Catherine Linka is the author of the two book series, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. Catherine was a YA book buyer for an indie bookstore for 8 years. Connect with Catherine on twitter @cblinka or FB.

It happened again. I began a new book and was a few pages in when I realized the protagonist was not the gender I thought. In this case, she was a he.

If I’d read the flap copy, I would have known that he was a he, but instead I opened the book and started reading. I was shocked on page 6 to discover I had it all wrong.

When I asked myself why, I realized it wasn’t the softly tinted, almost dream-like cover. I had misread the voice.

And this illustrates a challenge for writers of first person narratives–nailing the character’s gender in the voice.

Sometimes narrators greet you in the first page and announce their name and sex–but that’s like having them shove their hand out for a shake. It’s awkward, and doesn’t allow for quirky intros or drama to launch a story.

However, if the main character doesn’t greet the reader, then the reader has to rely on clues to figure out if he is a he or a she. These clues are words, phrases, gestures, expressions, interests, and relationships that help us define guys versus gals.

I went back to the book, trying to understand how I’d so misread the narrator. Now I must reveal that this is the forthcoming novel by Rebecca Stead, LIAR AND SPY.

Please note that I really liked the book, and I have great respect for Rebecca Stead as a writer.

What clues did I misinterpret?

First clue, page one. “One person in the room is going to discover his or her own personal fate: true love or tragic death.”

Who is more likely to care about “true love”–a 7th grade girl or a 7th grade boy? I chose girl.

Wrong!

Second clue, page three. “It’s Friday afternoon, last period. Gym. Ms. Warner and I have done our high five.”

Who do I imagine giving a female gym teacher a high five every week? A girl.

Wrong!

Third clue, page four. “Mom’s always telling me to smile and hoping I’ll turn into a smiley person…”

In my experience, girls are always encouraged to smile and make nice. But no, this mom’s trying to turn her son into a smiley person.

Fourth clue, page five. “Mandy and Gabe are being careful not to stand too close because they secretly like each other.”

In my experience, 7th grade girls have radar that hone in on the finest points of who likes who while 7th grade guys are often clueless.

Wrong, again, apparently.

Fifth clue, page five. “The ball hits the floor between the feet of Dallas Llewellyn, who is standing right in front of me. My serve is what is called an epic fail, and some of the girls start doing the slow clap.”

Dallas doesn’t crack a humiliating joke like guys usually do to other guys. Dallas is silent. The girls  embarrass the protagonist.

So on page six when the author finally revealed the character’s name is Georges, pronounced like George, I realized how my misinterpretations had thrown me off.

Naturally, I couldn’t let this go, so I wrote a five question survey for a dozen 5th and 6th graders who I work with. One third were guys and the rest were girls. Their responses surprised me.

 Tomorrow: Kids weigh in!

Comments

  1. Great examples, Catherine. As you said, one of the perils of using first person. I can hardly wait to see what the kids had to say.

  2. The problem for me, and, I think, many of us who love stories, is that part of the excitement and involvement is visualizing along. We feel betrayed if we have been thinking of one setting and group of people (a gym class is typically girls or boys), and then are snatched away from our fictive dream. Andy Sherrod wrote a critical thesis about books and boys that stop reading. His conclusion after a study was that boys didn’t care about the gender of the protagonist (except for the pink covers), but about a character who is active and “goes forth,” often into uncharted geography. One of the activities as one starts a book is interpreting the clues and forming the story in our heads. The first person character can be ourselves in either gender, and that’s part of the delight of reading. I would be irritated, however, and feel misled to have Catherine’s experience. She was doing the reader’s job: interpreting clues. Too many red herrings on this critical issue distract from the story, and that is really breaking trust with the reader.

    1. I totally agree with Andy about boys being open to active girl characters. Katniss Everdeen is a perfect example as is the heroine of the teen favorite, DIVERGENT.

  3. Whenever we go to a writer’s conference, editors talk about the importance of VOICE–how the voice is often what makes them choose one manuscript over another. So why does this problem exist when editors are so focused on voice?

    My sense is that the gender is clear in the writer’s head, so he or she isn’t considering what the reader needs to form the picture of the narrator. I can only guess that editors know the narrator’s sex before they read a manuscript, because they’ve read the inquiry or an agent has pitched the story to them. So an editor who reads with that knowledge is not going to be extra sensitive to the needs of a reader who does not know that the main character is a boy or girl beforehand.

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