A "fish out of water" character can serve as a reader proxy: whether it is a wondrous view, an unusual custom, or what have you, the character experiences and responds to them, and through him - the reader.

But what do I do if there's no "fish out of water character" for whom the situation is novel? How do I evoke wonder at the grandeur of an Alhambra-like palace, for example, if my POV characters have been born there, and all the astounding beauty is their day-to-day? How do I draw attention to a custom that is strange to the reader, but is as common to the characters, as seating on a chair is to us?

  • @Todd Wilcox let me give you an example. The very beginning of The Hobbit: "Gandalf came by. Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, [..] you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. [..] All that the unsuspecting Bilbo saw that morning was an old man with a staff." The second part of your question - the reader feels excitement and anticipation, which neither of the characters feel. Ergo, no, you don't have to. The first part? Because I want to evoke that sense of combined beauty and otherness that you get when reading about a different culture. Feb 23, 2018 at 23:06

3 Answers 3


A novel has many elements - this is one of the things that makes it both challenging and fun. Dialog is an element. Exposition is an element. Character arcs, subtext, etc etc.

Description. I think what you are looking for is description. Or more precisely - Evocation.

I went to google to find a relevant passage showing the evoking of awe. I expected to find a passage from some well known work. Instead I found this which coincidentally chose Mark Baker's answer to a similar question.

There are portions of my story where I attempt to describe the sweep and grandeur of a place, and I do not claim to do it well, but several have remarked that those descriptions transport them.

Not dialogue.

Description that evokes the reader's memory of being in an awesome place.

Look at the Writing SE Q&A here.


Make the circumstances special

Sitting on a chair is normal. Sitting on a chair because there is a bomb under it that will detonate the moment you stand up is not.

Your character simply has to see the palace in another light. Maybe they have always been at daytime when some kind of ceremony took place and visitors were allowed. But now for story reasons your character has to hide in the palace at night.

Suddenly everything feels different. The normally sunlit passages are completely dark. You can't even see your own hand, let alone the rows of beautiful portrays of past kings and queens lining the walls. You know they are there, but apart from the contures you can't see the details of their prestigious robes and their golden crown with the small ruby that symbolises the royal blood.

As you progress further you notice that for the first time in your life you are straying from the golden path - the floor tiles that are lined with gold and supposed to be the only ones visitors should step on.

Finally you made it to the big dining hall. The impressive size has always filled you with awe when you were a kid, but now that you can't even see the ceiling in this darkness it feels incredibly dangerous. You know that there are paintings of angels, looking down upon the little sheep that are humans and caring for them - but now their invisible stares feel like they are judging you, waiting for the slightes mistake to use their heavenly spears not against the demons that are waiting outside, but against you.

Or make the character aware of how impressive it is for others

Introduce a new character. Or just let your character watch a little child that is seeing the palace for the first time.

I remember the day I first visited the palace. The grand hall with all its glory. The beautiful mosaics on all sides... It all feels so dull now. The magic is gone.


For first person narration by one of the characters, the idea that they find nothing special in what they're seeing or doing can be used as effectively as specifically mentioning it to give the reader the impression they are in a different place to the world they know.

For third person narration, the narrator can be used as a proxy for the reader - remarking on the remarkable as if it was the reader who was experiencing it.

Secespitus makes a good point that these perspectives can change over time and with context, and contrast with memories of when things were new and surprising would be a nice way to illustrate the difference.

I've been trying to think of an example and keep coming back to the communicators in the original series of Star Trek. In early episodes Kirk would take out his communicator, turn a dial as if tuning it, then speak carefully into it. By the later series he was opening it with a flick of his wrist and talking as if he knew someone would be listening - while to the viewer in the Sixties and Seventies the idea of a personal communication device that people could carry around with them was nothing short of sorcery.

It's true that invoking wonder in the reader is a good place to start, but the experience a reader will value most is when they start to accept things the characters find unremarkable - when the reader becomes, for want of a better expression, one of the gang.

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