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!