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Trope Discussion: Fish out of Water

Intro: Defining the trope

All right book bees, for this post I’ll be discussing the “fish out of water” trope. This trope is essentially when a character is taken dramatically out of their most comfortable settings. The obvious example is when a mermaid (or similar creature) is transformed to a human form and takes to land. The trope can be applied elsewhere, and used in metaphor, to demonstrate how extremely different an environment is from a character’s comfort zone.

The Little Mermaid example

The easiest way to explain this trope is The Little Mermaid. We’re all familiar with at least one version of the story: a mermaid wishes to live above water on the land and strikes a deal to trade her tail for legs. The mermaid is quite literally a fish out of water, learning to walk and dance and behave like a human in a short period of time above water. The trope doesn’t just cover the physical transformation from mermaid to human, though. The fact that a mermaid has no idea what shoes are, can’t walk or dance on land, and in general has no use for most human tools–forks, for one example–exemplifies this trope. The mermaid has extreme culture shock as a result of the change in scenery, making her transformation and emergence on land a completely strange experience.

Trope in reverse

While the culture shock of this trope can be incredibly entertaining–the frustrated voice of the AI in Emergency Skin dealing with the reality of Earth was awesome–I want to hypothesize about the entertainment value of the trope being reversed. Instead of a fish out of water, imagine a constant outsider finally reaching a place where they feel fully comfortable. This is less “oh that’s funny” entertainment and more “that’s so wholesome” entertainment, probably. Found family would go well with the reverse of the “fish out of water” trope, seeing someone finally gain comfort and feel safety in a place that should be foreign but is instead immediately home.

Final thoughts

I think that the fish out of water trope has a lot of future potential. It’s not just about retelling The Little Mermaid stories, it’s about demonstrating how strange and terrifying new experiences can be when you’re thrust into what is essentially a whole new world. The culture shock is, for me, the most interesting part of the trope. The details of how or why a character is in a new place are less important depending on the story, but the funny and heartfelt moments that come from exploring a new world have limitless potential.

What are some stories that utilize this trope well?

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

4 replies on “Trope Discussion: Fish out of Water”

Feathertide does this beautifully. Marea (the mc) grew up in a basement room in a whorehouse, and wasn’t allowed to go outside. This is for her protection because she has feathers. She finally experiences the world outside AND travels somewhere new and exotic. I’m not describing it well, but it matches the fish out of water tripe.

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