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I'm a newcomer to this community, and have recently started giving serious thought to my first novel. I'm basically working on an idea I had a few years back. It's fiction, has a lot to do with faeries, Celtic mythology, dark fantasy, nightmarish apocalyptic scenarios...you know, fun stuff.

Now, to cut the long story short, here's my predicament: I've decided that I'm going to purposely keep my main character's gender ambiguous. The reader will have no indications as to whether said character is male or female, and I've already decided that other characters won't be referring to him/her by any pronouns that might give it away.

My question is, how do I go about doing that? I've already been advised that I should write from first-person perspective to make things easier, but other than that, are there any pointers I should keep in mind so that the reader doesn't realize the gender? I also want the reader to keep on second-guessing, like at one point they think, "Yup, this is definitely a dude" only to go, "Wait, now I'm confused". I want them to keep on questioning it, but not to the point that it distracts them from the plot of the story itself.

Please, any advice would be greatly appreciated.

EDIT

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I should've cleared some things up, such as the gender identity of my MC in question.

Since this is a fantasy world, I've taken a lot of liberties, and in doing so, I've created the MC so that the species they belong to are natural androgynes. In that, they are born androgynous. Neither male nor female. I've planned on doing this reveal at some point in my novel.

Thank you once again. Your insights have been helpful and much appreciated.

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    Why are you hiding the character's androgyny? Does the reveal mean something to the story? Careful that you're not just dropping in a twist ending for the sake of having the twist. (Rhetorical question, really. Your answers might be deeper than what's appropriate for this forum.) – Ken Mohnkern Apr 25 '17 at 13:51
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    This reminds me of some novel (don't remember title or author, might be Swedish), where the main character is a brain (plus one eye) suspended in a fluid tank in a lab with no memory to their prior personality; for some time the brain even tries to figure out if their personaility id male or female and if that makes sense at all ... – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 25 '17 at 15:19
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    See also the classic Left Hand Of Darkness. – pjc50 Apr 25 '17 at 15:24
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    The character "Vaarsuvius" of the Order of the Stick has been purposely ambiguous over the course of a rather long story arc. It did not seem to get in the way of story telling (more than was intentional) in part because other characters would simply say "V" rather than "he" or "she", and V's culture was such that V had "a mate" rather than a "wife"/"husband". In my opinion, it worked quite well, and the ambiguity definitely helped (in a positive way) the quirkiness of the character and general story. – KlaymenDK Apr 27 '17 at 11:15
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    @KlaymenDK V's gender ambiguity was a pun on DnD elven androgynousness, and it did not break ambience. The characters in-universe didn't know what V is, and are troubled by that. – Mindwin Apr 27 '17 at 13:50

15 Answers 15

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One of the things that seems like a good idea to many beginning writers is trying to deceive the reader in some way or another. There is one problem with this idea: readers don't like it.

And why should they? The reader's enjoyment of a story depends on their ability to enter into the world of the story, to enter into what Tolkien called the sub-created world of the author. Disappointment comes when that illusion is shattered. But entry into the world, and the maintenance of belief in that world, become much more difficult if part of the picture is permanently greyed out or pixelated. It is as if the writer is refusing to let the reader in, and, of course, if the reader can't get in, they will stop reading.

Yes, there is such a thing as an unreliable narrator. But the unreliable narrator is a construct of the writer and the reader meets them as they meet an untruthful person in real life. Their unreliability is presented wholly and honestly so that the reader can enter into the world in which the unreliable narrator exists and form judgements about them.

Story is something very fundamental to the human psyche. We love stories. We need stories. We live by stories. And for this very reason, story has a very specific form. The body recognizes story, and if a narrative comes along that the body does not recognize as story, our mental antibodies attack and reject it.

Story allows for infinite variety within its basic structure and rules. But its most basic rule is to be honest with the reader.

EDIT (in response to the OPs edit):

Gender is one of the first things we notice about people when we meet them. It is how our recognition system works. We categorize things, and gender is one of the most fundamental categories, perhaps the most fundamental category, that we use to categorize the people we meet. This is why androgyny is so striking when we see it: it disrupts our recognition system.

So, concealing the androgyny of your MC is an affront to the reader's most basic recognition of individuals. Whether or not the reader is open to varieties of gender, gender itself, whether binary or not, is a fundamental category of recognition. The reader cannot form a picture of the character without it, and so they will either give up on the character or make a decision for themselves.

If your characters are androgynous, say they are androgynous right up front. The first thing that the reader would notice about your character in real life is the first thing you should tell them about them in a story. You are creating an experience for the reader, and that experience is going to be incomplete and frustrating if you do not tell them the basic things they need to form a picture.

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    to add to this excellent answer: If none of your other characters display confusion over the MC's ambiguous gender or bring it up, they will feel unnatural and hard to identify with once the reader finds out, making the ejection from immersion that much worse when the reveal comes. And if in your world people are perfectly used to androgynous humanoids, why are you making a big thing out of it? – Cyrus Apr 25 '17 at 14:20
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    Readers don't like it when the author "cheats," but if the author "plays" it could work, e.g. if the narrator repeatedly questions their own gender or tries to figure it out along with the reader, that sort of thing. In the well-known Iain Banks novel whose title escapes me (factory something), there is a deception of sorts, and I don't think readers disliked it. – PatrickT Apr 25 '17 at 16:34
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    A powerful show-don't-tell approach would be to have some of the less wise characters jump to conclusions about the main character's gender, assigning them either "him" or "her" immediately without asking. If a few characters guess differently, it will highlight the ambiguity. If the main character doesn't even bother to "correct" them, it will also give a strong sense that they're very used to people trying to pigeonhole them into a gender and they're used to just playing along with it. They might even choose a more masculine or feminine approach to gain an advantage in such circumstances. – Cort Ammon Apr 25 '17 at 16:39
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    This answer may very well be right in that it's likely to work badly if a beginner writer just silently refuses to make any clear statement as to the main character's gender. However I strongly hope the OP gives it a try regardless. I consider this at least a very interesting experiment. – leftaroundabout Apr 25 '17 at 22:56
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    I can't begin to describe how disappointed I am to find this as the top answer. The asker didn't request a reason why not to answer the question. This doesn't answer the question. There are plenty of legitimate reasons why someone might want to hide gender from a reader. This answer comes off as upbraiding someone for wanting to do something you can't see any point in, when you don't even know anything about the story. – Trixie Wolf Apr 28 '17 at 16:25
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Just don't mention it! Consider giving your character a short name, so that it's less jarring when you inevitably use their name more often than usual, and find ways to phrase your sentences without pronouns referring to the character. When there is dialogue, have other characters address your character directly so they can use 'you' a lot.

Gene Kemp's novel The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler is a lovely tale of children getting up to mischief at school, and while most people regard the reveal at the end that Tyke

is a girl

as a twist, I wouldn't say the reader feels deceived and it doesn't interfere with the readability of the rest of the novel. Unfortunately I can't find any suitable extracts online to quote (and don't have a copy to hand), but this is certainly possible.

When/if you do reveal that your character's species is androgynous, the reader can reconsider the assumptions they made (consciously or unconsciously). You don't need to add anything specific to force them to consider the character's gender along the way.

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    Upvoted for actually answering the question. – Tor Klingberg Apr 27 '17 at 15:36
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Once again, @MarkBaker is spot-on. When the author keeps information from the reader that the other characters all know, it feels manipulative to the reader.

If you must keep something from your readers, keep it from at least one character in the story as well. A natural way to do this is to tell the story from the point of view of an ignorant character. This character could even bring up the uncertainty: "Are you a dude?" "That's for you to find out." Just make sure that the reader isn't the only person in the room that's in the dark.

  • You beat me to my own answer :) +1. – Lew Apr 25 '17 at 13:44
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...I should write from [the] first-person perspective to make things easier...

If for whatever reason you want to keep the gender of your main character a secret, the first-person perspective is the last one you would want to employ as a story delivery vehicle. Yes, it would give your character a way to refer to themselves as ambiguous I instead of gender-specific he or she (I am assuming that your species are either male or female, but--per your clarification--androgynous I will have the same connotation), but it will also put you in quite a predicament: how to engage your reader by your story, while clearly withholding something from them.

While it might work for a short story (this trickery being the main point of it), I seriously doubt that you can keep it up for the duration of a novel.

Since there is no way your character will not be aware of their gender, I would suggest staying away from the first-person POV. Making your narrator so obviously unreliable will annoy most readers, just as @MarkBaker noted in his answer.

In Robin Hobb's series of novels, one of the titular characters, Fool, who is ostensibly male in most appearances, later in the story assumes a female identity under the name Amber. It works for the story because it is done deliberately for the purpose of deception of other characters, and when the readers eventually start to question Fool's/Amber's gender, it is a sort of a bonus. Note, however, that the story is never told from the Fool's/Amber's POV, and that is the only way Hobb keeps the suspense going without outrageously lying to the reader.

So, unless you want to alienate your reader, you are pretty much limited to a POV of an observer, who is just as confused about your main character gender affiliation, as you want your readers to be.

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    Maybe the viewpoint character perceives themselves as non-gender. Maybe they do have a sex assigned at birth, but reject all gender roles which come with it, as well as any which come with the other gender. But this would be a pretty integral part of the character, so it should be revealed early. It might be possible, though, to hide the biological sex, because they themselves consider it irrelevant to their identity. – Philipp Apr 26 '17 at 6:13
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    Fool is one of my favourite characters of all time because you know there is something going on that you don't know about and don't know wtf it is. – user21642 Apr 26 '17 at 9:02
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    "how to engage your reader by your story, while clearly withholding something from them" -- Noir and hardboiled fiction seem to use this device quite a bit: the narrator is "up to something", but the reader doesn't know what until later. I could name (but it would be a spoiler) a very well-regarded Agatha Christie novel that does it. Faulkner withholds information within stream-of-consciousness in The Sound and the Fury, never mind withholding it where the POV is explicitly framed as a narrator :-) Of course the fact people have done it well doesn't make it easy. – Steve Jessop Apr 28 '17 at 12:06
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    Rule of thumb, though: just because someone is a POV character doesn't mean you have to write down every thought that enters their head. It doesn't even mean that the thing the reader wants to know will enter their head, at least not as the simple statement of fact the reader wants. – Steve Jessop Apr 28 '17 at 12:14
  • @SteveJessop I was referring to a specific case of avoiding giving information about the main character's gender while that is important to the story and while telling the story from a first-person POV. That, in my estimation, is quite hard to pull off (leaving aside the question why) :) – Lew Apr 28 '17 at 13:01
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1) Where's the best place to hide a red fish? In a pond full of other red fish.

Since you're writing in a fantasy genre, you have liberty to create an entire society. You're doing all your own worldbuilding. So create a society/race/culture where nobody's gender is ever established. A gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun will be required, but there are many (or you can coin your own).

Your characters who aren't of Red Fish's people can be binarily gendered and use standard pronouns. It's up to you if you want them to express confusion or struggle with how to address Red Fish.

2) Whether your reader will be distracted by Red Fish's gender ambiguity depends on what else you define about the character.

We establish a concept of the characters, settings, and actions in our heads as we read (some people visualize, some only get the radio drama, but there's some mental thing going on). If you say elf or dwarf, we have a vague outline of what the species is, and certain expectations. Elves and dwarves are sexually dimorphous, so an ambiguously gendered elf or dwarf is going to irritate the reader after a while.

But if you say breezleklorp, we don't know what one of those looks like, or what characteristics it has. Humanoid? Bipedial? Symmetrical? How many heads, eyes, arms, genders? You could get away with an ambiguously gendered breezleklorp for quite some time if you're only slowly revealing the characteristics of breezleklorpim as the story proceeds.

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    But this is a somewhat different thing. You are talking about writing about a society with explicitly covert gender. In other words, the hiding of gender is a feature of the society, about which the the writers is wholly honest, as opposed to what the OP is proposing, which is a story in which the MCs gender is hidden from the reader as a piece of narrative trickery. The former is honest storytelling (I think The Left Hand of Darkness might be a model, but it's been too long since i read it to be sure), the latter is dishonest. – Mark Baker Apr 25 '17 at 12:48
  • @MarkBaker Please read the OP's edit. "A society with explicitly covert gender" is kind of what's being aimed for. Red Fish's species is androgynous, which is what I was suggesting. The author is not hiding a gender which the character doesn't have. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 25 '17 at 13:36
  • No, now they are proposing to hide the fact that the character is androgynous, which is just as problematic. (BTW: the downvote on your answer did not come from me.) – Mark Baker Apr 25 '17 at 13:55
  • @MarkBaker Parcelling out the reveal of an androgynous character in fantasy isn't problematic for me; I could see it being pulled off quite well. But apparently I'm the only one who thinks so. :) (and thank you for not DVing me.) – Lauren Ipsum Apr 25 '17 at 14:02
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    I don't see why this was downvoted. Seems like a good answer to me. +1 – TheTermiteSociety Apr 25 '17 at 14:54
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I think Mark Baker's answer covers the general rule very well, but the answer in your specific case will depend on the story.

The reason, I think, why you should generally make your character's gender known, is that gender will normally be a part of the story on some level. We all define ourselves to some extent by our gender (if sometimes grudgingly), and since stories are really about the conflict between different people's understanding of the world (and thus themselves), you're cheating your reader out of part of the story if you fail to reveal this information.

On the other hand, if your character is interacting only with it's own species, I actually think it's perfectly reasonable to neglect its gender. Such a character is unlikely to think in terms of gender, and - particularly in a first person narrative - there's no obvious reason why it or its absence should need to be revealed. I could imagine a story in which several genderless characters interact for some time before coming into contact with humans (or some other gendered species). In this case, though, the character should be communicating their own reaction to the gendered characters, rather than being surprised at their own lack of gender.

I nonetheless think that deliberately decieving your reader should not be the goal. It should be made obvious that gender isn't relevant to this character, rather than the reader being encouraged to guess the gender.

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    "It should be made obvious that gender isn't relevant to this character." Yes, this, exactly this. I'm glad somebody understood what I was trying to get across. :) – Lauren Ipsum Apr 25 '17 at 15:37
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    +1 especially for the last paragraph. If you clearly state that this race has no sex or this culture makes absolutely no distinctions based on sex, including how they dress and generally present themselves, there's no reason why that should be an impediment to a story. Lots of sci-fi stories include strange attributes of alien races, this one is not hard to imagine at all. The problem comes if you try to take something that would be obvious to all the characters in the story and hide it from the reader. – Jay Apr 26 '17 at 15:32
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    Agreed - if gender isn't relevant to the character, then just make the character something where gender isn't relevant. Nobody cares about the gender of aliens that don't have gender or are gender-fluid, or the gender of robotic constructs, etc. There's a huge difference between a character not having a gender, or in-universe ambiguous gender, and a character having a gender, everyone in the story knowing the character's gender, but the reader not being told what it is. The first two are unobjectionable, the final one generally is. – neminem Apr 27 '17 at 16:03
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You can write the story from the viewpoint of characters who do not know the gender of the main character. If you want the reader to care and to wonder, use viewpoint characters who care and wonder.

You can sometimes use little tricks to briefly delay revealing information that a viewpoint character discovers or realizes. But that works only briefly. And only a few times in a novel.

If you write in the viewpoint of someone who knows the MC's gender, and who would normally think about that gender consciously, the only way to hide that information is to use a distant viewpoint. But using a distant viewpoint will… uh… keep the reader distant from that viewpoint. And that will almost certainly leave the reader caring less about the characters than you want them to.

Another trick, which readers tend to hate, and some of us (Hi! I'm Dale!) hate with a deep and abiding passion, is to become suddenly vague every time the detail comes up. We're deeply in the character's viewpoint, seeing and hearing and feeling and following every minute detail of what they're experiencing. And then suddenly we go all vague and abstract.

Readers feel that, even if they don't know why. They're reacting to the author's intrusive hand, rather than to what the characters are experiencing.

Dan Brown pulls viewpoint shenanigans like that all the time.

For example, his most recent novel Inferno has several scenes where the same close-viewpoint character thinks of self using different names (actually, a name in some scenes, and a number in others).

Oh, I hate that. I consider it authorial malpractice of the highest order.

But I couldn't stop reading.

So Dan Brown commits every authorial felony in the book to hide viewpoint characters' information from readers. But I don't think he's ever tried to sustain that over the course of a whole novel.

6

Gender is one of the first things we notice in others, as mentioned in previous posts. However, you've stated that you're thinking about writing in first person, and that the narrator is going to be part of an androgynous race. Their own gender may not be something that goes through their own mind a lot, or even at all, and if their own gender isn't something they think about, then it wouldn't necessarily be part of their narration.

Think about how a person writes a diary. You could read pages and pages of a diary without seeing a single reference to what gender its writer is, because the diary is based around the pronoun "I." Just for fun, I skimmed two weeks of Samuel Pepys at random. There is no explicit mention of the writer's gender. Sure if you know anything about London society in 1660s and make the very safe assumption that a person during that time period with a wife and these sorts of social activities is necessarily male, then you know the author's gender, but these are still assumptions. At least in the passages I read, Pepys makes no direct reference to being male. (Also, I get the feeling that concerns about referring to "my wife" revealing the speaker's gender for sure might not be as significant in a modern fantasy race.)

This can work with other character interactions, as well. When people talk to each other do they always mention the gender of the person they're greeting? They do sometimes ("Hello, Ladies"), but there are enough non-gender based options, that avoiding them doesn't really seem like avoidance. "It's been so long since I've seen you, what have you been up to?" or "Can you help me out with this life-altering dilemma?" or "Meet my new friend, Alex," or "Please put the camel in the garage," are all perfectly reasonable things to talk about with someone that don't rely on knowing the speakers' genders.

You've got the extra leverage of having an androgynous race, but I would argue that this is not even necessary. There are plenty of humans who go about their day to day business without thinking about their own gender very much - certainly not enough to write in any record of the day.

For a good example, I would recommend that you check out The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macauley. The narrator of this book never genders themself, and their lover is only gendered in the final pages, but a lot of people don't even mention this when they talk about this book (it's not even on the Wikipedia page), because the lack of explicitly stated gender is not intrusive; the narrator's gender is just sort of not there. This book is the best example I know of as a first person narration that never explicitly mentions the narrator's gender.

I was about 1/4 of the way through reading it before I realized that there were no gendered words used to refer to the narrator. It was the same sort of feeling as watching a movie that you didn't know was just going to be one long take with no cuts (or just hidden cuts). At first you don't even notice, then you do, and then you read/watch very closely to see what the tricks are, and then you start thinking about why this intentional lack exists, and how it impacts the overall meaning of the piece.

So doing this over the length of an entire book has the potential to send an interesting message - not necessarily that the character or the author is trying to trick the reader or hide something, but that the character's own gender just does not matter to them. It does not occur to them to have thoughts about what gender they are. The lack of character gender being mentioned in the book potentially reflects how little import the character places on their gender in a much more interesting way than them coming out and explicitly talking about it.

In summary, not only can this can be done and done well, but a carefully chosen stylistic absence can have an interesting impact on the meaning of the work that is difficult to make as impact-fully without such a constraint.

5

This is not uncommon these days, particularly in fantasy and science-fiction (no doubt driven by the popularity of role-playing games in these genres, which can't assume the main character's gender and can't afford to record essentially two entire scripts with one set of pronouns swapped). Several best-selling fantasy and science-fiction novels have deliberately kept the genders and races of some of their characters vague - Lock In, by John Scalzi, even went so far as to sell two different versions of the audiobook with a male and female voice, and the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie uses 'she' as a non-gendered pronoun, to reflect the protagonist's inability to distinguish gender. It won a Hugo, so it's clearly doing something right.

Here's how those novels and games avoid needing to refer to the gender of the protagonist:

  1. Use names that aren't clearly gendered. In fantasy and sci-fi, this is easy, but you run the risk of making an unpronounceable or alien name. Avoid vowel endings for made-up names, as these are usually coded 'feminine'. There are lots of names that aren't gender specific, so you can give your character an evocative name like 'Morgan' or 'Robin' while keeping the gender of your character ambiguous.

  2. Let your audience draw their own conclusions. If you deliberately write around a character's gender, it'll be distracting as readers will be reading closely to build up a mental picture of the protagonist for longer than you want. Throw them a bone, by describing enough for readers to fill in a good enough picture - build, clothing, some charming specifics - and your readers will assume the rest. To help things along, have your character perform some task that readers who invest heavily into gender roles will read as gendered. It's like that riddle about the father and son who get into a near-fatal accident, and the doctor refuses to operate on the child because it's the doctor's child. Many people will assume gender, and be satisfied, if you have your character do something like practice swordplay, or do household chores.

  3. Think about how other characters will refer to them. This is why people often suggest to write androgynous characters in first-person, to avoid the narrator having to give the game away. Games with ambiguously gendered protagonists like Sunless Sea do so by asking players to choose their own term of address; 'sir', 'madam', 'Captain', 'whelp', among others. You can borrow this technique: if most of your characters address each other referring to position, you can easily disguise the gender of your protagonist by using a non-gendered title. Similarly, other characters might look down on your character and refer to them by insulting phrases, and these can be very easily non-gendered. (You could even invent an insult - for example, call them "blanks", and later reveal that they call your androgynous characters "blanks" not just because they're devoid of personality, but because they don't have a gender.) Terms of address amongst equals tend to be gendered, so you'll have to avoid them.

  4. Lean into it. There's always the option of having one character misgender the protagonist. If it's normal for androgynous characters to exist in this universe, disguise the insult from misgendering by having this character both insult them and misgender them. This way, when you do the reveal, you can have a sympathetic but naive character make the same mistake, and have the reader and this sympathetic character find out at the same time. This softens the sense that you've been holding back a mystery and helps the reader bond with the character who made a careless assumption, and with your protagonist, who's treating the mistake with tact.

  5. Get a sensitivity reader. These are people who have a better awareness of social issues and can pick up unintentional racism or sexism. Finding a sensitivity reader who can check you're not gendering your character unnecessarily will be a big help, and with their help you'll also be able to stretch your work in other ways, like identifying stereotypes in other parts of your writing that can help you make people and cultures that feel fresh and unique. You don't have to be perfect at this, especially on your own!

It's a challenge, definitely, but it's a great way to stretch your writing and make sure you think about what you're doing, which is valuable to do even when not specifically writing in this way.

4

You could make the narrator fascinated with the main character and write your story in the second person. Perhaps the narrator is a friend or mentor of some kind, to whom the main character shares most of what happens, but not their gender.


In Peter Pohls book Janne, min vän, translated into English as Johnny, My Friend, the main character is either Janne or Krille, but the narrator is clearly teenager Krille. The narrator is unambiguously male, as are all his friends he hangs out with in 1950s Stockholm. One day, they are joined by the mysterious Janne. As the book progresses, the nature of Janne only becomes more and more mysterious as Krille finds out more.

Only at the very end, after the climax of the book, is there a hint of Jannes gender. But even then it remains unclear. And certainly, initially, Krille and his friends assume that Janne is male.

The mystery is shared between narrator Krille and the reader. The reader can identify with Krille. From the perspective of Janne, it would be a completely different book, and mystery would be out of the question.

Another book by Peter Pohl, without such mystery, does employ a grammatical technique that could aid in keeping it a mystery. Vi kallar honom Anna (no English translation; the title means We (will) call him Anna) is entirely written in the second person, in the form of a letter, if you will, that the narrator writes to the main character.

2

You didn't say why you want to keep the gender ambiguous. That might help in giving a good answer.

One possibility that doesn't deceive the reader would be to write 1st person and make your main character himself confused about his gender. Maybe he grew up outside his society where androgynity was normal. Or maybe for him it was normal all his life, now he met other species and wonders which gender he is - he never wondered about it before, doesn't understand his species is different, etc.

(*) using the male pronoun for readability. If you seriously write this story, you absolutely need to invent an androgynous pronoun.

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    Singular "they" is a reasonable gender neutral pronoun that doesn't sound jarring. – Muzer Apr 25 '17 at 14:15
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    As a non-native speaker, singular "they" is new to me. I would always read it as a plural. – Tom Apr 25 '17 at 15:05
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    @Muzer no, it does sound jarring and often accompanies deeper singular/plural mismatch in a sentence. – JDługosz Apr 26 '17 at 6:00
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    @Muzer “…it's not jarring to <strike>the</strike> average English speakers when they read or hear it” (see what I did there?) – JDługosz Apr 26 '17 at 6:02
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    If there was a society of androgynous people (or creatures or whatever), presumably they would have genderless pronouns to refer to themselves. In a novel, you might introduce such a pronoun or otherwise make it clear that you are using he/she/it/they/whatever as a genderless pronoun in their case. Or have the narrator or a character give a two-sentence explanation of how it is difficult to translate their pronouns into English because we have no equivalent word. If you're trying to conceal that they're androgynous, then of course you can't give any explanations and it's tougher. – Jay Apr 26 '17 at 15:38
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One story to look at that plays with obscuring the main characters gender without isolating the reader is the short story All You Zombies by Robert A Heinlein (spoiler it has nothing to do with zombies). I won't try to explain how it does this but read the story it's short enough to read in one sitting and you'll see.
It is probably a different reason to why you are obscuring it in your story. But in my opinion it was done really well because although it's jarring it doesn't detach you from the main character or make it harder to read.

(The story has also been turned into an alright film called Predestination which isn't as good as the book but show me a film that is).

2

Lot's of answers, but I'll my $0.02 in.

You really need to examine your reason for keeping the gender a secret. We real world humans are very tied to our genders, rather we admit it or not. The chemical processes, the needs and feelings, and of course the social norms and expectations. That's not to say a MC couldn't be trying to hid their gender, but even in real life, people identify so much with a gender that when they feel they have the wrong gender's parts they go cutting them off, or sowing them on. A very painful and lengthy process. Gender is at the very core of who and what we are.

Now your adding a third gender, but I don't see how that would vary things much. Your either in "Inny" with all that means, an "Outty" with all that means, or neither with all that means (and I suppose you could be a both, it's your world after all). But rather you pee sitting down or standing up, it's the pressures and expectation of society, along with a healthy dose of biological needs, that give gender it's meaning. If you a "neither" then you would also have expectations. You would still have pressures from society, and you would still have biological needs (or even a distinct lack of them)

In other words, you can't sidestep the influence of gender just by adding a middle ground. If that middle ground was normal enough to be considered a bubble you fill out on a census, then you would have pressures and expectations that would shape that person.

All of that said, you have a few options.

Rude to ask

In your society "neuts" (ya like that) may be considered undesirable but common enough. So it may be rude to ask. "I had a baby" doesn't get followed with boy or girl, because that's rude. Pronoun problems Like He/She don't get corrected because it's rude to force your gender on a neut. So as a whole while society cares about gender, all three of them, they don't talk about it because it's considered rude.

Neuts rule the world

With out all that sex stuff to get in the way, a neut is, instead encouraged to work on leadership and politics. Therefore a neut is someone that will have a lot of power one day, even if they don't now. If your MC is trying to pass as a non-neut, then they would stuff their pants, or socks in the bra, and try to pass as one other "lesser" genders.

I can be anything

There was a anime that I remember that had humans that were sometimes born a "neut" then later, when they fell in love they grew the parts needed to, ahem, participate. You could go that way.

Any way you play it

The fact that your MC is a neut, will make a huge impact on ner. Ne will have expectations and pressures that ne will need to deal with. Even if ne is trying to pose as something ne is not, ne will still need to be honest with ner self and and address those expectations if ne is going to get anywhere. And because ne is a MC ne will have to do it in front of the reader, even if ne and the reader are the only two people that know about ner situation.

  • Puts the whole sketch about "She turned me into a neut!.... I got better!" into a different perspective. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 29 '17 at 21:19
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This is quite speculative; I've never used it or seen it used. BUT, all the other answers aside, you could try having the main character do things that make the reader lean alternately one way or the other. Have the character do manly things, followed later by feminine things; repeat. Eventually the reader just doesn't know what to think. This MIGHT end up conveying the impression of just being a tomboy, though, since I feel like (to modern sensibilities) there are more things that a girl is allowed to do than a man is. (Like, people would look at a guy way more strangely if they wore a dress than if a gal wore a suit.)

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Given your clarification and that the fact that androgynes exist in your novel's world, I'll concur with the rest of the answers here -- purposefully concealing it will dissatisfy your readers because it is pertinent to the plot.

The only time I've seen this work is in Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar mysteries, in which the detective is written in such a way that either gender is a possible one. The character's gender is never part of the story, as opposed to your case.

  • 1
    It helps that Professor Tamar is the narrator – and yet never visits the scene of the crime. – Anton Sherwood Apr 29 '17 at 20:31

protected by Chris Sunami Apr 27 '17 at 14:40

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