This article is by Mareth Griffith.
In crafting a protagonist, one major factor to consider is the main character’s relationship to the story’s setting – whether the protagonist is an insider or an outsider. A protagonist’s connection to the culture or world in which the story takes place sets up key assumptions that help determine the story’s arc, as well as the nature of the main conflict.
Outsider viewpoints are stories narrated by characters who are strangers or newcomers to the world in which the story takes place. These viewpoints are present almost by definition in portal fantasy and stories involving time travel. Outsider viewpoints are also present in epic fantasy, or any narrative large enough that the protagonist’s quest extends far enough to allow that character to become an outsider themselves. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, while the story begins in the hobbits’ home ground of the Shire, by the middle of the trilogy, the hobbits are enmeshed in the completely unfamiliar settings of Rohan, Minas Tirith, and Mordor.
Outsider protagonists often have story arcs that involve discovery and adaptability. The protagonist has to survive, and pursue their goals while trying to come to terms with the strictures and demands of a world very different from the one they started in. The main conflicts in the stories are more often external, rather than internal. For example, in Julie McElwain’s time travel mystery A Murder in Time, protagonist Kendra Donovan is a former FBI agent thrust from the modern world into 1815 England. She’s attempting to solve the murder of a young girl – a murder she believes is the work of a serial killer. Most of the conflict in the book comes from external motivations – her attempts to trace and confront the killer, as well as her somewhat begrudging attempts to fit in with the mores and standards of the culture, and her frustrations at how her gender hampers her attempts to be taken seriously.
Another feature of outsider protagonists is that often, the protagonist’s eventual success depends on skills taken from their original world, and applied to solve problems or defeat villains in the novel’s main setting. Again taking Kendra as our example, the criminal profiling tactics she used in the FBI are critical in Kendra’s efforts to track down her foe, especially given that in 1815 England, there’s barely a police presence of any sort. In Barbara Hambly’s portal fantasy The Silent Tower, computer programmer Joanna Sheraton, taken unwillingly into a parallel universe, finds herself part of the evil mage Suraklin’s plan to immortalize himself inside the programming of a magic-wielding computer. Joanna’s computer skills, in addition to making her a target of Suraklin’s, are used several times over the course of the books to solve problems the pre-industrial inhabitants of the parallel universe aren’t equipped to understand or confront.
The friction or differing viewpoints between an outsider protagonist and the inhabitants of the world they’ve been thrust into can often be a fruitful source of character conflict in this sort of narrative. Orson Scott Card’s time-traveling historical romance Enchantment is a great example of this sort of character development. Modern-day Russian historian Ivan and 11th century Slavic princess Katarina are forced into a sham engagement to save Katarina’s village from the power-grabbing efforts of an evil witch. As the setting moves from Katarina’s village in dark ages Europe to modern-day America, both characters have the experience of being outsiders – struggling to comprehend the morals, taboos, strictures and religions of a new world – and insiders – guiding their partner through that struggle, and having a front-row seat to their successes, failures, and conflicts. Through these experiences the pair is slowly able to move from a grudging tolerance for each other towards mutual respect and affection.
Insider protagonists – main characters whose story takes place within a world or portion of a world they are familiar with and in which they belong – often have narrative arcs that involve subverting the structures that define the character’s world. As such, the main conflicts can be primarily internal conflicts, rather than (or alongside) external ones. For example, if your protagonist is a citizen of the Evil Empire, their story might involve external conflict – destroying the empire – existing alongside an internal conflict: whether the citizen really thinks the empire needs destroyed at all.
Ursula Le Guin’s second Earthsea book The Tombs of Atuan is a great example of this sort of narrative. Arha begins the story assuming the power and duties of the highest-ranked of the priestesses of the Nameless gods, and their cavernous tombs and treasuries. Her duties involve murdering prisoners sent to the Tombs by a distant king. A large portion of the story involves Arha’s internal conflict when a foreign magician sneaks into the tombs to steal an artifact buried there. Her duties as a priestess are very clear that she ought to kill him, but she hesitates. Over the course of the novel, she comes to doubt both the morality of killing the thief, as well as whether gods that would demand such a thing are deserving of her obedience in the first place. This requires Arha to rethink and abandon nearly every aspect of her life – her duties, religion, and closest friends. This internal struggle adds a huge layer of moral complexity overtop a story which, at a more superficial level, could have been little more than a tomb-raider heist story.
The Star Wars movie The Force Awakens is also a good example of insider characters – featuring both an insider protagonist and an insider villain. In the film, Finn, a former storm trooper, flees the First Order and reluctantly teams up with the Resistance to fight against his former employers. The movie’s villain, Kylo Ren, was raised in the bosom of the Resistance, trained by Luke Skywalker, and then turns against his own family to further his quest for power. The film doesn’t spend a huge amount of screen time devoted to these characters mulling over their choices – but the moral quandaries this forces on both hero and villain are palpable in the film. Consider how much weaker the film would be if, instead, Kylo Ren had been a random dark apprentice, without any connection to the Solo family? Or if Finn had simply been a random citizen of Jakku the day Rey showed up with BB-8 in tow?
Moral Conflict and Insider Viewpoints
Consider how Finn’s character is first presented in the beginning of The Force Awakens. He doesn’t seem to be a very competent or committed storm trooper; we see him kneeling beside a fallen comrade, and, crucially, he’s never shown killing anyone in the opening fight scene. The movie introduces us to a storm trooper who perhaps wants to be the sort of person motivated by virtue and a sense of rightness – but mainly he’s terrified, and willing to abandon the role he was raised to fulfill, in the hopes of escaping his life as soldier.
Imagine if, instead, Finn showed no hesitation in helping to murder dozens of innocent villagers in The Force Awakens’ opening scene. Would we still be as sympathetic to him as a character, or his efforts to escape? Would we believe he’s a character we can sympathize with and believe in? At the very least, this sort of morally dubious main character would probably require a longer and more complicated moral journey to reach the point where he would rescue a prisoner and hijack a fighter craft to escape.
This bring up one of the key pitfalls to be aware of when crafting an insider character who begins the novel as part of an evil, unjust, or morally bankrupt society. An insider protagonist who is completely comfortable with the Evil Foundation Upon Which Their World Exists may not start out as the sort of protagonist your readers will want to spent time with. Also, depending on what that Evil Foundation of your fictional world is, a protagonist willing to tolerate that evil may turn readers against the entire story, before the story progresses far enough to start to subvert some of those evil foundations.
There are a few potential solutions here. Steven Gould’s futuristic thriller Blind Waves has two narrators. Salvage diver Patricia Beenan, discovers evidence that the INS – a militarized and widely distrusted version of the Border Patrol – is deliberately sinking ships filled with refugees. The second narrator, Thomas Beckett, is himself an INS officer – giving us two protagonists with very different starting viewpoints on the crime they’re jointly investigating. Beckett’s insider status, and initial skepticism about the INS’s culpability, is balanced by Beenan’s outsider, and much more damning, beliefs about the crime.
Or, like Finn, perhaps your main character isn’t very good at being an evil minion to begin with. Or, like the narrator at the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984, they struggle with internal conflicts, committing tiny acts of rebellion that go mostly unnoticed by the character’s employers, friends, and relations. In the film version of V for Vendetta, Evey’s initial apathy towards the totalitarian world she is living in is partially explained by the lingering fear of her own parents’ abduction and presumed murder. On the other side, V’s willingness to kill and his obsession with revenge is somewhat softened by his own traumatic history and his avoidance of harming innocent people.
Changing Insider/Outsider Status Over Time
In a series, it’s not uncommon for a characters’ status as an insider or outsider to change from book to book. For example in The Hunger Games books, Katniss begins as an outsider struggling to survive the brutal world of the Capitol and its murderous form of entertainment. Returning to her own District in the beginning of Mockingjay, Katniss finds her status as a champion has made her, in effect, an outsider in her own hometown. Her relationship with the resistance who co-opts her as a figurehead also changes, as Katniss becomes increasingly suspicious of their motives. This sort of insider protagonist – one whose increased access to a group or society brings up doubts as to the morality of their work – can also be found in shows like Chris Carter’s series Millennium, and in books like C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, where academic Mark Studdock eventually turns against the institute that recruited him as he discovers more about their true, destructive intents.
LeGuin’s first and second Earthsea novels are also good examples of changing insider and outsider viewpoints. The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, is an outsider narrative. Ged, a boy whose powerful natural gifts for magic are ineffectively tutored by a half-competent witch, is sent away to a school for magic on the distant island of Roke. His pride and jealousy of other students leads him to disregard the warnings of his elders, and an ill-advised challenge to a rival student leads to a catastrophic summoning that looses an evil creature that hunts him for the rest of the book. The first third of the novel details Ged’s eventual acceptance of the necessity of caution and humility in any exercise of power – necessities that he, as an outsider as well as a headstrong teenager, was fiercely unwilling to accept. The second Earthsea novel, The Tombs of Atuan, as mentioned earlier, is an insider narrative, where Arha’s moral journey isn’t towards acceptance of the beliefs of her elders, but rather the exact opposite.
Summary and Discussion
Outsider viewpoints feature protagonists who initially have little familiarity with the world in which the story takes place. These narratives often require protagonists to adapt significantly to fit into the world of the story, while also giving protagonists scope to use talents or skills from their old world to solve problems in the new one.
Insider viewpoints feature protagonists who are already a part of the world or culture in which the story takes place. These stories can often feature significant internal conflicts as the protagonists struggle with changed understandings of their own world, its moral underpinnings, and their own role in society.
What sort of a protagonist are you creating, and what is their relationship to story’s world? If they are an outsider, what elements of the new world are most different or challenging for them? What skills or knowledge from the old world can they put to use in the new one?
If your protagonist is an insider, what aspects of their world do they rebel against, and what aspects do they accept without question? How can you help your readers perceive your character as sympathetic, even in the midst of a morally compromising setting, right from the very first pages?
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