1. Grub-r
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    Grub-r Member

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    Concealing gender

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Grub-r, Oct 3, 2016.

    In my current WIP I have an anti-hero/villian (female) who will butt heads with the MC often. The MC is an FBI agent and the villian, an assassin. There is also a second villian that is a bomber, who is male.

    Early in the story, the MC believes the assassin and the bomber are the same.

    My questions are:

    1) Is it possible for the assassin's gender to stay hidden from the readers as well? I have tried to do this but most of my paragraphs are filled with "the assassin this" or the assassin that" . I tried assigning a name to the assassin but that only slightly alleviates the problem; now I switch back and forth between the two. The writing seems clunky without the use of pronouns.

    2) If it is possible, is it even fair to the reader? Should the reader be in on it and allow them to watch as the agent finally discovers the secret they have been privy to? Is not revealing the gender to the reader too gimmicky? How much should the reader know that the MC doesn't? And vice-versa?

    3) On the subject of deceiving the reader, is it bad form to use "he" in a gender-less form; seeing how the English language doesn't have a singular non-gender pronoun?

    4) Since the assassin has much more story written in the book, should I just leave the bomber as "gender-less"?

    I know that's a lot of questions, but I've been struggling with this.
    Thanks in advance for any and all help.
     
  2. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    It sounds like you're trying to conceal the gender of POV characters (correct me if I'm wrong) and that definitely seems gimmicky. If you want to keep the gender hidden (I'm not sure why you would) then it would be EXTREMELY difficult to pull that off with a POV character without it coming across as the author specifically hiding information. You want secrets like that to be part of the story and the way you're describing it sounds like the secret is the author's not the story's.

    ETA: It also sounds like your intuition has already told you this is a problem. Trust your gut. If it seems like it could be a problem, usually it is.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2016
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  3. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I think this depends on perspective - namely, how close in your mc's head you are. Is it fairly close third? Then I'd refer to the bomber as 'she' for as long as the mc thinks they're the same person. Nothing wrong with an unreliable narrator. I'd think it'd be more fun for the reader to not know and to find out right along with the mc, but that really just depends on what you prefer and what fits the story best. If it's a mystery type story, then a revelation like that coming out at some point seems like the kind of thing you'd want to keep in.

    On the other hand, if it's a more omniscient third, then I don't think it'd make much sense to go along with what the mc thinks. Distant third tends to be a more objective perspective and it could come across as just 'lying' to refer to the bomber as 'she' when the narrative is otherwise honest with the reader.

    Quick solution: switch it so the bomber is also female. Now you can refer to both of them as 'she' without purposefully misleading the reader but also without giving anything away ;)

    I'm also a big advocate for singular they. English claims to not have a singular gender-neutral pronoun, but we do actually use 'they' as one in common speech when we don't know the gender of the person being referred to all the time - eg "someone left their coat here" or "who spilled their drink?" - and that seems like a great option for your situation to me.
     
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  4. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    Welcome to the forum!

    An important consideration here is what character the viewpoint follows (or is it 3rd person omniscient narrative?). Maybe it's your FBI agent MC, in which case it's fair to obscure the assassin's gender for as long as the MC is unaware of it.

    Opinions on your 4 questions:
    1. Possible, but perhaps not for the whole story, assuming the assassin's identity is revealed at some point. As you're finding, the writing may get clunky/repetitive... so get imaginative -- figure out ways to phrase things where you don't need to actually mention the assassin character, or come up with more creative ways to refer to that character.
    2. Depending on your story, IMO it's 'fair'. Unless it's all about gender politics or something, what does it matter if the assassin is male or female? (And even if it was all about gender politics, perhaps you could make a point by not assigning a gender to a charater.) I don't think it's gimmicky per se, but depends how you do it. If you constantly phrase things to raise suspicion as to the character's gender and never reveal what it is, you're a tease. If the character appears in situations where her gender would be obvious, but you don't mention it, you're being unrealistic. But if the character's importance lies more in their status as an assassin than as a bearer of genitals, and she's never in situations where gender would be obvious to the POV character, then have at it. As far as 'how much should the reader know?' goes, that's up to you. If you're making it a mystery or thriller, maybe it works well to keep our knowledge of the assassin minimal. But if you want to focus on the assassin's internal struggles, or on the cat-and-mouse game between them, and treat them both as fairly 'main' characters, it could work the other way too.
    3. Depends on your narrative mode. If it's first person or deep/close third, using 'he' could be seen as the MC's mistake (although that might make the MC seem kinda sexist for assuming his adversary is male, unless there's some particular reason the MC thinks she is). In other cases (and perhaps anyway), I'd avoid using a 'gender-less he'. IMO just use singular they. It has centuries of history of use and most style guides are fine with it, even if you'll get the occasional objection. Or even better, do as suggested in point 1 and imagine ways to phrase things to minimise reliance on pronouns.
    4. If his face is ever seen, I'd assume the POV character would probably be able to identify his gender, and if you're writing in 3rd omniscient... well omniscient beings know everyone's gender. If there's no particular reason to assign a gender, then you don't have to. But just wanting him to be male/the assassin to be female is as good a reason as any.
    As Spencer's said, most stories would have a hard time avoiding a character's gender, just because gender is usually fairly obvious. If your story includes such conventional scenarios, it will seem contrived to hide the gender. But I don't know what story you're telling. If your character is always hidden from others, doesn't talk, is disguised, etc, then maybe it's not as contrived. Until I clicked your profile to see if you'd included the info, I didn't know what gender you were :)
     
  5. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If your POV character mistakes her for a guy, in his narration you would refer to her as a he, so then it's both the FBI agent as well as the reader who are deceived. This wouldn't feel gimmicky to me. You'd just need to be careful your MC isn't too easily fooled or mistaken. Even if a woman's face is not seen and she's tall and dressed in baggy clothing, her gender can be identified by e.g. her walk, the size of her hands, and her voice.

    However, if you write in omniscient 3rd or from the POV of the assassin, your only feasible option, imho, is writing in first person, and even then it might get a bit tricky.
     
  6. nataku
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    If they are pretending to be the opposite gender just use he his him. If not use their name/fake name. The English non gender is They. I have a character in my story of whom it is the point that the reader only learns she's a girl when the main MC learns this. My story is a bit confusing in that there are essentially 5 mc, but the story is largely from one mc's pov as he tries to make sense of the world he came to wake up in. So I refer to them either by name or as he until Odin learns that Fei isn't a guy.
     
  7. Grub-r
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    Grub-r Member

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    Thank you all for the quick and thorough responses.

    The story is told in 3rd person omniscient narrative. I guess that's why I kept feeling it was wrongly deceiving the reader.

    Thank you Spencer for pointing out what my mind (or gut in this case) was already telling me.

    If I try to keep the bomber's gender unknown, using phrases like "the bomber" or "shadowy figure" and avoid using pronouns at all, would this be acceptable in the 3rd person omniscient narrative? Essentially letting the reader incorrectly assume the gender because the MC does. Providing that the bomber stays concealed and remains unidentified to anyone in the story.

    Thanks again, you guys are great. And thanks for the welcome. I've written a number of novels in the past and had some published poems years ago and for some reason avoided forums like this one. I just got back into writing and after finding this site, I've spent hours already scouring over the different threads and devouring the insight given.

    EDIT: The story is a action/thriller and the assassin and bomber successfully avoid the MC for some time. The only tip off the MC gets in figuring out the two are separate entities is the gender reveal at some point during a chase scene.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2016
  8. Spencer1990
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    In my opinion, it would be hardest to achieve this in a non-gimmicky way in omniscient third. In that POV, the narrator is in all of the character's heads. So if you're not using a gender pronoun, it can seem like the author is keeping a secret. If this were close third and you were in the head of a POV character who is not the bomber, you could do this much more easily. You want to keep the secret from the characters, not necessarily the reader. And if you are keeping a secret from the readers, it would serve you best to be done tactfully.

    Let me put it this way: If I read a novel in omniscient third and one of the characters was referred to by the narrator without gender pronouns, then it's all of a sudden revealed in the end, I might be inclined to roll my eyes at the gimmick that the author employed to keep the secret. But if the book was close-third and the POV characters didn't know the gender, I wouldn't have much of a problem with it.
     
  9. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @Grub-r it is possible to carry off a whole story without revealing the gender of an important character. Jeanette Winterson did just that in Written on the Body, which is a first person narrative in which one certainly expects the narrator to know his/her physical sex and perhaps gender as well. In that story, it is significant that this is not revealed, however.

    In your case, it does sound more artificial - like the information is being withheld solely to trip up the reader who is trying to put the pieces together. I'd avoid that, in general, so the question is whether withholding it provides you with some benefit that outweighs the potential negatives.
     
  10. Grub-r
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    Grub-r Member

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    Sounds like I might be better off switching to 3rd person limited then.
     
  11. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    Why is it so important that you withhold the gender that you might be willing to change the POV of an entire novel? I'm just curious.
     
  12. Grub-r
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    Grub-r Member

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    To be honest, it's probably more stubbornness than anything else. It's how I always imagined the story going down. Since I'm only 10 chapters into the book, switching POVs now isn't a great undertaking.
     
  13. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    What does it do for the story to have the concealed genders? I mean does it serve a purpose or is it just to keep a secret from the reader?
     
  14. Grub-r
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    Well, there's a bombing and there's an assassination. Obviously the same agent wouldn't be assigned both cases. He's assigned the assassination and needs be drawn into the other. At some point he thinks the two suspects are the same and so he get's involved in both cases.

    The writing is too clunky to have the assassin's gender hidden, so her identity is known. It's also a separate plot point for her to be a woman, so the gender cannot be changed. The bomber is only identified halfway through the book. Technically it doesn't matter what the gender of the bomber is and I could make him a female instead just to help with the clunky writing. I'm all for feminism, and if you met my ex you'd know that women can be every bit as evil as a man, but it's statistically unlikely for two females to be running amok and comes off as even more gimmicky in the long run.

    The reader doesn't need to be in the dark, but I was hoping to keep it that way until it's revealed to the main character. I was hoping it came off as more of a surprising revelation then a "ah ha I got you" moment.

    If the idea still comes off as gimmicky, I understand that i can have the readers know that the two villains are separate people and still hide the fact from the MC. But it seems more suspenseful to me if all this time the reader believes the MC is after one villain and then suddenly there's now two threats.
     
  15. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Perhaps all of the characters are whiptail lizards. Why do you need a gender tag when you can simply reproduce all by your lonesome. :supergrin:

    @Grub-r I think you are misusing the 'Ah ha' moment of great reveal. Usually it is the least likely person that turns out to be the the
    baddie. It has a bit more shock value as it intended to catch both the protagonist and the reader off guard, at least that is how I have
    understood this type of thing. I am not sure it will be all that shocking to either the protagonist or the reader to find out that the antagonist
    has a dingle dong or a Mrs. Fubbs' parlor. :p


    Why do you automatically assume that it is unlikely for two women to be running around like mad killing people in their own way?
    If they were a serial killer duo, then I would agree as most (if not all) paired serial killers are male. That would make for an intersting
    dynamic to exploit.

    IDK, you seem to know what you want to do with it. Good luck. :supersmile:
     
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    If I were writing this and I absolutely positively wanted to leave the gender a mystery, then I might define the criminal as someone who totally immerses themselves in their disguise, and thus changes the pronouns that they use to identify themselves:

    Last week, he had been an elderly man playing chess in the park across from the bank. He had learned a great deal about the bank's comings and goings, the armored car schedule, the habit of the morning-shift guard to abandon his post for a quick smoke. He felt far better informed.

    Today, after burning last week's gray wig and tweed jacket, she was a city executive in well-tailored black trousers, silk blouse, and Burberry. She was going to enter the bank for the first of many visits; now that she had identified a guard, she needed a similarly slipshod teller.


    Edited to note that if the vagueness seems too vague, you could get more explicit:


    After eliminating the last trace of he from face and hair and hands, she applied her makeup with particular care, then ceremoniously put on pearl earrings. Clip-ons were always an annoyance, but it was hard to explain piercings in some of the more conservative he situations. So she made do.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2016

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