiny.

“To my credit, the dude had a Chicago dog for lunch…”

For another example, take Indiana Jones.  While he is an expert in his field, he often finds himself immersed in other cultures, fighting to fix whatever the archaeological problem is.  This is especially the case in Temple of Doom, in which he is an outsider as a westerner but an insider as the one who can figure out the curse and nullify it.  He has special skills needed in the culture he finds himself in.

This character differs from the insider/outsider in both form and function.  The insider/outsider often comes off as rather surly and introspective, whereas the outsider/insider must be, out of narrative necessity, a social butterfly.  How would he or she ever learn about his or her new world without an amount of confidence, charm, and extroversion?

The outsider/insider’s function is similar in that he or she is someone who can stand in for the audience in the story and of course someone the audience can identify with.  However, the role here is not merely to narrate and expose but to fix.  This appeals to our sense of justice and symmetry.

Another defining feature of outsider/insiders is that they can see solutions insiders cannot because of their insider myopia.  When you’re thoroughly entrenched in a setting, you only see solutions that agree with the rules of your world.  The outsider sees things differently and can offer alternatives, can think outside the box.  And as a stand-in for the audience, can do things the audience wishes it could do as it shouts at the screen or page, “No, you have to blah-blah-blah not ya-da-da!”

The Mary Sue in fan fiction almost always plays this part–someone talented from outside the work’s universe who nevertheless possesses skills, talents, something this universe lacks, someone who will almost magically fix all the problems in the universe.

In short, heroes often follow this character pattern.

And we all want to be heroes.

Additional examples:

“Phew! You hadn’t mentioned me in like 4 posts; I was starting to worry you were mad at me.”

Captain Janeway, adrift in a faraway corner of the galaxy in Star Trek: Voyager, does not understand many of the cultures she encounters, but she always seems to save the day anyway, coming up with solutions insiders, because of insider-blinders, could not see.

Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz comes to Oz a misplaced Kansas farmgirl but immediately is assumed to be part of the world.  The munchkins laud her for killing their nemesis, and the Good Witch of the North asks her if she’s a good witch or a bad witch, giving her access to the world in assuming she’s already part of it.  Finally, Dorothy destroys both the Wicked Witch of the West and the facade of the Wizard, something an insider could not do.

Superman is actually an alien with super powers.  He could hardly be more of an outsider, but he uses his special, outsider strength to protect and defend Earth.

4 Responses to “The Outsider Who Is an Insider”

  1. kitchenmudge 5 October 2012 at 6:14 PM #

    Moses is the oldest outsider/insider I can think of offhand. He came from the Egyptian court, but secretly was a Hebrew. There’s also Oedipus.

  2. sternflammende 8 October 2012 at 4:55 PM #

    oh no, not the dreadful mary sue. It’s a passive type character, so why would you mention it here? anyway, do you suggest watching once upon a time?

    • TheBestofAlexandra 8 October 2012 at 5:02 PM #

      Sure, Mary Sues can be passive, but the classic Mary Sue is inserted to have all the best clothes, magically fix things, be an awesome fighter, save everybody, and make out with the hero.
      And yes, I do recommend Once Upon a Time. It’s pretty clever, and it’s super fun.

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