The fish-out-of-water character is one of my favorites. It is remarkably versatile and there are so many story situations it works perfectly for (18 according to TV Tropes). I’m currently writing a fish-out-of-water character, which should not be confused with using a fish-out-of-water plot device.
A fish-out-of-water character adds comedy, or gives depth and diversity to the worldbuilding. C-3P0 from Star Wars: A New Hope is the perfect example of a fish-out-of-water character. Although he plays several important roles in the main plotline, the story would not fall apart without him. Other characters could be rewritten to carry his part of the story without any significant plot loss.
The same could not be said of Marty McFly in Back to the Future. In this case, the protagonist being a fish-out-of-water, namely a person trapped in the wrong historical time, is a huge part of the plot. Of the two, the fish-out-of-water plot device is the more common.
See the distinction?
Both types (character driven and plot based) share four elements.
1. Juxtaposition: The fish-out-of-water character needs to look, sound, and act differently from others characters.
C-3PO has a gleaming golden body. This contrasts sharply with the other characters who are dressed in monochromatic neutrals of brown, white and black. He maintains an overly erect posture, while the other protagonist characters (often to avoid injury) are slouching and/or crouching. He speaks in clearly enunciated full and complete sentences and uses a superior and elaborate vocabulary, while others speak more causally and/or use slang.
Marty also dresses differently from those around him. He maintains a casual fashion style, relaxed body posture, slang-rich speech patterns, and more erratic mannerism. The 1950’s kids Marty encounters are extremely repressed, and the world they live in is slower paced than Marty’s. The kids reflect the common values of 1950’s America about class, race, and gender roles, while Marty’s sensibilities are decades more evolved.
2. Self Awareness is an Issue: The fish-out-of-water character might not understand their outsider status. Once aware they are often unwilling, or unable to change.
In the case of C-3P0, he is a bit of both. His protocols are his lifeline during unfamiliar situations and he sees his worth reflected in the value of his programming. Yet his programming is almost worthless in real world situations and he can respond inappropriately to a crisis.
Marty knows he is not fitting in, but he is unwilling to change. He attempts to disguise his behaviors to blend in. However, he gets tripped up a lot, mostly when he thinks his actions reflect the correct behavior.
3. Differences = Benefits: Ultimately these characters offer prospective and/or clarity because they are unique.
C-3P0 is able to see solutions and problems others might miss. His suggestions are often off-base or ill-timed, but he wants to help. Often his only function is to translate for R2-D2, who has many useful abilities.
Marty uses his modern and assertive perspective to teach his teenage father how to stand up to his high school bully. This one change in Marty’s family history snowballs and when Marty returns to his own timeline his father is a new man, confident, strong and successful. This wouldn’t have happened without Marty interjecting his values into the situation.
4. Supports Theme: The fish-out-of-water character’s journey often reaffirms the story’s overall theme.
C-3P0’s character arc mirrors one of the biggest themes of the Star Wars franchise, Public Interest vs. Self Preservation. C-3P0 starts off only slightly loyal to others, but slowly he begins to risk his own safety to help his friends. C-3P0’s shift in perspective is echoed in the shift of Han’s character from self-centered mercenary to hero.
For Marty it was always about family. Marty felt like an outsider in his own home, but by going back in time and being forced to walk in his parent’s teenage shoes, he finally finds a way of connecting with them. His experience teaches him the value of love, and he starts to cherish the family he worked so hard to save.
The fish-out-of-water character sometimes assimilates by the end of the story, but not always. C-3P0 never fundamentally changes, instead the other characters learn to value him for his differences.
Or the fish-out-of-water character can return to his own environment at the end. Marty returns to his correct time, but as an improved version of himself.
Some of my favorite fish-out-of-water examples from books, movies and TV are:
Miss Elizabeth Charming of Austenland. She flies thousands of miles from home to take part in a Jane Austen theme vacation, but has never heard of Pride and Prejudice.
Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop. This streetwise African-American cop, runs headlong into the privilege and prejudices of a rich and famous world. And still gets the better of them.
River and Simon Tam from Firefly. This sister and brother pairing are out-of-place almost everywhere. It’s why they are stronger, and more fiercely loyal to each other and the other crew members, than anyone initially gives them credit for.
All the Hobbits in any book written by J.R.R. Tolkien. No one has ever put together a better cast of fish-out-of-water heroes.
And the best fish-out-of-water in water is: Nemo and Marlin from Finding Nemo.
Once this father and son team leave the small, safe world of the reef, neither is prepared for the challenges of the deep blue.
What about you? Do you have a favorite fish-out-of-water plot or character?
15 thoughts on “Writing Fish-Out-of-Water Characters”
Axel! I love Axel! How about The Karate Kid? Does he qualify?
Karate Kid has a strong fish-out-of-water vibe. For movie version 1, I would say it’s more as a plot device vs. having strong character development. Once the story gets going, Daniel is pretty quick to assimilate. However in version 2 of the movie, there is much stronger fish-out-of-water characterization, as well as the plot aspects. Good addition to our list!
The examples from Firefly were fantastic. And I agree with you; these characters make for a more compelling world than those worlds with everyone who never challenges the ‘normalcy’ of their surroundings. They also add a simple strand of conflict that doesn’t necessarily need resolution by the end. 🙂
Thanks! I’m a huge Firefly fan. : ) If I can find a way to include the show in a post, even as a quick mention, I will take it! I’m very interested in writing about characters who don’t walk with the popular group. Fish-out-of-water types are fragile in many ways, so I love finding ways to give them strengths the other characters will learn to value. And I prefer the ones that don’t resolve their awkwardness. But that’s just me. : )
I loved Finding Nemo, too! Great post, Robin!
I have a great Finding Nemo story! Someday if we ever meet up for drinks at a writing conference, I’ll be sure to spill. : )
Would you consider Joan Wilder from “Romancing the Stone” a fish out of water? NY introvert in the jungle? One of my favorites!
Great character! Yes, I would say Joan Wilder is a match. : )
My vote for fav fish-out-of-water…Stanley Yelnats in Louis Sachar’s HOLES. Love the book, love the character.
Holes is without question one of my top ten favorite middle grade books. Another great pick.
lol. I’d never considered Axel Foley or Spock as a fish-out-of-water. I usually associate that with characters who are clueless and/or naive. (Threepio, Luke.) I guess I will have to re-evaluate my longstanding dislike of fish-out-of-water anything.
Of course there can also be characters who are just naive, but a fish-out-of-water has to go a step beyond that. I’m sorry you don’t like them. : ( I think they’re a lot of fun to write and read. I hope my post helps change your mind about them, at least a little bit. : )
Well, I certainly like Mr. Spock and Axel Foley. I think I have a low annoyance threshold. I generally don’t have the patience to follow a naive or clueless character through a growth arc. (Yet, I like Jar Jar Binks, so maybe I’m just a grouch, I dunno.)
Great post! I’d add Gulliver (from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift) and of course Mr. Spock from Star Trek.
Mr. Spock is another great example! Thanks for adding his name, and Gulliver’s to the list. : )