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?