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Characters in Disguise

(15 Posts)
Spirael Thu 23-Jun-11 12:25:15

My first venture into this area, so please be gentle! smile

I'm currently working on a story revolving around a few important characters. In a nut shell, one of them is a woman, disguised as a man, initially pretending to be different man. (There is a good reason, honest!)

The double-revelation of who s/he really is are fairly major events in the story. So I'm not sure whether to let the reader know at the start that the character is in a disguise that involves a gender switch, or try and keep the reader in the dark until the revelations.

I'd prefer to keep the reader in the dark, but the logistics of how to do so are slowly melting my brain. Referring to the character as She from the start will give the game away, but is it ok to refer to her as He?

If He is ok, is that only when not writing from the character in question's perspective? I should be able to keep her out of the forefront until the revelations.

If it's not ok, then would a possible alternative be to creatively write without a gender descriptive for the character in question? Or will that just not work? I'm willing to have a go, but fear it might read awkwardly.

Any comments/ideas/suggestions/rotten fruit? smile

strawberryjelly Sat 25-Jun-11 10:10:57


I'm thinking about who dunnits and other suspense type stories. Now I know yours is not a who dunnit, but it does involve deception.

IMO they work in 2 ways:
1 the reader knows all along who did it, who it is, the identity etc - and is waiting for the characters to catch up. This works well visually as a film, but might not work so well in writing.

2 Many whodunnits etc have a twist at the end, or a red herring, etc- this can be fun for the reader but they can also feel duped.

If you keep ypur reader ignorant of the true gender, how will this add to the story? How would you reveal the gender?

If you reveal their gender at the start, i think you would lose something.

HOWEVER I am struggling with the basic idea of disguise- is it really credible that a woman could come across as a man for any length of time in real life?

I think this is highly unlikely.

Women can't develop a deep voice, they don't have beards and are rarely as tall/broad as men.

I just don't think it will hold water - but thi sis just my opinion.

Spirael Sat 25-Jun-11 15:03:47

Thanks for the response, I was starting to worry I'd scared everyone off! wink

I think the disguise should work in this circumstance, as the story is of high fantasy genre with elements of piracy on the high-seas. People will have to suspend their disbelief for characters throwing magic around like candy, so hopefully can bring themselves to believe that a young (late teen) woman can successfully pull off pretending to be a man of similar age.

It's hard to describe everything that's going on without writing out a novel right here, but basically the young woman has a twin brother. He is heir to a contested throne and she is used a decoy due to an uncanny resemblance between them, aside from the obvious differences. The (unnatural) uncanny resemblance is a key plot point in itself, which will be revealed later in the story.

In order to aid this deception, insisted upon by the King and his latest wife to protect the only son and heir, the young woman’s death is faked to the nation while she was a child. She was then kept hidden and trained in secret to mimic her twin from an early age.

Shortly before the start of the story, she was shipwrecked while out pretending to be her brother at a naval battle. She was later picked up by an uninvolved nation and ended up giving her name as a young knight from the palace she has feelings for, while continuing to appear to masquerade as her brother to throw off anyone hunting him.

A bunch of stuff happens while she’s trying to get home, including her discovery that home is not safe and her brother is missing. She gets various travelling companions on the way. Then her love interest dramatically arrives on the scene and announces his name, prompting her to admit to everyone that she’s not the person she was claiming to be.

She then tells everyone she is her brother! Her love interest knows her and her twin well enough to realise this is a lie, but just frowns and stays quiet.

It’s up to that point that I’d rather keep her gender a secret. After that point I’m intending a reunion scene with her and her love interest in private where the truth will come out, so the reader will know the basics of what is happening ahead of the other characters.

I’m currently leaning towards keeping her in the background until that point, not writing from her point of view but showing her from the other characters points of view. That way, I should be ok to refer to her as a He?

After the truth comes out, when writing from the young woman or her love interest's point of view I can presumably refer to her as a She. But what about when I'm writing from the point of view of a different member of the group, who assume she's actually a he? Do I still refer to her true name and write her as She outside of their speech?

It gets confusing again later on when her brother turns up and they keep switching places. Presumably it's best to keep the writer in the know at what's going on?

Sorry that was so long!

strawberryjelly Sat 25-Jun-11 16:13:38

TBH this sounds like Twelfth Night in another guise!

If you have read it you'll know your plot is almost the same.

In Shakespeare's version, we all know that "he" is a "she"- Viola- but the othe characters don't.

Spirael Sat 25-Jun-11 17:02:20

I have read Twelfth Night and there is some intentional similarity. I fully admit that the basic idea of twins passing as one another is the same, as well as the shipwreck before the start of the story - though what the character was doing on the ship is substantially different and her twin wasn't present. Elements of Shakespeare are revisited so frequently by so many authors that I was hoping it wasn't a major writing sin to do so?

Beyond the above similarities, the story is vastly different. Everything I've written is sub plot to the main story which is, in its most basic form, a group of 'friends' going on an adventure to stop a supernatural evil from corrupting the world by forging peace between nations set on wiping one another out. The traditional high fantasy romp, as told by Lord of the Rings and most novels of the same genre. wink

There is none of the girl falling in love with a man who doesn't realise she's a girl, while the woman she serves falls in love with her pretending to be a man servant. wink The young woman is already in love with a man who is in love with her and never fooled by her disguise. Her brother has a different romance of his own, which is already established before he arrives on the scene. There's also a huge twist over whether or not the twins are actually twins at all.

Just to add that I'm not trying to be ground breaking or to sell novels, I'm writing this purely for pleasure based on stories friends and I have told together. smile If you've ever read any of the Dragonlance series by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, the inspiration for this story comes from a similar source.

Twelfth Night being a play means the writing is substantially different from a novel. To be honest I'm not really looking for too much feedback for the plot or characters at this point. My problem is establishing whether it's possible to convincingly write for a character while avoiding stating gender, or whether stating an incorrect gender early in the story will be accepted by the reader when later proven false.

belledechocchipcookie Sat 25-Jun-11 17:15:55

It can be done. Women used to pretend to be men in order to get a job on a ship. They would bind their breasts to make them flat & wear male clothes.

I would be tempted to start her off as a woman, as it's possible that the reader would feel decieved if you use the other approach. The reader has to have an attachment to the main character in order for them to finish the book and I don't think they can do this if the character suddenly changes in the middle of the book. Hope this helps smile

Spirael Sat 25-Jun-11 17:34:22

That does help, thanks. smile

However, would your opinion change at all if she wasn't the only main character? I could focus the initial part of the story on one of the others, then bring forward the young woman's love interest arriving and do her full introduction with his arrival within about three chapters.

Would that still feel like I was being deceptive to the reader, or not as bad?

The prologue is led by a key but not main character who happens to know the truth, so I could easily let the reader know what's going on there if consensus is that truth with the reader is the best way forward.

belledechocchipcookie Sat 25-Jun-11 17:45:33

If the 'reveal' was very early on then it wouldn't be as bad. I'd stick with the same qualities throughout though.

You should write it and see where it takes you smile

Abra1d Sat 25-Jun-11 17:51:23

Perhaps use a name that could either male or female? Hilary/Lesley/Cameron, etc. You could probably sustain it for a few chapters at least.

Abra1d Sat 25-Jun-11 17:52:07

Sorry, pushed Post too soon.

So you'd say, 'Cameron noted the shadow,' instead of he/she noted the shadow.

belledechocchipcookie Sat 25-Jun-11 18:02:14

Or you could write it in first person? 'I stepped into the kitchen, the kettle was waiting for me to trickle water inside and heat it up. On the side, the jar of coffee was beconing me to open it. 'Come...have a drink.' Who was I to resist. grin

Spirael Mon 27-Jun-11 12:39:42

Thanks for the feedback, everyone. smile I've written about half of the first chapter now. Keeping the character in question towards the background I've been able to avoid using any gender specific description so far. My DH has cast his eye over it and reckons it still reads naturally.

I've also been able to include small elements of foreshadowing so that some people might pick the deception up early, while anyone re-reading the chapter after finding out the character's true gender will hopefully be surprised that they missed the clues the first time around.

The names are fairly gender specific intentionally, Abra1d. However the introduction for this character is from anothers point of view and reads: "...entered the enigmatic one known as X.". Which hopefully gives away for 'between the lines' readers that it's not the character's real name, while others will just accept it as read.

I did contemplate first person, belle. But I was worried it might get too confusing for the reader, since the story has four main characters. confused In addition, one of them is replaced with a different character during the story, while another is (briefly) replaced with a demon...

ImperialBlether Mon 27-Jun-11 21:13:49

I think you could only do it in the first person, Spirael. I can see that other characters could refer to him/her as 'He...' but when you are writing from his/her point of view in the third person, what will you write?

Just trying to imagine how you'd do it and I couldn't do it without sounding awfully clumsy and mentioning his/her name all the time.

On the other hand, if it's in the first person, it would be a great denouement, wouldn't it?

wordfactory Tue 28-Jun-11 09:16:21

I've done this in my WIP. The character is not in disguise, but those who have never seen her assume she is a man. I want the reader to assume she is a man too.

It's hard. I only ever refered to her by her name until the reveal..never he or she by those who have actually met her. And refering to her as he by those who have't and have made the assumption.

What is important though, is that this character has no POV scenes. If she did I would have to use first person, otherwise it wouldn't be true for the reader.
Oh and I wouldn't worry about doing some charcters POV secenes from first and other from third. I think I've done that in every book I've ever written.

DandyDan Thu 07-Jul-11 10:05:45

I think it has to be first person to disguise it for any amount of time, and then have a satisfying reveal. There is a precedence in such books as The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler (a children's book), and also - SPOILER WARNING - 'Gentlemen and Players' by Joanne Harris. I think it can lead to more interesting dynamics overall.

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