How To Write The Outsider In Fiction

How To Write The Outsider In Fiction


In this post, we explore the archetype of the outsider in fiction and look at examples of them in short stories and novels.

How To Write The Outsider In Fiction 

In Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fable of the The Ugly Duckling, the misfit young bird is an outsider.

The bird doesn’t seem to find a home on a farm, among the wild geese, or in domesticity with an old woman and her cat. In the end, the character transforms into a beautiful creature. He flies off with a bevy of exquisite swans.

Most stories about outsiders focus on this sense of belonging, identity or recognition. At the centre stands an isolated protagonist who feels they don’t belong. They feel different or strange. They are the loner, the rebel, or the anti-hero. They leave – or are forced to leave – a place where there were others of their kind.

Sometimes their sense of purpose requires them to live, work, and fight alone. Other times, they are on the other side of the window pane. They are the quiet watchers, looking in but not part of the action.

In fiction, the outsider is a fascinating archetype to explore. The outsider allows the writer to explore powerful themes. These include exclusion, loneliness, personal journeys, and self-image. You could also tackle political, historical, or sexual themes through this type of character. 

10 Novels & Short Stories About Outsiders

  1. In the novel The Stranger (1942), Albert Camus explores the theme of alienation. Meursault, a Frenchman living in the colony of Algiers, kills an Arab man. His overwhelming sense of ennui is thrown into existential crisis under the heat of the North African sun.
  2. The novel Shane (1946) by Jack Schaefer, introduces the archetype of the lone plainsman in frontier America. The mysterious Shane comes to the Starrett homestead to escape his fighting past. But he is confronted by violence again and forced to fight.
  3. A Perfect Day for Bananafish (1948) by J.D. Salinger offers an idiosyncratic example of the outsider in a short story. Seymour Glass, suffering from post-traumatic stress after war in Europe, can’t relate to the indulgent, materialistic world of a Florida beach resort. He can’t adapt to post-war civilian society.
  4. The first novel by Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970) tells the story of Pecola. The black girl wishes for the blue eyes of the white folk she sees in her hometown. She is ostracised by the racially divided society of the 1940s.
  5. The novel Crash (1973) by cult English author J.G. Ballard tells of a small set of characters with a bizarre fetish. They find sexual excitement in causing violent car crashes. This leads to obsession and alienation amid unforgiving concrete urban landscapes.
  6. Australian author Peter Carey creates two unforgettable outsiders in Oscar and Lucinda (1988). Oscar, after an unusual and isolated childhood, becomes a clergyman and a gambler. During a boat crossing to Australia, he meets a fellow gambler and outsider. The heiress Lucinda challenges him to a bet that changes both their lives.
  7. Heaped Earth (2001) by David Leavitt is another poignant example. The short story tells of the sensitive, talented immigrant Kusnezov who comes to the cultural wasteland of Hollywood. He is forced to eke out a living playing piano in the background at parties in the late 1950s.
  8. The coming-of-age novel Looking For Alaska (2005) by John Green illustrates how death and guilt can lead to isolation. Pudge and his teenage friends are typical outsiders who try to find meaning in the wake a tragedy.
  9. The Ballad of Black Tom (2016), a short horror novel by Victor LaValle, tells of Tester’s transformation. The character, while a bit of a hustler, becomes a sorcerer, murderer, and outcast. This is as a result of the brutal oppression in Harlem in the 1920s.
  10. Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017) tells of a lonely socially awkward woman who is stuck in an office job and spinsterish existence. Eleanor becomes infatuated with a local singer called Johnnie – only to have her illusions shattered.

5 Myths About The Outsider In Fiction

While we like to believe the outsider is misjudged and misunderstood by their communities, they don’t always have to be brooding or traumatised. In fact, as a writer, you should avoid that cliché or make it interesting.

  1. They don’t fit in. While they may be an introvert, the outsider will fit in when they have to or are required to behave in a socially competent way (like at a party, wedding, or a work situation). What they don’t like is to stand out or feel foolish.
  2. They are lonely or unhappy. Some people are happier with their own company or with a small set of friends. A small town, illness, or religious belief may also keep them isolated.
  3. They are moody or egotistical. Often, they just want to be left alone. The myth of the aloof Greta Garbo had more to do with her diffident Swedish aversion to self-promotion than any romantic Silver Screen mystique.
  4. They have suffered great pain in the past. While some outsiders have suffered tragedy or disappointment, most are sensitive souls who are acutely aware of the world around them. A parents’ divorce or early humiliation can cause them to be more withdrawn.
  5. They dislike authority or rules. Some outsiders are cynical, wounded, and suspicious of society’s structures – but often they are quiet, law-abiding individuals who may have families or lovers. They are not always a radical element ready to upset the status quo.

The Writer As An Outsider

As writers, we often feel like outsiders and probably revel in the idea of being outsiders.

There is a wonderful scene in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The narrator Nick Carraway is drunk at a party in the city. He sees himself as both inside the wild situation and outside on the streets watching his story and the stories of the city unfold.

This woozy perspective perfectly captures the duality of a writer’s role: you’re the watcher, but you are also aware of your role inside any scene. And you are always looking for the universality of a story.

The truth is that writers are dreamers and you can’t dream in a group. It’s something you have to do alone. Sometimes you have to step outside of your own narrow life to see the bigger story.

Exercises For Writing About The Outsider

  1. Write The Ugly Duckling story for 2021. What would it look like in a multi-cultural, diverse world of changing norms, gender, and cultural narratives?
  2. Write about the last time you felt left out or a sense of alienation. Where were you? Use the five senses to explore the memory.
  3. Write about a character looking through a restaurant window at their ex enjoying a meal with a new lover. Use the first person viewpoint.
  4. Create a playlist of songs that an outsider may listen to. Play it when you want to write about isolation or alienation.
  5. Write about a popular character who encounters an outsider and how it changes their perspective. Tell us about the unusual setting in which the two meet.

The Last Word

I hope this post on the outsider in fiction helps you make sense of the archetype.

anthony ehlers Anthony Ehlers facilitates courses for Writers Write. He writes awesome blog posts and workbooks too.

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