Character at home vs. Fish out of water

Character at home vs. Fish out of water

Sometimes a writer situates a character at home, in a place they know well. Other times, writers toss their character into an unfamiliar place so they’re a fish out of water. Both choices present some challenges for the writer.

I recently read C.J. Sansom’s Dark Fire and John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society, one right after the other. They’re very different books in a lot of ways. Dark Fire is set in Tudor London, displayed in all its political intrigue, power games, cruelty, poverty, and filth. The Kaiju Preservation Society starts in New York City during the pandemic and moves to an alternate Earth. Both books are in first person, so all setting information has to come through the main character’s eyes.

Character at home: Matthew Shardlake

In Dark Fire, the point-of-view character, Matthew Shardlake is at home. He knows London intimately and that feeling of intimacy comes across well. That effect is not necessarily easy to achieve because Matthew is unlikely to notice his familiar surroundings without a reason. Think about entering your house. Do you notice the size of the entryway and arrangement of the furniture? Not routinely. Not unless you have a reason.

So, the challenge for the writer is to give the character a reason to notice.

It helps to deliver descriptions while the character is in motion, passing through a setting, for instance, and able to comment on how unusually crowded it is or how much it smells of sweat because of the sustained heat wave. Or you can have the character bump into something that’s out of place or have to maneuver around something that shouldn’t be there.

The key is stay in the point-of-view character’s head. Stop for a moment and put yourself there.  Then ask yourself what they would see or hear or smell or whatever.

Fish out of water: Jamie Gray

In The Kaiju Preservation Society, Jamie Gray spends most of the book as a fish out of water. He is transported somewhere he’s never been before and knows nothing about. Mostly, that’s useful. It creates an excuse for Jamie to notice everything and ask questions so other characters can explain the situation to him (and to the reader).

The challenge in a fish-out-of-water story is to deliver the explanation in a way that doesn’t stop the story. So, the explanations have to be short or broken up. It’s best if there’s also something interesting going on around the characters while the explanation is being given. Maybe it’s something funny or just weird. The screen writer Blake Snyder calls this technique “The Pope in the Pool” from a movie scene in which exposition is delivered while, in the background, the pope swims laps in the Vatican pool. (Save the Cat, 2005) The audience doesn’t notice they’re being fed information because they’re entertained by what they see.


In summary, for effective delivery of setting, stay in the point-of-view character’s head, and don’t stop the story to get the information across. Actually, that’s good advice for most aspects of writing fiction.


Glass Girl cover
Glass Girl

Glassmaker Emlin is determined to find her mother’s murderer, assuming she doesn’t meet her mother’s fate. But hey, there’s a dragon sleeping in the mountain. And who is this good-looking but too-curious scholar who can’t keep his nose out of her business?

Glass Girl is available at online bookstores or directly from the publisher, Inspired Quill. E-book only $3.99. Paperback is $14.99 but the cover is gorgeous!


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