Inserting a Fish out of water character could be good way to introduce the reader to the world and also great for comic relief, but there were cases in books I've read when the character's naivete or ignorance was overplayed.

For example, a visitor from a more advanced civilization was too slow to interpret the economic situation and cultural clues, creating a somewhat Marie Antoinette-ish character. There were also cases where a character from a rustic background was written like a complete ignoramus.

What are the best ways to avoid these mistakes and portray a believable 'fish out of water' character?

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    imho the challenge here is how to provide comic relief without exaggerating the character. The writer often has to choose one or the other.
    – Alexander
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 17:41
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    I personally try to exaggerate the characters - and then refine them in revision. It gives me a better handle on their unique qualities that way. Whether that's helpful will depend on your personal style.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 17:47
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    If a DM doesn't keep an eye out, he may find the players using undead to build a gigantic computer like a lich version of John von Neumann. Still comparatively better than winning Call of Cthulhu or installing communism on the good kingdom. Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 19:38

5 Answers 5


If you've ever played D&D, think of this character as having low wisdom, high intelligence: smart, but not knowledgeable. Curious. Interested in obtaining new information, looking at new things in wonder, awe - whatever emotion you wish to evoke in the reader. Consider not only the knowledge your character lacks, but also the knowledge he has, and have him respond to new situations in light of this knowledge. (This might lead the character to mistakes, but the mistakes would be understandable and interesting.) Do make sure that your character does have some knowledge - he comes from somewhere, right? He has a frame of reference. He fits new knowledge into what he already knows. Let your character learn (so he doesn't appear stupid), and make him curious to find out things - all the things you want your reader to be curious about. Let the character have an emotional response to acquiring new information - he might be surprised, or feel himself rustic, or whatever, depending on the situation. And sometimes, let this character's status as an outsider be an advantage.

Consider, for example, Pippin's role in the Lord of the Rings. He starts out as a "Fool of a Took" - he does not fully grasp the danger they are in, he acts on impulse. Seeing a deep hole in Moria, he's curious to find out just how deep it is, and coming from the safe, calm Shire, he doesn't have it in him to show caution. Instead, he throws in a rock. Which is what the reader would probably do. The same Pippin later, not fully understanding the political situation in Gondor, nor the magnitude of what he's doing, swears fealty to Lord Denethor - a generous act, as even Gandalf concedes. Here Pippin's actions are naive, but praiseworthy. And that same Pippin, when being given orders that are crazy (burn Faramir alive), does not have a soldier's "obey orders, trust the leader" training, but instead responds as the only sane man. In all situations, he is a fish out of water, to different effects. (Another effect is of course that we see the wonder that is Minas Tirith, as well as the pre-battle fear and the horror of the battle itself through the eyes of Pippin who is new to all those situations, rather than through the eyes of a character who is accustomed to them, and for whom the experiences are thus blunted.)


Probably the easiest way is presume the character is intelligent, well read in history and sociology, and unencumbered by "stick in the mud" thinking. An obvious choice would be to make her a professor and inventor, capable of thinking out of the box, and understanding novel new problems or relationships, or extrapolating from an Earth history that has a dozen kinds of social settings, religions she knows about, political organizations she knows about across the spectrum including communism, socialism, capitalism, dictatorships. She knows about wars and what causes them, she knows about civilization collapse, she knows about sexual relations in societies ranging from strictly suppressed to completely liberal, she knows about economic systems from primitive barter to high finance.

Give her enough knowledge of Earth, and the culture and economics and religion and professions may be new, but she will have plenty of metaphors and analogies to draw from.

So she is not boggled by anything, merely puzzled and works to ask about details, and her guesses may not always be correct but usually good. i.e. she may relate "MAGIC" to "TECHNOLOGY SHE DOES NOT UNDERSTAND BUT CAN USE", like an iPhone is for most people, or the Internet is.

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    I like this answer's suggestion in some cases, but what if the author's Fish out of Water is not from our Earth? A professor type, who can solve problems and is not necessarily "boggled" may pare down the comedic relief more than someone less apt at problem solving.
    – zr00
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 20:25
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    @zarose There is a spectrum of "intelligence" between dumb bunny and experienced professor, so choose a point that works. But even a professor can still come to a wrong conclusion and punch the wrong button or say the wrong thing or do something culturally forbidden, fall back to her own culture, do something innocuous in her culture that is forbidden in the new one. She doesn't have to think about every single move she makes, but she should be smart enough to only make mistakes nearly all of us would also surely make.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 21:03
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    @zarose if the fish out of water is not from earth, just flip the script; they are smart, they have a deep knowledge of their own culture, and understand the new culture through astute observation, analogy and metaphor with respect to their own deeply varied history. And again, that doesn't have to make them infallible, they can break cultural taboos that never occur to them: say their culture has no form of modesty and, if they spill a drink in their lap, take off their pants in public. They are no longer comfortable! It doesn't enter their mind anybody could be offended by their nakedness.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 21:10

If the character is just in the story solely to solve writing problems for you, that is usually pretty clear. If, on the other hand, she is a fully realized character, who happens to be an outsider to the culture she is embedded in, and that happens to solve a few writing problems for you along the way, that's a very different situation.

In other words, if you focus on making this a strong character in her own right, and you don't lean too heavily on her ignorance to help you dramatize your info dumps, you should be completely OK. It isn't the fish-out-of-water aspect that makes a character seem thin or underwritten, it's the fact that the character is thin and underwritten that highlights the fish-out-of-water aspect.

This actually goes for any character role or stock type. If your villain is just there to make life hard on the protagonist, if your main character is just a cookie-cutter hero, if your readers can fill in your sassy sidekick's dialog for him, then you probably haven't put enough independent life into your characters. They need to have some spark about them outside of the work they are doing for you.

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    +1 for the focus on depth of character, rather than what to make the character into. Wish I could +2 for the last paragraph - if the reader already can fill in all the blanks easy peasy, the character is a middleman!
    – zr00
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 20:27

I believe the best option would be to look at real life 'fish out of the water'. In real life, there are two main reasons for being such a fish, IMO.

1. Lack of interest

I'm not particularly old, but I sometimes feel completely out of my depth while talking to my students about some topics. For some of those topics, I'll make an effort and learn about them, but for others I simply don't bother. When my students talk about these or those youtubers, I have a general idea who/what they are, but the details mean nothing to me. Hip-hop or reality TV shows are two other points I'm not interested in, and so I have no idea who does what where or when, and why it is considered funny (sorry, guys, but watching a youtuber teach you how to open a door is not hilarious in my world).

My lack of interest means that I cannot fully participate in some conversations, even though my students get a kick out of trying to explain what they're talking about and why it's funny.

This could relate to a character that is dropped in a new society and decides, for example, that all they need to know is that there are two political parties who hate each other's guts. When people around discuss politics, they'll expect the character to understand what is going on. In fact, the character can even make strange (or plain dumb) statements based off the too little knowledge possessed.

If possible, try to detect friends who are 'fish out of water' on a particular topic and see how they act about it.

2. Learning difficulties

This time look at the elderly you know. Most will have great difficulty keeping up with technological evolution, but there are quite a few that at least try to get how the basic works and some even become quite profficient.

Or you can look at the younger generations. If you work with children or teenagers, you'll know that some will learn some topics quite easily, while others have great difficulty. I don't mean they're dumb at all, mind you! For example, I was a very good student at most subjects... except electricity. Even today I cannot grasp some stuff which everyone around me considers absolute basics. That means, I am a complete 'fish out of the water' every time someone decides to talk about electrical wires and people will sometimes look at me like I'm an alien.

Do note, however, that what is obvious to you is not obvious to whom you're teaching. Just try and let an 'expert' on a topic teach you something you know nothing about. Either the expert is a born teacher, or they'll quickly lose patience with how slow you are at picking something so basic. The problem, though, is that one needs time to...

  1. understand the logic,

  2. memorise all the steps (I'm thinking about how to send a text),

  3. consolidate the process so one will remember it next time (it's easy to get how to do something, only to find out you've forgotten where to go and what to do next time you need to do it again)

Unfortunately, most 'experts' teach like this: you go here, then you click here... and here... and here. And that's it!

When writing a character out of their depth, the key thing is to make sure they act like normal people, so look at people around you and see how they act when they're out of their depth.

The problem is that most people are 'fish out of water' occasionally, while your character will be constantly on a tight spot. Show the effort of the character as they try to soak it all up, show their confusion when the loads of new information start getting mingled into a huge mess, show their frustration with the people who teach too fast so the character never gets a chance of understanding how things work... or simply say how it's done but never give the character a chance to actually do it so they can never fully consolidate the new information.


Well, the best way to introduce a reader to a world is to describe it to them. It worked for Tolkien. It worked for Rowling. It can work for you.

The best way to make a fish out of water character convincing is to have a very good reason why they are out of water, and either show them working as hard as they can to get back in the water, or provide a completely convincing reason why they wish to remain out of the water.

Falseness in a character always comes back to motivation. Every character acts in their own interest. Yes, there is such a thing as altruism, but altruism is an act of love and love is an interest. So if you have a fish out of water, tell us a convincing and self-consistent story about how they came to be out of the water. (By self-consistent, I mean consistent with the theme and mood of the rest of the story.) Then filter everything they do and say through the question of their desire either to return to the water or stay out of it.

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