Popular culture is full of instances where the reader or the audience is led down a particular path only to have the ground pulled away from them.
Here are a few examples (spoiler notice, though I imagine these ‘surprises’ are now well known; if you haven’t seen or read these examples,Two Mules for Sister Sara
The Sixth Sense
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
please jump to the next section, Spoiler-clear! Otherwise, read on.
The film Two Mules for Sister Sara has the audience and Clint Eastwood character believing Shirley Maclean is a nun; near the end it’s revealed that she’s actually a soiled dove.
Two Mules for Sister Sara - Wikipedia commons
The Sixth Sense convinces the audience that Dr Crowe is a real person until the final revelation when we learn he’s the ghost.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1920)The book ends with an unprecedented plot twist. Poirot exonerates all of the original suspects. He then lays out a completely reasoned case that the murderer is in fact Dr Sheppard, who has not only been Poirot's assistant, but also the story's narrator.
… Reader response to the ending varies from admiration of the unexpected end to a feeling of being cheated. – Wikipedia.
The Watcher by Charles Maclean (1982)
First person narrator finds his wife murdered… and only gradually do we learn that he’s an unreliable narrator and committed the crime…
Spoiler-clearIn a few of my books, I’ve attempted to conceal the identity and or gender of a protagonist from the reader as well as from the other characters in the story. Unlike the above examples, the concealment isn’t always the main point of the tale, merely an added extra.
None of my own examples rely on the unreliable narrator, which is very difficult to pull off, and is used in three of the examples above. However, as I tend to write ‘visually’, where the reader can see characters in their setting, I find it hard to maintain the secret.
If a character is depicted but not the gender, naturally I can’t use ‘he’ or ‘she’ in the narrative. If I use ‘he’ but in fact it’s a ‘she’, I’m cheating. Cheating is somehow worse than misdirection.
You can get round this issue by referring to the individual as ‘the murderer’, which has been done by other authors, or some similar descriptive title. Yet that get-round can become tedious to the reader. Maybe just introduce ‘the murderer’ then show everything from his or her POV, without telling at all? That works, after a fashion.
However, if ‘the murderer’ has to interact with other characters, there’s a problem. These other people see ‘the murderer’ as an individual – and if they see ‘the murderer’, then so should the reader, since the book is a film in the reader’s head. Tough one. Some writers simply ignore that aspect. I’ve opted for ‘the murderer’ wearing a disguise – or a mask, even – and being addressed by a title or different name; theatrical, but necessary to preserve the cinematic truth.
Naturally, if we’re seeing the scene from another character’s point of view, then they may see her as ‘a man’ when she isn’t. Describing what you (and the reader) see or think you see. That’s probably fair and not quite cheating…
So, if you want to conceal the gender or identity of a character, be prepared to go to considerable lengths to make it work. It’s worth it when, finally, a reader comments along the lines, ‘That was a big surprise!’