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Fish Out of Water, Character Out of Time

November 18, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 18, 2012

I love a great story about a character dropped into an unfamiliar world. Whether it’s a time-travel adventure, an amnesia story, or something similar, a story that features a character well out of his element grabs my attention almost every time.

Characters who have no support systems or backup, who don’t know which way to turn for help or for even the most basic of needs, can tug at us, drawing us into their worlds and problems quite easily. While they might be dealing with other issues as well, characters out of their element experience their predicaments with added tension and drama. They have to dig deep, they have to trust strangers, they have to try new approaches and use unfamiliar tools to solve their problems.

And such uncertainty makes great story.

Time or Space Travel

A character who plans for a trip to an unfamiliar locale may think he’s prepared but as his creator, you can show how mistaken he is.

Even with training, a character can be wholly helpless (or seemingly so) when he travels to a new world. That new world can be a new job or a new physical location.

It could literally be a different physical world or a different era in the same world.

Yes, you can shuffle your characters around in time and space, dropping them into whatever worlds please you. And when you do, remember to give them reactions to those new worlds or eras.

But don’t merely drop a character into the unfamiliar and leave it at that. Use the unfamiliar setting or situation as setting, yes, but also put it to work against the character. Rather than using such a setting to only frame story events, giving them a place to play out, make the setting an active force working to defeat your character.

And if the character is unexpectedly sucked through time or space, he should have even stronger and longer lasting reactions to what he finds. He does have to eventually adjust and adapt, otherwise the story doesn’t move forward, but don’t ignore character reactions to the unfamiliar and strange, especially first reactions. Think Dorothy landing in Oz and Hank, The Boss, as the Connecticut yankee in King Arthur’s court.

Don’t forget a realistic response to the simple (or not-so-simple) displacement from one world or time to another.

Characters should respond to something so out of the ordinary. If they don’t respond, readers will not either. And those readers may wonder why the character didn’t react. New worlds or settings should prompt responses and confusion and wild thoughts and untempered emotions.

Show the uncertainty. Show characters making mistakes as they try to function. Then show them making different mistakes, and finding success, as they learn to adapt.

Let a character’s brains and strengths help him adapt quickly. Or play the story from the opposite direction—have his strengths hurt him in his new world. Let what had once been strengths prove to be hindrances under the new conditions.

You have the same options for weaknesses. Let them be exaggerated into a source of danger rather than just an inconvenience, or turn what had been weaknesses into strengths in the unfamiliar world.

The character can be a slow adapter or a quick learner. He may repeatedly try one response, not understanding why it doesn’t work. Or he may try once or twice and then realize he’s got to try something different.

He could power his way through problems, if physical prowess has always been his go-to response. And while he may seem to find success or favor with that prowess, at the same time it could bring him attention he doesn’t need. A man with the right kinds of skills could be made to work for the wrong kinds of people—if they could promise he’d have a way home at the end of his job.

A character might have to dial back his strengths to blend in. Or he may have no choice but to stand out.

This World

While it’s fun to imagine what a character would do if dropped into a foreign world or time period, you may not be taking your characters that far. Yet you can use, to a degree, the same kinds of responses you’d give to a character faced with time travel or aliens or an inside-outside world.

Your character may be facing a situation foreign to him. He may be cut off from support—under suspicion for a crime, kicked out by a spouse, fired from a job, outmaneuvered by family members and cut out of a will.

You can use the unknown and unfamiliar even in a familiar setting to set characters adrift, make them rely on strengths they didn’t know they had.

Push your characters. Imagine what they’d be like if faced with an unfamiliar language or actions that don’t make sense to them. Imagine what they’d have to do if they had no money (funds and assets cut off), no easy communication (power is cut off or they have no phones or computers), or if they’d been locked out of their offices or homes or had to flee without making preparations.

A businesswoman compelled to forage in the woods as she’s hunted by zealous law enforcement officers may have no clue how to find food or keep warm or which direction to take to head to safety. Or she could remember back to the days she’d been forced to go with her parents on their many hated camping trips with their Boy Scout troop. Or maybe, grumbling all the way because she hates to admit he was ever right, she slips into survival mode, untested but not unknown skills rising to the surface, all because her ex had made her take survival training as part of his wacky preparations for the end of the world.

Wherever and whenever you put your characters, take advantage of that place and/or time to show them, at least at first, out of their element. Show their reactions as they try to use what has always worked in the past as well as their responses when their efforts don’t work too well in their present. When their actions get them into deeper trouble.

Think of the fish out of water, of the time traveler thrown unexpectedly into an alien landscape. Make use of discomfort and ignorance and fear. Make use of choices that backfire in a world that’s different from the normal one. Make your character’s situation even worse by setting him adrift in the setting, no place to land. Or give him a world that keeps shifting. Whether this means the ground literally shifts under his feet or other characters react in ways he doesn’t expect and can’t make sense of, keep him off balance.

Add to his problems by shaking up his physical, emotional, and mental worlds.

Ways a Writer can Knock a Character Off-kilter

Anything that messes with the tenor of a character’s life, that interrupts his normal, can be used to change his world and make him have to adapt. And these changes can be of any level or intensity. For example, a disruption in a marriage, depending on the cause of that disruption, could be a major change in a character’s world or just an annoying one.

A woman will likely act one way if her husband dies and much differently if he’s having an affair. A car accident that puts her husband in a leg cast brings a different level of response than does an accident that puts him in a coma.

Tailor your characters’ responses to what has happened. Or, conversely, tailor what happens to your character to the response you need to engender.

Suggestions for unsettling characters, for putting them into unfamiliar situations—

Kill a spouse or parent or child. Character responses may be quite different depending on who dies and how (accident, illness, murder)—use what fits your story.

Fire him from his job. If it’s for a legitimate cause, the character will have a different response than if he’s fired for a nefarious or bogus reason. Again, write responses to fit your story.

Have her suspected of a crime and under the suspicion of law enforcement.

Erase your character’s memories.

Have him commit a crime and send him running.

Give a grave or unexpected or life-changing illness to the character or someone close to him.

Give her unimagined or unexpected success.

Get her involved with spies. With the mob. With a cult.

Have his buddies turn on him. They could have been false friends all along or there could be a miscommunication among true friends.

Have him betrayed by best friend or wife or business partner.

Take away her money and her means to make more.

Put him undercover in a social world foreign to him, maybe one he fears, even if the fears prove comical. The fish-out-of-water story can be humorous.

Send him to a different time period in his own world, either with him knowing about it or unexpectedly. His responses will be based on his expectations and level of surprise and discomfort.

Drop her into a different world, again either with her knowledge or without it.

No matter whether or not your characters are literally taken out of their worlds, do put them out of their element. When they can’t reach for those things that ground them or help them or provide support, they’re out of place. Off balance. Confused. Vulnerable.

Make them have to rely on something and someone other than their normal support systems. Make them have to dig deep inside themselves for the tools to adapt and survive and succeed. Make them react to the odd and unfamiliar in ways that make the odd and unfamiliar even more of a problem for them.

Make them respond and use the results of those responses to advance the story.

Take advantage of what you know of feeling out of place and alone, without support or assistance or simply without the company of a friendly face, and write the emotions and responses into your characters’ reactions.

Imagine your character as a fish out of water or a man out of time and see how he reacts. Allow those reactions to make him real. Allow those reactions to make him memorable.



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2 Responses to “Fish Out of Water, Character Out of Time”

  1. Marilyn says:

    These comments came at just the right time for me. I am writing a post-apocalyptic YA novel. Thanks for the ideas.

  2. Marilyn, good luck. Here’s hoping your characters feel thoroughly out of place and then learn how to handle at least most of their problems.