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There was a similar post about keeping a character nameless in order to contribute to his closed off personality. My concern is is keeping all my characters nameless, only describing their actions (and in doing so, some of their physical traits). The idea would be to get the reader to assume they know some unsaid things about the characters (specifically the species) until the end. I don't think they should have human sounding names, but I don't want to give them names that hint at them being anything but human (at least not until near the end), so for the greater part of the story they would remain nameless

I'm thinking I can get by with referring to relationships (mother, father, son, daughter, friend) and possibly a title. Is there anything else I should keep in mind in handling characters this way?

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There is a difference between outsmarting your readers and tricking them. You don't want to trick them. –  tylerharms Dec 31 '12 at 0:53

3 Answers 3

Truth be told, that is one of the hardest things ever. Definitely give him a title as a reference point. Sometimes a title works just as well as an actual name. For example: "The Dark-Haired man" could refer to a specific character whose name we don't know. Something like that. Be very careful to be specific and make it as obvious as possible who is doing what at which times. Without a name for a character, you will want it to be obvious when he/she is speaking or making an action, just so you don't confuse your readers. I hope this helps!

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Be very careful with this.

A new writer submitted such a story to my writer's group. The main character, referred to as "she," took a drink, picked up her trunk, and a few other things. In the end we discover she is an elephant.

The writer's intention was to amuse us by exposing our assumptions. Unfortunately, not a single one of the half dozen reviewers was amused. Every one of us felt swindled. The writer did not expect this, and became very defensive. She did not return to the writer's group.

I think what happened is this: We readers want to feel involved in the story, involved with the character. As we read the words, we make mental images of what we're reading. We put ourselves into a reader's trance, guided by the written words. This trance is the reason we read. In general, we don't like anything that pops us out of the trance (awkward grammar, out-of-sequence actions, and so on). This story created a trance, then shattered it. That's jarring to the reader, and the writer had better have a very good reason for doing it, a reason that is worth it to the reader.

Over time we train ourselves as writers to induce this reader's trance and not violate it. If our story stars a pair of buddies from page one, and one buddy is a foot and a half taller than the other, we want to say this right away so that the reader can form the right mental image. We don't want the reader to form a mental image and invest in that for 60 pages only to discover that it's wrong. That forces the reader to stop reading, rewind, and replay events with this new mental image. It shatters the reader's sacred trance.

Mostly we writers want to create a trance and sustain it.

There are a few exceptions. When we write riddles ("thirty white horses on a red hill..."), we try to disguise the subject. Our audience knows it's a riddle, and a metaphor. When we write mysteries, we deliberately disguise the significance of the clues. But even in a mystery we wouldn't try to fool the reader into thinking that the detective was looking at a clothing trunk if she were really looking at an elephant's trunk.

So be very careful with this. For most of your story, you're trying to induce a trance. If the point of your story is to lull us into the wrong trance, and then to point out our folly, I think you're in trouble. And if this is not the main point of the story, then the rest of the story will have to offer something very special to compensate for shattering the sacred trance.

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I saw a movie once where at the end they pulled the camera back so you could see the lights and the crew and so forth, and the director stood up and called, "That's a wrap!" and then that was the end. And I found this very annoying. Like duh, yes, I knew it was a movie. Was that supposed to be some stunning revelation? But while I'm watching it, I'm trying to believe, or pretend to believe, that it's real. Throwing in my face that it is not real just felt like they were breaking the deal with the audience. –  Jay Dec 30 '12 at 4:39
    
I have to agree with Dale. If you read enough books from successful authors/publishers on writing, they will inevitably talk about the "contract" between the author and the audience. This is specifically focused on genre writing, but applies to most everything. Orson Scott Card's books are good examples of solid advice in this area. –  Zayne S Halsall Jan 20 '13 at 7:55

I'd primarily avoid having the characters do anything that a human couldn't do, or wouldn't naturally do. No tail-wagging, licking of a character's own butt, etc.-- but also no swinging from tree to tree, flinging poo, or things of that nature, if you want to avoid any question.

A way to actively conceal the characters' species would be to find examples of things that only humans would be expected to do, find a rationale for the non-human doing it, and insert it into the story with enough context to make it believable after the big reveal. For instance, a dog might get on the bus, after being noted in passing as standing next to a woman with a red coat, who's later revealed to be the owner or dog-walker.

If your characters are communicating with each other, of course, you'll either have to let them communicate as humans would, or risk giving it away quite early. Humans do a certain amount of howling at, sniffing of, and cowering in front of each other, but those are not typically our exclusive modes of expression.

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