This week I’ve been talking about the challenge of establishing the gender of the narrator in the opening pages of a first person story. When narrators start telling their story without introducing themselves, then readers have to guess whether the narrator is a boy or girl.
Readers look at the clues that writers give them such as the narrator’s friends, especially their best friend. What friends do together and how they talk to each other tends to reveal gender.
The most obvious clues? Friends call each other by their first names. They comment on each other’s clothing or hair or behavior. They engage in activities that helps readers visualize them.
A ten-year-old girl’s best friend might be a girl or boy, but if her best friend is a guy, they probably won’t be found hanging out in her bedroom, painting their toenails together. OK, it’s not impossible that that’s what they’d be doing, but you have to admit that it’s more likely she’d paint her nails with a girlfriend.
While plenty of kids have best friends of the opposite sex, the banter between friends offers readers clues to form a picture of the protagonist.
And when two guys talk, their speech patterns will be more overtly competitive than if the friends are guy/girl or girl/girl. Banter reveals shared interests (baseball versus mean girls), nicknames (Wolf versus Glam), shared history, and relations with other family members. All of which we readers use to identify who is who.
Back to LIAR AND SPY, the forth-coming novel by Rebecca Stead which I discussed in the two prior posts.
Georges’ journey in LIAR AND SPY is to befriend another boy and to discover the complexity of friendship.
So in the opening pages, Georges doesn’t have a best friend lurking nearby who helps us identify that he’s a boy.
Because Georges didn’t have a friend to banter with, I looked to Georges’ other friendly relationship–with teacher Ms. Warner–for clues. He and Ms. Warner high five every Friday and I concluded that Georges had to be a girl.
Later, when Georges made it clear he was a guy, I was anchored in the character. I didn’t feel he was effeminate in the rest of the story. He’s a terrific character and as I mentioned before, I really liked LIAR AND SPY and hope that all you Rebecca Stead fans will too.
But the next time I write in first person, I’ll be especially careful about how I’m cluing in the reader to his or her gender. I’ll assume the reader hasn’t read the flap copy.