Introducing First-Person Narrators

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I gave the first chapter of Featherfolk Draft II to one of my writing groups. The general consensus was that I didn’t introduce my main character very well. One of my groupmates was not even certain of the character’s gender.

I realized this is something I have long struggled with. How do I elegantly introduce facts about a first-person narrator?

There are plenty of (to my mind) inelegant ways, such as providing a convenient mirror within the first few pages for her to glance into, or otherwise having her dwell on her appearance at length for no apparent reason.

I did some research on how other authors introduce the gender of their first-person narrators. This involved pulling down twenty-odd books written in the first person from my shelves and reading until the author stated positively the character’s gender.

Sometimes this happened on the first page, or within the first paragraph. Often, it took a few pages. Always, it was within the first chapter.

And actually, it was fun to think about how and if the stories would have changed with a main character of the opposite gender.

I found six tactics that authors used to identify the character’s gender.

  • The main character told the reader his or her gender-specific first name.
  • The character identified himself/herself with a group of men/boys/sons or women/girls/daughters.
  • Another character spoke the main character’s gender-specific first name.
  • Another character spoke about the main character, using a gender-specific pronoun.
  • The main character described his or her clothing. (This only works if the character is part of a culture familiar to the readers.)
  • One author included a prologue in third person that described the main character.

As far as physical descriptions of main characters, some of the authors didn’t bother in the first chapter. A few gave full descriptions (one included exact height and weight). The most non-intrusive method I noted was comparisons to other characters’ appearances or to a desired norm, and these tid-bits of description came naturally in the flow of the story.

So, since my main character does not have a name that is clearly feminine, nor is she part of a familiar culture with western dress, I will try having her identify herself as one of the girls in her village.

And as she and everyone that she knows has black hair, brown eyes, and brown skin, I will have to find more subtle differences between characters to help bring out these facts.

Although, I really don’t care if my readers ever know that she has brown eyes. It doesn’t matter one bit.

Happy Yarning!

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4 thoughts on “Introducing First-Person Narrators

  1. I think basic coloration is important enough of a detail. It’s probably worthwhile to give hair, skin, and eye color. I also don’t think it’s necessarily inelegant to do the mirror thing unless it’s very forced. I think with your gal, it wouldn’t be hard to describe another character and have her then say “just like me”. Y’know, like, “She had black hair and brown eyes, just like every other girl in our village, including myself.” While specific details can vary a lot, I think the basic coloration will help readers have an essentially cohesive idea of what she looks like and I think that’s important enough to strive for it.

  2. I don’t think lack of this kind of detail is always a bad thing. I know it’s often seen as one, but I don’t think it is, I think it opens the door for the reader’s imagination if none of those details are central to the story or the character.

    But there are very subtle ways of introducing details (relevant or just for show) without doing a mirror. In addition to what Rii said above, there’s also things like a character reflecting on something and how it is similar or different from themself, or which reveal something about them without just coming out and stating it.

    “I was named after my grandmother, and let me tell you, growing up with a girl’s name meant I got picked on a lot.” – boy.
    “I was named after my grandmother. I wonder if my parents somehow knew ahead of time that I was a really a girl inside.” – transgender
    “I was named after my grandmother. I just wish I had gotten her looks as well as her name.” – a girl who doesn’t like her own appearance. Describing her grandmother doesn’t give a perfect picture of her but can be a negative-space picture.
    “I was named after my grandmother, and I can see why. Looking at her picture is almost like looking in a mirror. Dark eyes, dark skin, and kinky hair. I’m glad I look like someone in my family, at least.”
    And description can also add depth to a world as well
    “I was named after my grandmother, but it isn’t safe to go by my real name, so I tell people it’s Kara. A nice proper name in this country. One that doesn’t hint at where we came from.”

    None of these are as cliche and boring as “As I passed the mirror I caught a glance of my raven black hair as it cascaded down my back in a thick braid, contrasting my pale skin and slender frame.” I would probably not bother to read a paragraph that contained such a sentence.

  3. The importance of the details depends on the story. Since yours is being a different culture and race, a little more needs to be said up front. It brings richness to the world, so it’s cool. In reality, it’s true that usually how a character looks is not at all important to the story, and some books can go to the end without the reader knowing anything about the character’s physical appearance. It all depends on what you’re going for. Don’t worry to much about it. Weave it in. You don’t have to make her appearance a big deal.
    I’m proud of you for doing research! That was a very good idea. Just remember, you don’t have to do it the way they did. You can do your own thing! 🙂

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