This is the opening of a short story I'm writing:

1996 was the year I became obsessed with animal suicide. I guess you can say it became my reason to live—the sun in my sky, the very air I breathed. I talked about it the all the time: at home, at college, at parties, even at family reunions. So I wasn't surprised when people decided to keep a distance from me. I didn't blame them, though. No one wants to picture a drowning cat while enjoying a meal.

This new found passion also interfered with my dating life. It turns out animal suicide isn't the best topic for a romantic dinner.

"Animal suicide?" The guy I was dating stared at me across the table as though I had brought him some bad news. "That's what your research is about?"

"Well, it's more like a side project," I explained. "It's so interesting! Now I'm reading about thirty cows that threw themselves mysteriously off of a cliff. No one knows the reason, not even the person who wrote the article. Strange, isn't? What kind of existential crisis could lead cows to do that?"

The guy never called again. Too bad. I was beginning to like him.

I though the gender of the narrator would become apparent after the dinner part. But someone told me he couldn't figure out.

Should I make the gender of the narrator more obvious? If so, how?

  • 1
    You mean he "couldn't" figure it out? To me its obvious and pretty much straight forward. Changing to incorporate a more obvious disclosure might lower the quality of the text. Looks good to me this way. Apr 5, 2014 at 12:31

4 Answers 4


The reason you think it's obvious is that you assume that only a woman would be having a romantic dinner with a man. Your baseline assumption is that everyone is straight. There is absolutely nothing in the text which precludes the narrator from being a gay or bi man having a romantic dinner with another gay or bi man.

If you want to assert her gender, you could throw in a bit of third-person description, like:

So I wasn't surprised when people decided to keep a distance from "the lemming lady."

Or the narrator's date could use her name:

"That's what your research is about, Sonya?"

  • Of course, names can be unclear in gender (e.g., Marion, Hilary, Julian). Even clothing and accessories are not 100% gender defining. ("I put my phone in my purse" might be a 90+% indicator of being female; men generally don't wear heels or perfume [but elevated shoes or cologne], even lip balm is probably avoided enough to provide a 60% gender identification from the association with lipstick [beyond any male conception of being too tough to require medicine].) Also, "I'm not a little girl anymore" or "Many girls develop an interest in animal rights, but I found myself fascinated by". Apr 5, 2014 at 19:10
  • @PaulA.Clayton Yes, all true. So Alex would have to make a point of being unambiguous in choice of name or description. Apr 5, 2014 at 19:26
  • @PaulA.Clayton Often times, with names that are neutral gender, the spelling can be a good indicator. But even then, it's not always indicated.
    – hszmv
    Mar 23 at 16:20

I don't think you should make the gender more obvious unless it needs to be more obvious. By choosing a 1st person narration the character uncovers him/herself and the logic should flow from how you have conceived this character to express themselves.

Is gender really a duality anyway? Men and women express their gender in such a variety of ways that you could end up just creating an uninteresting and generic character if you start throwing in some token references.


I think the gender and sexual ambiguity only makes this story that much more compelling. I've written similarly vague characters in the past and consider it not only more difficult to hide a character's gender throughout the narrative but also a pretty big compliment. You can even use this technique to conduct your own mini-experiment of people's perceptions of differences between male and female voice--and potentially use that to strengthen your writing otherwise.

  • I had a secondary character who was clearly male, but he had a very active dating life. The reader only hears about the dates after the fact, but all of them have names that are gender neutral, so it's impossible to actually gage the character's sexuality. The only thing that is concrete is that he and the main character are platonic (The secondary character shows up in a lot of story drafts, sometimes the MC is a guy and sometimes a girl.).
    – hszmv
    Mar 23 at 16:16

Does the gender of the narrator matter? If not, leave it vague. The less you tell readers about the narrator, the more of them will be able to create a mental picture of a narrator they can identify with.

Sometimes, a mystery narrator helps the book. The whole time I was reading Isabel Allende’s Zorro, I was trying to figure out who the narrator was. She didn’t reveal the identity until the end.

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