YA author Nicola Yoon's Top Ten Outsiders
Writing an outsider character is one of the most enduring tropes of fiction. What better way to explore not only human nature, but the nature of the world and our place in it, than to observe it from afar through a detached gaze? The outsider narrative works in a way similar to that of science fiction or fantasy — re-interpreting our world through the lens of distance to make the familiar strange. How would death seem to the departed? What does the world look like to someone who can’t be a part of it? Enter the outsider, to whom the most ordinary banalities suddenly become profound mysteries.
Here are my top 10 characters who observe the world from the outside:
1. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
From his opening sentence, Nick Carraway sets himself as a man apart: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” Right away we know that Nick is no longer young and, more importantly and distressingly, no longer vulnerable. In the pages that follow, Nick lets the reader know how he came to feel like an outsider not only to himself but to his time and place as well — a man standing outside of his own present, ever paralyzed by the past and distracted by the fantasy of the future.
2. Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon has been raped and murdered. From her place in her own personal heaven, Susie watches as news of her death destroys her family and friends. She watches as her murderer goes on with his life, undetected. The novel is a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful meditation on the nature of love, violence and what it takes to survive in the face of tragedy, all told from the point of view of a soul floating above it all.
3. Un-named narrator in The Invisible Man by Richard Wright
In the beginning of this novel, the main character sits in a secret underground room where he has somehow managed to tap into the power grid undetected by the electrical company. He has installed a wall of dozens upon dozens of light bulbs, all burning brightly — bulbs that both steal from the utility but also illuminate him with a searing glow like a personal spotlight. It’s a powerful, unforgettable image representing the narrator’s desire to be seen in a world that has rendered African Americans invisible in white society..
4. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield doesn’t want to be a part of your stupid world, “if you want to know the truth.” In Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger creates one of the greatest angsty characters of all time. Caulfield alienates himself from the world, even as he desperately wants to be a part of it. Every angst-ridden teenager (and adult) can relate to this helpless limbo of rejecting mainstream society while lacking any idea of how to carve out a place of one’s own. Caulfield is one of the original classic rebels without a cause, raging against the machine with a fiery and impassioned incoherence.
5. Madeline Whittier in Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Madeline Whittier desperately wants to be a part of the world but can’t, because she’s allergic to it. She’s so allergic, in fact, that she hasn’t left her house in all of her seventeen years. When a new neighbor moves in, the possibility of love forces Madeline to question the world she’s known and to consider whether love is worth risking everything for.
6. The Stranger by Albert Camus
His mother may have died today or yesterday, Meursault isn’t really sure and doesn’t really care. What we can be sure of is that Meursault certainly exists outside his sense of humanity. By creating this character, Camus takes us on an exploration of how we make meaning in our lives and asks if making meaning is even possible to begin with.
7. Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Possibly the most literally outside of all the outsiders, Arthur Dent gives new meaning to the phrase “He’s not from around here.” When the Vogons destroy earth to make room for an intergalactic highway, Arthur is forced to board a spaceship filled with unfriendly aliens and survive with his humanity (and towel) intact.
8. Jimmy in Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
In Atwood’s acclaimed apocalyptic novel, Jimmy has a front row seat to the end of the world from the relative safety of a shopping mall. It’s an end that he helped engineer through his own carelessness and hubris. The story is delivered as a series of flashbacks through Jimmy’s lens of utter isolation and crushing regret. Through him, Atwood paints a picture of loss on both a personal and global scale, blending the personal and political until they become inseparable. In the end we are left with a person that the world has literally left behind — a world where nature has evolved beyond humanity and rendered people like Jimmy obsolete.
9. Arnold Spirit a.k.a. Junior in The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Arnold Spirit is the classic outsider. Caught between the world of the reservation on which he grew up and the all-white school that he now attends, Arnold doesn’t believe he belongs to either. Alexie takes us on a journey of self-discovery as Arnold finds a way to reconcile to two worlds within himself into a cohesive identity.
10. Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol
Alice has always been one of my favorite fish-out-of-water stories, and the fact that Carroll sets the whole thing in a beautifully absurdist fantasy world makes it even more fun. The classic novel is widely read as a satire of the politics and judicial system of the time — a crazy, upside-down world viewed through the perplexed eyes of Alice, who questions its basic rules and conventions with the innocence of a child. Which is a great way to shed light on the seeming arbitrariness of government, class, and manners.