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I have written a 1st person piece and reading it I realize it's very difficult to tell if the narrator is male or female. There are one or two clues, and they come pretty late in the piece.

Would you as readers busy yourself with trying to figure out gender? Or do you think you would automatically assume one gender? and then would it be frustrating to find out you were wrong?

Would you as a writer try to clarify this early on?

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edit: There are good answers. Obviously part of every answer is that it depends on what I want to achieve.

To clarify, it isn't important information for the understanding of the piece, as far as I am concerned. I don't really mind if it was understood one way or another; I just want it out of the reader's way.

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If it isn't important to the understanding of the piece I would clarify it and ignore it so the reader at least gets a feel for who the narrator is (assuming they're relevant, which I assume they are) –  Ben Brocka Jan 24 '12 at 21:14
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Nah.. I just assume it's Morgan Freeman :) –  ikegami Jan 25 '12 at 20:26
    
Only if the plot requires it. In To Kill a Mockinbird, we have to know that Scout is a girl. In A Good Man is Hard to Find, the narrator's gender is of no interest. In The Artificial Nigger, the narrator might be either grandson or granddaughter. Let the reader decide the narrator's gender if you can. –  Pete Wilson Jan 28 '12 at 16:00
    
Consider Prodigy's video for "Smack My Bitch Up". What effect does it have on you? –  tylerharms Dec 26 '12 at 23:12
    
One example of YA writing which does this well is The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tylor. You assume, naturally, that the narrator is a boy. She isn't. –  TRiG Feb 1 '13 at 23:49
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8 Answers

I recently wrote a short story which was written in the first-person style. As part of this I chose specifically not to disclose the setting and the gender of the character.

Everyone who read the story said it was brilliant, so in my opinion you don't need to disclose the narrators gender.

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Normally the purpose of fiction is to let the reader immerse into your story - to get him caught deeply into the world you have created.

If the reader is wondering about the narrator's gender all the time, there will be no immersion. If he assumes a gender and it is wrong then he will be ejected out of your story when he discovers his error.

If you want to avoid that, clarify the gender early on. Otherwise leave it. Maybe you want to play with the reader and fool him a little bit, that's your choice.

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My response would have to be that the narrator's gender is irrelevant unless you choose to make it relevant. I would say, in addition to that, that if you do choose to make the gender of the narrator relevant, that you should decide early in your writing whether you want to make it clear or hide it from your reader.

It can be a very powerful effect to cause the reader to realize they had been making a false assumption throughout your entire story. The one warning I would give you is to not let it overshadow other ideas or plot twists that you want the reader to discover. Depending on how jarring you make such a realization for the reader, it could have a positive or negative effect on the rest of your story.

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If you characterize your narrator, then add gender. If you keep your narrator the omniscient without characterization, no need to mention anything about gender.

Consider the 'Harry Potter' novels. Is there any mention of the narrator's gender? Or even that there is a narrator at all?

Now look at John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" (I just happen to adore this book, and thus I am using it as my example). The very first word of the novel is "I". Since the narrator is characterized, the author must then tell us a little about who the person is.

It may be the intent of the author to string the reader along a bit- making the identity of the narrator part of the story. But unless he/she has a good reason for doing it (intrinsic to the story), the narrator generally remains the anonymous omniscient.

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Part of the beauty provided by the written story is that the reader's imagination can paint a vivid image however that reader's mind may wander. I can only imagine that the narrator's gender is only important if it becomes part of the story. Otherwise, I personally may have my own narrator's voice that I like to imagine. Being informed of the gender may remove that simple pleasure from the reading.

On the other hand, I like the comments about how it can be woven into the story line, and even end up being contrary to what the reader originally supposed. And it could be quite fun for the reader to be taken in in that way. (For example, a story about a boy growing up, as told by his best friend. The majority of the story could be all about boys' things, but the narrator could end up being the girl next door. That kind of story could be appealing. ;)

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I'd ask whether you are trying to do anything with the reader's knowledge of the narrator's gender. From your added comment it seems like you are not; in that case, I'd ask whether it's important for the story whether the narrator even has a particular gender. Again, it seems like it's not. I'd say, then, that you can improve your story by tying in this loose thread: give the character a motivation, or experience, or personality related to their gender. The reader will make an assumption about all of these things and, if you don't accept the task of addressing the consequences, they will be left with a sense of incompleteness. Write tight, is what I'm saying.

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As a reader discovering your implicit assumptions about a character were wrong can be disconcerting. However,if done deliberately to make a point it can be effective. Heinlein did it in several of his novels with the main characters race.

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As a reader, I tend to assume a gender (often but not always the same as the author's). The only reason this would bother me is that it's jarring when I discover I'm wrong, as I have to reimagine the character.

As a writer I do try to clarify it early, and that's the advice I've heard from others as well. It's tricky in first person, especially if the piece begins with the narrator alone.

Mentioning their gender-typical clothing is a pretty simple way to do it. Another possible trick is to have the narrator think of him/herself like "not my mother's daughter," "one of the boys," "the smartest girl in class"--anything that drops a clue early.

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+1. As a reader I don't care if the author doesn't (it usually doesn't matter), but if it does matter, don't surprise me unless that's an intentional twist in the story. –  Monica Cellio Jan 24 '12 at 15:07
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