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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