The Genderless Narrator

Photo and Article By E.S. Wynn

As a writer, I’m always seeking the next great horizon. I explore, I discover and I learn to understand different worlds and different ways of being through research and through writing. It is said that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I think that is especially true of writing.

When I write, I write for myself as much as I write for the reader. I write the kinds of stories I would like to read, and as someone who has experienced gender dysphoria for my entire life, I primarily like to read stories that are told first person, by a female narrator, so I can really snuggle into the story and experience it as if I were actually there, living it. This desire carries over into my writing as well. The majority of my books feature female main characters, and at this time, about half of my books are told from a first person perspective. The women that I write about are all shades of myself, of the woman I am inside, and I find that I get the best creative flow when I embrace and accept that completely, instead of trying to filter it by creating distance between myself and the narrator in any number of ways. Write what you know, it is said, and I do.

I have, however, found something interesting as I've worked my way deeper and deeper into my own writing. In polishing my craft as an author, I have discovered that I can play with the perceptions of the reader, teach them and broaden their minds by challenging their ideas about gender. I can write stories which feature a subtly (never directly announced) gender-neutral narrator and leave the determination of gender to the reader themselves. What follows is an example of how it works and why it’s effective.

In stories like “Reasons To Live, Reasons To Die,” “Astride Twin Seas,” and many others, I take a first person narrator approach, but leave the gender of the narrator unexpressed. This does two things, I think. If done elegantly and artfully (instead of overtly, stumbling over sentences in order to keep them gender-neutral) the reader seems to slip into a role easily, assuming the gender that feels most correct for them as an actor within the world that you’re establishing. Much as with the approaches toward fear that Steven King and H.P. Lovecraft take in their writing, I leave certain elements unwritten knowing that the mind of the reader will fill in those gaps far more effectively than I ever could. (Check out my article on Lovecraft’s approach toward Fear here: [link] The basic premise is that everyone is different, and while some people will be genuinely terrified of something, others may laugh at that very same thing, destroying the feeling of horror you’re trying to cultivate. So it can be with gender as well, I think. Not everyone is comfortable being male or female, but if the gender is left open, the mind will create a gender that is more comfortable and remove the feeling of incongruity that establishing narrator gender can cause in the reader. While you as the author might envision the character as being of one gender or another (or genderfluid) the reader will see the narrator as exactly the gender that feels most natural. In example, for the story “Reasons To Live, Reasons To Die,” nearly 90% of the people who I have talked to who have read the story see the narrator as male, despite the fact that every cue that might be used to establish that (besides stereotypes and clichés) is crafted to be deliberately indefinite instead. Those who see the main character as male are often surprised to find that I envisioned a woman as the main character when I wrote the story, and that all of the cues they have used to establish the character as male have come from their own judgments and internalized ideas about what it means to be male and what it means to be female. There are literally zero specific cues to indicate the narrator's gender. It is assigned instead by the reader in reading because a certain gender or another felt right to the person given observations and ideas of what it means to be one gender or the other.

To challenge these ideas even more directly, one might even consider writing a story where the gender of the narrator might be inferred by the reader based on “masculine” or “feminine” actions, only to have the switch and reveal come about at the end, or near the end, challenging established ideas about what it means to be male and what it means to be female. I would argue that these established ideas need to be challenged, as they are the poisoned root that leads to the idea that men are strong and women are weak. If we can challenge, soften and even eventually eliminate that idea, I think we will create a healthier environment not just for women, but for men as well (see my article on “Why I Need Feminism” here: [link])

If you have a story (or poetry) about your own experiences as a trans individual or would like to be interviewed so that you can share your perspectives as a trans person with the readers of this blog, please feel free to contact me through the contact form here: [link]. Make sure you have javascript enabled or the form will just display a blank page. I’d love to hear from you, and I’d love to share your perspective with our readers. Thank you!

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