Inside or Outside?

When we talk about scifi or fantasy or any specfic world and its various aspects, there are two ways for a writer to present them to the audience: as an insider or as an outsider. By this I mean, is the MC someone who is already well-ensconced in the fantastical world around them or are they stepping into this for the first time?

This will largely be determined by the plot of the story, but just consider both options for a moment. How different would the Harry Potter novels have been if they’d been narrated from the point of view of an insider, of someone who was already well established in the magical world? Contrariwise, how would the Bartimaeus trilogy have been different if the narrator had been an outsider, someone dropped into a strange world where summoning demons was commonplace?
There are certain advantages and disadvantages to seeing things either way.
 
Outsider Advantages:
-We get to explore the world just as the MC is exploring it, complete with all the fascinating new sights, sounds and smells.
-We’re able to be more objective in our approach, building our own opinions of people, politics, etc

Outsider Disadvantages:
-All the descriptions and explanations can become expositiony
-The story slows to account for every “WTF is THAT?”

Insider Advantages:
-Intimate feeling of being “in the know” on something unfamiliar to most people
-NOT having to have every detail explained to the MC so the action can move at a good pace

Insider Disadvantages:
-Everything lacks that polish and shine of the brand new; can be taken for granted.
-Awkwardness of explaining something vital that a character already knows about to an audience that doesn’t.

And finally, I give you a few examples from each:

Outsiders:
Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass
Holly Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles
Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize

Insiders:
Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games
Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series
Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron

Sound off, readers! Which do you prefer? Inside or outside?

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Inside or Outside?

  1. Gef

    I’m an outsider more or less. More than once I’ve felt like I’m playing catch up when reading from an insider perspective. And when I’m writing, I usually look for that character who is either on the outside looking in, or is an initiate to the stranger elements.

    • I agree, it CAN be frustrating to read something foreign and flip back through the book wondering “Did I miss something? What the heck is a bleepzork?” Perhaps the best insider would be one with amnesia…? :o)

  2. Isn’t The Golden Compass an “insider” book? Lyra is used to a world of daemons, and we readers have to pick that up on the fly. She doesn’t know all about the power politics of her world, but that comes from being a kid, not from being a new arrival there.

    I think you’ve accurately described the two approaches and their strengths. I think I prefer a blend of the two, such as when Golden Compass or Jones’s Charmed Life introduces fantastic elements matter-of-factly, but we can still see discovery through the eyes of a young or naive protagonist.

    One further model is when an outside element enters a world that seems familiar, as in Nesbit’s Psammead books. Then the protagonist is an insider in the world, but seeing magic for the first time.

    • You know, I waffled on that one, because of the “dust” and alethiometer and the whole situation with Iorek, not to mention the follow-up books with the tiny little people on dragonflies and the subtle knife and the angels. Maybe I would consider Lyra to be both.

      • houseboatonstyx

        Yes, Lyra is an insider to her world of daemons (and to her Oxford, to which most of us are outsiders). But then she visits places that are stranger and stranger yet to her — including our own world. Very rich layers.

  3. Parker Peevyhouse

    I’m so glad you wrote about this. It’s something I’m always trying to decide about.

    The biggest problem, for me, with the outsider approach: the constant “shock and awe.” There are only so many ways to write: “This new and strange thing was really new and strange to the main character and he was so shocked and in awe!”

    • Hahaha! I agree. I loathe having to write a character doing a double-take every five seconds and then having to amp up the disbelief in the text. After a while, you’d think the character would just say, “Okay, everything’s new and strange. Got it.”

  4. Interesting insights, Jo! I’m an insider, mostly. I LIKE the “catch-up” feeling Gef mentions, where I’m reading the story and also trying to figure out stuff at the same time. But I can see how people, and authors, might lean one way or the other.

  5. I agree with how tedious it can be as an outsider; everything is so new and fascinating over and over again. But in general, I prefer being a stranger in a strange land. It gives me more time to absorb the rich details of a new place and a new adventure.

    There are certainly exceptions to the outsider/insider perspective, or more accurately, compromises, that I absolutely love. In Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother series, Torak is raised with the cultural heritage of the world he lives in, but was kept away from other people until he’s orphaned as a teenager, and then he’s forced to re-integrate on his own. The best of both worlds.

    • I’m right there with you on being an outsider, Brenda, and as long as your character has a very VERY patient guide in that world, it can work. (^_^)
      But yes, you and JL both mention that balance, and maybe that’s the key to success.

  6. Interesting post, Jo. I always like to read from the outsider’s perspective for spec fiction, because I like to have bizarre things explained to me. I’m cool with the insider’s perspective for sci-fi and dystopias because there is a level of familiarity I can employ.

    The danger with the outsider’s perspective is the occasional beat-you-over-the-head explanations that grow tiresome. It’s a fine line writing either – over-explaining to the outsider vs. allowing the “insider” reader to still understand what’s going on.

    • “the occasional beat-you-over-the-head explanations that grow tiresome”

      Couldn’t have put it better myself! :)
      I’m going to bring up the Bartimaeus trilogy again, as I think it’s an excellent example of an insider’s perspective, and it’s handled so brilliantly through clever footnotes.

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