On Writing: Isekai, Transmigration, and Social Networks

I was tossing fragments of a potential story idea with a fellow ficwriter, and the conversation circled ‘round to my friend stating a preference for isekai stories (character portaled/incarnated in another world) to transmigration stories (main character “wakes up” in the body of a preexisting person in that Other World). Specifically, my friend preferred stories where the character has to earn their skills and abilities, and that’s more likely in an isekai.

It’s a reasonable preference; I like characters earning their shiny skillset too. But that got me thinking on the main difference I see between the two kinds of Other World stories. And it has nothing to do with abilities or Massive Magical Powers.

The key difference is social networks.

An isekai’d character is usually starting from scratch, when it comes to connections with people and places in the new world. From a wish-fulfillment perspective I can see the attraction. Who hasn’t wanted to disappear, to go to a place where no one knows your past, and no one cares?

Realistically speaking, though, that’s a fairly modern perspective. Throughout most of history human survival has depended on social connections; family, tribe, village, kingdom, and so on. Networks spread out risk, so that hopefully when one person has a run of bad luck other connections can help out, and someone having a “lucky strike” can spread that out as well. If you land a massive haul of dish, everyone eats well for a few days. If, however, you have inland connections to Cousin Bob who mines rock salt, that same haul can be preserved all winter.

Yes, a lot of this can be done with trade and free markets. But business means taking risks with people you don’t know. Better to rely on those you do know first.

An isekai’d character doesn’t have these connections. They may be able to build them over time. But they’ll still be a Stranger from Somewhere Else. It affects people’s reactions, and it should affect the story. Yet a lot of isekai stories seem to skip over this aspect, as if only battles and harems mattered.

A transmigrated character has, for better or worse, all the social connections, the “history” of the person they transmigrated into. They’ll have enemies and allies they never made, meaning plenty of potential story complications. But most critically, they have a place in the Other World’s society. They are a Known Person, from Somewhere. Even if people suspect they went crazy, “they’re not acting like themselves”, the social connections still exist. Which means the transmigrator may be able to put more of their energy into exploring the world, instead of having to break into society and build up relationships with a world of complete strangers.

So to me it boils down to, what do you want the story to focus on? If it’s the experience of being a stranger in a new world, isekai is likely the thing. If, however, you wanted to explore a fantastic world from an outsider’s perspective without dealing with all the exhausting “must establish myself socially with every last person I meet”, a transmigration might be better. Thoughts?

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30 thoughts on “On Writing: Isekai, Transmigration, and Social Networks

  1. Happy Saint Lucia’s Day! I’m in full agreement that most isekai stories really don’t bother with the social side of being an Outsider as much. For some of them it is at least partly explained because the main character is the summoned hero/demon king/trumpet player, which means they are expected to behave differently from those around them, and there is less Outsider suspicion. While they are technically an outsider, they are an outsider that was deliberately called in to fill a role which smooths over a lot of the normal difficulties (but certainly not all of them).

    I can’t comment as much on the transmigration side of things, because most of the ones I’ve read are transmigrations into fictional worlds that the main character may or may not know details of, and the appeal is to see how a different person changes things. I’ve not actually come across that many pure transmigration fics where the premise is simply “the main character is now in someone else’s body in an entirely new world.”

    The entirely new world part is definitely an important part of that equation actually now that I think about it. Because otherwise the appropriate response is not, “play the role you have inherited with the body to the best of your ability” but rather “recruit those around you who have a connection to your current body to find out who cursed you both and restore you and the body’s original owner to your proper bodies.”

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    1. “recruit those around you who have a connection to your current body to find out who cursed you both and restore you and the body’s original owner to your proper bodies.”

      Yeah…. I find do-over stories where the character takes over the younger self unsettling enough; somebody else is even more alarming. Yours is a good response — even if the original person is dead, investigation seems warranted if at all possible.

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      1. I’ve actually read at least one story – a romance time travel back to someone else’s life – which did that. And they did figure out what caused it, and the original body inhabitant made a choice or two and the curse didn’t happen. Or something that made everything come out better. It’s been a long time. I haven’t actually seen any story where the transported person’s first priority is finding out who did this and how do I get back. Probably, as I dredge up memories, they’re so busy going:what/where/help!

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    2. I’ve been enjoying _Rise of the Shield Hero_ recently, and it actually takes the isekai’ed character, who is supposed to be a hero in this new world, and lands him on the very bad side of the social network. Not only is he having to learn the world from scratch, he’s having to work from the bottom of the social totem pole, and the way they execute that is pretty darn believable. That’s in contrast to three classic isekai heroes (“heroes”) who have none of the extra baggage, and the writers play that contrast to excellent effect. If you’re at all interested it’s a fun look at the exact problem you were talking about, as well as a good take on a realistic instead of naively altruistic hero who is still nevertheless heroic, just… in an unorthodox way.

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      1. I do have to laugh about some of the folks online who objected to the execution you mention, “nobody would ever do that!”

        SEEN people who will do that, think most of us have.

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  2. That’s a tough one for me. Witch World’s Simon Tregarth integrated so easily in part because he found the Outsider nation, and because they had at least a vague idea of his kind of trip. And I don’t think the setting battled that. If, as in a classic isekai, the protagonist ends up in a generic medieval/fantasy setting, the lack of easy long distance communication helps obscure the lack of Social Network. Lacking the SN can be dangerous, because that lack leads to being targeted for many reasons. (Victim picking, or needing an outsider to resolve a conflict just some.) And it is Not Good if someone doesn’t have a SN. It may be unfair, but loners are suspected of all sorts of things because of that lack. It’s not so noticeable in modern society, but if someone lacks any form of SN, it’s not good. So. If a protagonist can fake a SN, or pretend that their SN is in this world long enough to get an in, it helps create the feeling that this uninformed idiot just came from the next hill/city/country. But then they have the juggling act of how to conceal the initial deception.

    The idea of being a transmigrator gives me hives. I have trouble with the SN I created by my very own self. I cannot imagine the trouble I’d have trying to work out someone else’s. Though, most of the ones I’ve run into at least get a download of the life they’re taking over. Given how many of them happen because someone died I’m actually open to the idea that the transmigrator is actually a reincarnate waking up. Because how could you really tell the difference from the inside?

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  3. Amusingly enough, I dislike the “hit by a truck and wake up when the reincarnation hit their head” thing because it would be so horrifying to the family– as far as they’re concerned, their family member was just body-jacked.

    I like the “book/game/video game is suddenly real” version where at best, they’re established as a recognizable but personally unknown role. It’s the less horrifying option, both for the characters (I didn’t die!) and those around him. (My loved one isn’t brain-dead and controlled by an alien ghost!)

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  4. On transmigration: I actually kind of prefer the ones where the MC ends up starting over as a baby? I guess that technically makes it reincarnation, but you don’t have the ick factor of wondering what happened to version 1.0. Especially since in general people usually prefer the transmigrator to the original.

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  5. Most of the transmigration stories I’ve seen start with the Social Network as the antagonist, with maybe one or two allies and the rest arrayed against them.
    Often responsible for the original’s death.

    The protagonist then has to overcome the burden of annoying, parasitic, evil relatives and it’s much more difficult *because* they are relatives and they can’t ever completely cut that tie.

    It actually turns into a justification for revenge.
    The isekai author might see the allure of starting fresh.
    The transmigration author might want a revenge fantasy lashing out at their social network, so they invent a scenario where the revenge is justified and the character isn’t really being unfilial because they aren’t actually their real family.

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    1. It is a little bit influenced by the society the authors using the tropes commonly write in.

      Japan is high pressure, bureaucratic, credential oriented, maybe samey and a place easy to get caught in a grind without much human contact. Isekai.

      PRC. Winnie the pooh is a man who was not treated pleasantly by Mao’s goons. Among other things, his sister was raped. Unlike many of Mao’s other victims, Winnie grew up gaining power, and wanting to use it the way Mao did. Winnie’s cronies are not nice people, and his goon’s are having fun being unpleasant to people. So, like Japan, you have people desperately missing something that humans hunger for. That is some of the drive for ‘another world would be better in some way’. You also have a lot of people who are very angry for the way they have been abused by those more powerful, and too frightened to outright express it. The xianxia plot helix/chain is about being abused by those stronger, and changing that by powerleveling. (Instead of leaving and finding or making a better situation, which may be more of an American thought process.) Some readers/writers say ‘get stronger, and treat the weaker decently’, some say ‘get stronger’, but don’t have any convictions or understanding of treating others decently, and some few of the readers/writers, like Winnie, prefer to mistreat others.

      It isn’t anger, specifically, at the social network. It is the expectation that anyone and everyone will treat you that way, and the immediate social network is the tutorial level. If it were purely revenge, then you wouldn’t see some of the plots where the abusive family becomes an ally/support network as soon as the MC is strong enough that they are no longer low man on the totem pole.

      I remember a zpoc where the MC ranted about problems being the fault of excessive favoritism towards the non-Han minorities. It may have been necessary to provide an explanation for why things were screwed up that did not put the blame on the government. There were some other choices that made me suspect that the author was a nasty piece of work. (Reason I was quick to drop it was more verisimilitude.)

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      1. Hungry Ghosts, Chung’s Wild Swans, Chung and Halliday’s Mao the Unknown Story, Dikoffer, the Black Book of Communism…

        This stuff is still living memory. People are shaped by a thing, even if they do not dare speak of it.

        And the PRC’s regime is jealous, and would not want to tolerate an internal group that treats people decently. If an extended family /isn’t/ toxic by US standards, there are bureaucrats who might see that as rebellion. “How dare they try to build something outside of the state!” Anyway, on any large group, there are means of bringing pressure, and you can find turncoats.

        One of the things that helped me start putting this together was an ABC getting fed up and going “why don’t you just leave?” Forex, Korean stories make a certain amount of sense when you look into South Korea’s history, how many generations of industrialization, and the size of the place. If you are staying in the place your ancestors lived, then you definitely have some awareness of the prior generations of haves pissing on the prior generations of have nots. Throw in being so close to North Korea and China, and there are some very interesting stresses on a society.

        Americans, generally, are weird in terms of attention to status games and class precisely because the mobility and tolerance of strangers permit loss of oral history.

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  6. In my new story Cymesu’s Tar (3 chapters on Royal Road so far, I’m going for ~6k words a chapter), the POV character Raphael is used to having the Judged Unfairly flaw, so he’s expecting to get cheated wherever he goes . . . and that’s before taking into account that the goddesses who summoned him (and a bunch of other champion candidates) cast him out after the titular Cymesu sneaked in and claimed him out from under their figurative noses.

    Advantage: He’s getting a head start on ‘leveling up’ compared to the others, who are still taking lessons on local conditions. Also, Cymesu isn’t affected by his Judged Unfairly, because not human and not affected by whatever makes him come across as _wrong_, so they can get along.

    Disadvantage: He doesn’t have access to divine-tier progression like they do, his patron’s progression isn’t nearly as good, the progression system for local humans is worse, and his patron is outside human (and near-human) society and thus doesn’t have a guide for local communities. Nor is he ready to survive among the magical beasts and spirits that Cymesu comes from.

    I’m anticipating a lot of running away. But as long as they’re together, he at least can count on the basics of survival. And by having to keep moving on, I can have reader tourism at the same time that he’s learning it all as well. He’ll be building his own social network at the same time, because there are always people willing to deal under the table in exchange for a hefty ‘discount’. (He may end up being in more danger if he manages to force a trade or payoff where he _isn’t_ cheated.)

    The endgame . . . well, hopefully there turns out to be room for an extended narrative until then.

    -Albert

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  7. I was actually just thinking of a tangentially related topic recently: How do you carry social networks and connections with you, in a setting with limited communication and graduated/calibrated measurement? See, nowdays we can say “I got X degree in Y field from Z educational facility”, and there’s _just too many people and too much potential knowledge_ for the average person to actually _test_ that, so they have to trust the reputation of educational facilities in general “the degree means the person has the skills/knowledge”. In older days, you didn’t have the communication or the properly calibrated measurements for a degree to actually mean as much even if you _did_ have one, and the amount of potential knowledge/skill was more easily within the range of “something anyone can test”, so they _did_ test it.
    And that’s why, among other things, Puns have devolved to the pitiful state they’re currently in. At one time, they were like a scholar’s ‘secret handshake’, a means of testing the breadth of knowledge, the depth of intelligence, and the speed and ingenuity of wit, by a contest of concept-play. After a few rounds of Puns, both sides would have a reasonable idea of the other’s relative education and skill, without needing any fancy testing procedures or trust in some distant authority outside of easy communication range.
    And lots of the other old traditions and cultural quirks existed too. Similar tests for “what is this stranger like, and what things is he capable of” that could be done by comparison to locally available examples and known factors, without relying on communication with the outside world or trust in stuff they couldn’t measure directly. And this is usually lost in fiction that visits those sorts of places, since the authors don’t have the cultural understanding of _why_ it existed, even if they do know that it _did_ exist.

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  8. I have to say… Isekai and Transmigration are two story types that… I don’t see the appeal of a lot of the time. Both of them seem like cheats to having an “outsdider” PoV of a situation without doing a lot of work to develop the world the “outsider” is from. Since often the “outsider” is from the modern world (with modern sensibilities/morals/values) or just a different culture all together (transmigration). It just seems… way too contrived for me to buy it. Why not just make the “outsider” an actual outsider from a few counties/countries over (or a few planes of existence over)? That at least knows something of the new place they are in even if it’s something like their food being weird or their sorcerers having odd habits. Cue culture clash (even if it’s over small things)… That’s… works out a lot better than not developing the world the person who isekaied/transmigrated from at all.

    Isekai is… a lot easier to stomach, since “someone summons being from other plane of existence to do x thing” is a very old fantasy trope. And isekai is… honestly just telling that story from the pov of the summoned being, not the person doing the summoning. That that isekai is from the modern world… is definetly a new wrinkle, but who is getting summoned where and for what purpose can be done in so many different ways. The trick is making the characters good and their reactions to getting summoned believable.

    Transmigration also has the massive “ick” factor of someone else having to be made to disappear for the story to work. At least in the mind of character whose body is being inhabited. Which has a lot of unfortunate implications I don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. People do end up getting massive head injuries with brain damage that all but turns their personality into someone else IRL. That… never goes over well with previous relationships, so I don’t really get why it would go over well in Transmigration. Honestly, probably it should go worse if people know transmigration is a thing, because that means the old person was… pretty much killed off for reals so the new person could be in that body…

    Granted… it probably doesn’t help that I’ve looked up how various religions that have reincarnation/transmigration actually think it works… and it’s really obvious how much tokenism is going on in those stories about rincarnation/transmigration. The point of it half the time is… not knowing what you did in the past life that got you to the life you have now. Having something like transmigration/reincarnation happen and you remembering the past life… should be a huge hint that something is wrong… either with how the world works now or with the religion’s view of reincarnation/transmigration (or both). Coming up with a new religion where finding what your past life was like is something people know about already, even if it’s something rare would also work. But given the genre “transmigration” comes up in… it’s pretty obvious what religion is being referenced.

    Reincarnation is a lot less sticky than Transmigration is… because usually that’s less about the destruction of one mind/personality so another one can “wake up” and more about a person getting more memories in addition to the ones they already have about the world. So the shift in personality is usually a lot slower and gradual. But characters are slowly changing and developing in stories anyway, so that was already going to happen. Just that it’s usually not from remembering that past life you had however many centuries ago.

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    1. I’ve seen a few cases of Isekai where the character being moved is from a non-modern context.
      The problem is that the author is trying to do world-building from the perspective of someone the audience might not be able to relate to.
      Especially since most of the story is in the new world with only bits and pieces of the characters past coming through.

      One example is the manhwa Id, which starts with something like a xianxia protagonist (or the Korean equivalent) appearing in a western fantasy setting.
      If the reader doesn’t have a solid grounding in both genres, then it’s horribly confusing.
      Like looking through a stained glass window through another stained glass window.

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    2. Most Japanese are Shinto/Buddhist, and do (at least nominally) believe in reincarnation. So they are tokenizing their own religion.

      But the ha-ha only kidding thing might be how they keep the story light. Treating the theme seriously gets into horror and doomed love territory.

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      1. Academic theory of a religion is recording a past shape.

        Modern fiction is partly a response to current stresses.

        Unsound theology could be a distancing mechanism.

        On the other hand, religions mutate and change over times, apparently. Coexistence with the communist faith could possibility be a fairly unique experience in the history of an older religion.

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