The All-Concealing I
First-person narration has something of a dual nature. On the one hand, it carries an inherently tight coupling to the protagonist. As such, it's a great way to really get inside their head, showing the reader exactly what they're thinking and why. On the other hand, the structure of English grammar also makes it easy to use a first-person narrative to avoid mentioning basic facts about the narrator. These facts may include the gender, the name, and even the very identity of the narrator. This is a frequent way to achieve a Tomato Surprise. The extent to which this is possible or necessary is very language-specific, especially when the datum to be concealed is a gender. For example, Japanese generally has separate male and female first-person pronouns, so Gender-Neutral Writing isn't much easier in the first person than in the third person. In fact, because people outside of family and friends are often referred to by last name alone, it can be easier to surprise the reader about the gender of a third person than it would be to surprise the reader about the gender of the narrator. Similarly, many languages (notably both Romance and Slavic languages) have enough grammatical gender markers other than pronouns that this trope becomes a practical if not a definitional impossibility. Conversely, a number of languages lack gender in the third person, permitting gender-neutral writing without resorting to first person. In principle, you could accomplish the same thing using Second-Person Narration, although you don't see that done very often. See also Featureless Protagonist.
open/close all folders
- About halfway through the graphic novel Enigma, the narrator reveals he's a character within the story. To this point the narrator commented on events with an unusually sardonic and cynical eye, questioning his own perceptions of things and upending the reader's expectations, so it felt very much like he was an extra character in the story, though not necessarily integral to the plot. That changes with this reveal, and the narrator himself is not shown until the very end.
- The first miniseries for the comic book Shadowhawk was written in first person to both keep the hero's identity secret even from the reader and to immerse the reader further in the story. It was a great success, but future issues spoiled it by switching to third person.
- This Australian commercial for marriage equality.
- This is used in the Fan Fic Sleeping with the Girls to conceal the protagonist's name as the work is an affectionate parody of a Self-Insert Fic.
- Used in the Pokémon fanfic Ash's Return to maintain for the readers the Ontological Mystery caused by the narrator not remembering his/her own identity.
- Used in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic, "My Little Dashie." We know the protagonist is a young man, but that's about it.
- A third person variation is used in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic Who We Are in order to conceal which character is secretly a changeling; it works because while it refers to "she" and "her", all of the characters are female.
- This trope was the only viable way to write the Memoirs of InuYasha's father, who has no canon name.
- Asuka is narrated this way and is the source of some of The Unreveal, as the narrator never reveals if she is either Satsuki or Ryuuko or the titular Asuka's real name. Similarly, however played with, in Through Thick and Thin (an unrelated fic) is written this way, however, little clues here and there reveal which is which, as Satsuki is the one narrating and Ryuuko is ill (i.e Uzu specifically refers to her "Matoi" instead of her first name).
- The Message is a 1976 film about the life of the prophet Mohammad. Since Islam forbids images of him, the director shot all the scenes containing him from the first person.
- Fallen: The narrator is the demon Azazel, who narrates in Denzel Washington's voice because he is telling the story while possessing Denzel's body.
- The narrator in Fight Club (both the book and the film) never actually reveals his name (at least not the one on his birth certificate). He uses a series of fake names at the support groups he attends at the beginning when he meets Marla. And of course, he also goes by the name "Tyler Durden" for almost the whole story, but he's not aware of that for quite some time.
- The film Layer Cake doesn't use it as a Tomato Surprise, but ends with the Narrator addressing any viewers who are feeling smug about figuring out the earlier twist before the reveal and challenging them to tell him his name if they think they are so smart.
- Many Japanese light-novels invert this trope, if they have multiple viewpoint characters — Japanese first-person pronouns not only mark the gender of the speaker but also things like formality, so they're actually an identifier. Thus, for example, in Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts, which is usually narrated by Akihisa but (when two sets of events are going on) sometimes by Yuuji, it never bothers to specify which one, because Akihisa uses "boku" and Yuuji uses "ore" (the few chapters from the POV of Himeji, Minami, or Hideyoshi, likewise, use "atashi", "uchi", and "washi"). Light novels also use "which person says which pronoun" as a shorthand for identifying speakers other than the narrator, since they generally don't make much use of dialogue tags.
- Twyla, the narrator of the Toni Morrison's short story "Recitatif", reminisces about her childhood best friend, Roberta. Significantly, since the story is set during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, one girl is black and the other white, but the narrative never reveals which.
- Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov does several sneaky pronoun shifts throughout the novel that eventually reveal that the narrator, Professor Charles Kinbote, is actually the exiled king of Zembla, whose tale he begged his friend, the late poet John Shade, to write about; after Shade's death, he hijacks his friend's last poem for his own purposes.
- Or that it's a delusional Russian professor named Botkin, who believes he's the exiled king of Zembla, etc... A lot of the fun of the novel is that it's incredibly hard to suss out which is the correct reading.
- The Culture novels by Iain M. Banks have several examples:
- In The Player of Games, first-person narration is used to disguise the identity of the narrator. The narrator is hiding in plain sight: he is the drone assigned to Gurgeh. A further level of deception: the drone is actually a Special Circumstances agent introduced earlier, in disguise. The Reveal is the very last word in the book.
- Use of Weapons manages to achieve this in third person with "he", "a man" etc. without the wording seeming awkward. Although the drawn-out nature of The Reveal in this case almost completely counter-acts the use of this trope if you had figured it out 100 pages earlier. Banks does throw in a bit of Nightmare Fuel for good measure though.
- Though not a Culture novel, The Wasp Factory uses a First Person Narrator to avoid mentioning that the narrator is really a girl. Something of a subversion though, as thanks to an accident (and some severely messed up parenting), the narrator is unaware that this is the truth.
- In Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear, one of the main characters magically gives up her name. From then on, all the sections from her perspective are written in the first person.
- Bone Dance by Emma Bull uses first-person narration to conceal the fact that the main character is genderless.
- In Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar mysteries, the gender of the title character / narrator is never specified.
- The secret concealed by this trope in Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd provoked considerable outrage, including the possibly apocryphal reaction by the Queen, "Oh, Agatha, how could you?"; in this book, possibly the pinnacle of Christie's mystery-writing career, the narrator and de-facto assistant to the detective was the one who did it.
- In Marele Day's The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender, first person narration conceals the fact that the Hardboiled Detective protagonist is a woman.
- At least one Goosebumps used this for effect. "My Best Friend Is Invisible" waits until the titular character is made visible to reveal that the 'friend' is human, but the narrator, the narrator's family and community are all Starfish Aliens.
- In The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, first-person narration is used to conceal the fact that the protagonist has no name, because he's actually an Imaginary Friend turned Enemy Without of his "friend" Gonzo.
- Ralph Ellison uses this device in Invisible Man to conceal the narrator's name and any physical description of himself apart from the fact that he is a black male.
- Most of Thierry Jonquet's La Bęte et la Belle (The Beast and the Beauty, literally) is narrated by an old dog, but it's only suggested through subtle clues.
- "The Outsider" by H.P. Lovecraft. The narrator is an Eldritch Abomination typical of Lovecraft's work, but oddly humanized.
- It has also been made into a flash game -link here- for those who prefer a more visual approach.
- Beatrice Mosionier's Spirit of the White Bison. The title character is also the narrator, and there are only two small, easy-to-miss hints in the novella that it's actually a cow bison. Yup, the narration is quite interesting.
- Rather poorly done in E Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers, but justified as the narrator him/herself is a child and is only concealing their identity as a game for the reader. It's Oswald
- Although Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is written mostly in the third person, it does have a narrator who intrudes on a few occasions. He is never explicitly identified, but it's heavily implied that he is either Satan, God or both.
- In Louis Sachar's There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, Bradley does a report on a book written in the first person, and only realizes while writing the report that the narrator never gives a name or gender.
- The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner is one of the more successful examples, managing even to conceal that anything's being hidden at all. The best part about it is that because it's written to someone who already knows the "secret", all the clues you need to figure it out are barefaced and obvious. But because you don't realize there's any secret at all, you don't pick up on the fact that they are clues until The Reveal.
- In The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, first person is used to conceal the main character's name when he's telling his story to the narrator in flashback. The narrator also conceals his identity in third person by just calling him the Time Traveler.
- Bernard Werber plays with this in some of his short stories (L'arbre des possibles -The Tree of Potentialities). One narrator turns out to be a tree; another is a brain preserved in formaldehyde.
- Illuminatus! has occasional bits of first-person narration; at the end of the book, many of them are revealed to be from the perspective of FUCKUP, Hagbard's computer. Maybe. You know it's a Mind Screw when the protagonists instantly start commenting why The Reveal makes no sense, and suggest more outlandish theories, instead.
- Hardboiled Wonderland And The End of The World by Haruki Murakami has an variation on this that is possible thanks to a quirk of the Japanese language. In the original the identity of the narrator(s) is concealed by using "watashi" in the main story and "boku" in the other. The English translator felt "boku" to be more intimate and used the present tense for that section.
- In Bernard Beckett's novel Genesis, the narrator at first appears to be a female, human student of history. The book details the 'history' of her era (22nd and + centuries) and as her recount of history goes on, we discover that, in short, the robots won and humans are extinct and/or obsolete. So, with a growing sense of unease, the reader must come to accept that if it's the year 2891 (or whatever), and humans are gone . . . then WHAT is telling us this story? She seemed so human, so emotional, so like us! And by fooling the reader, Beckett answers the question present throughout the whole book: is there really a difference between mechanical and carbon-based life?
- The Elegance Of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is written in the first person from two different perspectives. For a while, at the beginning, this means it's not entirely clear whether the two perspectives are two separate people or the same person at two different stages of life (unless you read the inside cover flap, at least). Even after this is resolved, the name of the younger narrator is concealed almost until the end of the book.
- Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds uses first-person narration to conceal the identity of the protagonist, as well as the fact that the protagonist doesn't actually know his own identity, without ever having the narration actually lie.
- Sally's brother in The Cat in the Hat narrates the story, making some small children insist that his name is actually I.
- Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff, makes use of this. The story-within-a-story, first-person narration by the main character is done to hide the inner thoughts of the main character, which would reveal that she is The Mole for Mandrill.
- Isaac Asimov used this trope in many of his short stories in order to illustrate that parts of humanity (and life in general) that are automatically ascribed to one type of being can fit with another if you just give it a chance.
- One short story has a surgeon trying to talk his patient out of replacing his failing heart with a completely artificial metal construct, as opposed to an organic replacement instead. He speaks at long length about retaining personal identity and how this will be but one more step in blurring the lines between humanity and robot, and even though he has nothing against either humans or robots, it is important that they remain separate and not try to merge. It is only in the last paragraph that we learn that the surgeon, who argued long and hard against the patient becoming closer to a robot, is himself a robot.
- Another Asimov story involves time travel, and is narrated by the assistant of the group of scientists who invent the time machine, and is also the first of a new design of human-like robots...who end up taking over the world after humans kill themselves off. He then takes measures to avoid changing this future.
- Yet another Asimov story (written at the height of the Cold War) features two astronauts sent to repair a malfunctioning satellite. About halfway through the story, the narrator is revealed to be a womannote —and Russian, to boot. This is entirely incidental to the story, but it underscored Asimov's beliefs in gender equality and human cooperation.
- In the book Someone Like Me by Elaine Forrestal, it is revealed (or rather confirmed, as there are hints throughout) at the very end that the narrator Tas Kennedy is blind.
- In Orca, Kiera the Thief guest-stars as the narrator. And, in the process, expertly manages to cover up the fact that she's actually the legendary vampire sorceress Sethra Lavode. Vlad's Unreliable Narrator tendencies have got nothing on that. (It makes sense in-universe; she's narrating to Cawti, who doesn't know her secret, so naturally she has to tell the story in such a way as to conceal it.)
- The first-person narration in Neil Gaiman's Holmesian pastiche "A Study in Emerald" is used to conceal the fact that the narrator is Sebastian Moran, his sharp-minded friend is Professor Moriarty, and the two culprits are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
- Another Holmes pastiche, Anthony Horowitz's Moriarty, is told in the first person by a Pinkerton Detective serving as The Watson to Athelney Jones. Now, what's the title of the book again?
- The Printer's Devil by Paul Bajoria will surprise the crap out of most readers about halfway through when the narrator reveals, well, something that shouldn't be that surprising, if you think about it. Especially in the context of this trope.
- Jonathan Barnes' The Somnambulist doesn't reveal ANYTHING about the narrator other than the fact that he is male, until near the end. He turns out to be the main villain.
- The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp is written so as to make it natural to assume that Tyke is a boy, thanks to Gender-Neutral Writing and her tomboyish character.
- Doorways in the Sand, by Roger Zelazny, pulls this trick with a reveal coming only at the last sentence: the narration isn't from Fred himself, but by the alien recording device which took up residence in him.
- The Repossession Mambo, by Eric Garcia, is written in the first person. You may not notice the protagonist's name is not in the text of the novel until it is mentioned in the Making Of essay at the back of the book.
- The narrator of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever never gets a name, and it's only apparent she's a girl because her best friend is one, and she says something about not wanting to be Mary in the pageant.
- Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective series has used this for 36 books and counting.
- In First Among Sequels in the Thursday Next series the narrator is replaced for a time by her evil double, Thursday1-4.
- In the novel "What I was" by Meg Roseff, we don't find out the name of our protagonist, a 16 year old boy, until near the end of the book, where Finn (who turns out to be a girl) uses his name as a disguise: Hilary.
- In the short story "Just Good Friends" by Jeffrey Archer, the female narrator who goes home with a guy she met in a bar turns out to be a stray cat.
- In The Left Hand of Darkness, one essay that ruminates at length on gender politics, and the effect that a lack of gender has had on the people of Winter, finishes with the off-hand revelation that the author of the essay is a woman. It's a bit of a shock because the rest of the book is narrated by a man or a genderless resident of Winter.
- In People Of The Book, most of the flashback narrations are in third-person, as opposed Hanna's unifying narration in first person. That is, up until the first-person, Muslim, female illuminator of the Sarajevo Haggadah.
- In the novel Then We Came to the End, the whole thing is written in the first person plural. The narrators are positioned as people who work in the office in which the characters work, but it is never made clear whether any of the named characters are included in "we". It is surprisingly effective.
- Joanne Harris's Gentlemen and Players is narrated by two characters, one the protagonist and the other the antagonist. The antagonist's first-person narrative effectively hides the character's name and identity and the fact that she is female.
- This is common practice in the more psychological breed of mystery thrillers, where it is used to provide brief glimpses into the mind of the killer without providing identifying characteristics such as name and gender. The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill is a good example.
- In the Jorge Luis Borges short story "The House of Asterion" the eponymous, unworldly prince describes his isolated life, lack of education, and limited social interactions. His terminology and allusions become increasingly bizarre. He expresses longing for a prophesied saviour who will one day come to free him from his lonely, infinite house. Only in the end do we learn that the narrator is the Minotaur, and that his "redeemer" will be Theseus.
- Brooklyn Burning by Steve Brezenoff uses this and Second-Person Narration to hide the genders of the two main characters.
- This is used in Aimee to hide the name of the protagonist, who feels like she cannot separate herself from the the belief that she killed her friend (the Aimee who the book is titled after) who actually committed suicide.
- Robert A. Heinlein used this a time or two, most notably in Starship Troopers: the fact that protagonist Juan "Johnnie" Rico and his family are Filipino is only mentioned toward the end, when one of his compatriots overhears him talking to himself in Tagalog and asks him what the language is. If you only read the first few chapters, you're going to miss that.
- Daphne du Maurier used this in Rebecca to leave her narrator nameless, known only as the second Mrs. de Winter.
- The narrator of The Brothers Karamazov is never identified (nor is it ever explained how he knows so many details about events and conversations he had no part in). A demon that one character hallucinates towards the end of the book also speaks in the first person, which has inspired at least one literature student to suggest that the narrator is the devil.
- John Scalzi uses this in Lock In to hide the protagonist's gender. Most people don't catch it on the first read, through.
- In It's a Mistake by Men At Work, World War III (accidentally) breaks out and shortly thereafter the victorious military has "got the bad guys on the run". In the next verse we learn that the victorious military has just captured Ronald Reagan.
- The music video for Smack My Bitch Up by Prodigy is shot from the first-person perspective. The twist comes in the end, when we learn the hard-drinking, hard-partying, drug-addicted, violent womanizing protagonist is female.
- On a lighter note, the song "Christmas Isn't Christmas Without You" seems like a typical jazzy song about a woman who's sad that the man she loves can't be with her on Christmas Eve. In the end, it's revealed that the woman is Mrs. Claus.
- Tegan & Sara uses the all-concealing I and the all-concealing you to good effect in their lyrics. Because it's impossible to determine the genders of any of the characters in their songs, the relationships described in them can be read as heterosexual, gay, or lesbian depending on the listener's inclination. Incidental, both Tegan and Sara are lesbians and have large fanbases in both the straight and LGBT communities.
- Similarly, Judas Priest used this to avoid using gendered pronouns in their Intercourse with You songs, even before Rob Halford came out as gay.
- In the sourcebook Aztlan by Nigel Findley, the material is interspersed with a chat log between various parties who can be identified only from details included in their conversations (e.g. 'the Big D' is revealed to be the dragon Dunkelzahn).
- Orange Queen, a Shadowland site regular whose first-person comments appear in various articles throughout the sourcebooks, is eventually revealed to be the dragon Hestaby.
- Rare second-person example: In the Kalamar D&D setting, the main holy book of the god of pain is an account of someone lost in an icy wasteland, trudging barefoot over sharp rocks and then falling through a frozen lake. It's written in the second person, apparently to make it creepier.
- Adam Cadre's work is full of this.
- 9:05 lets you fulfill the daily life of a salaryman until you're revealed to have just burgled the salaryman's house on the previous day and You Never Asked.
- Shrapnel combines this with Time Travel to set the player as an alternate personality of the person he's visiting.
- Photopia once again pulls the You Never Asked thing to reveal you're an alien, with wings, in a free-form story being told to a ten-year-old.
- Text adventures in general will give you evasive responses to "examine me" such as "You look the same as you always do." Or "You look like yourself."
- Slouching Towards Bedlam deliberately avoids the second person pronouns that are traditional in Interactive Fiction... but you might not notice at first. It's an eerily subtle symptom of something much bigger going on with your character. He has caught the Logos from an asylum patient, which erased his ego and all his memories.
- Umineko no Naku Koro ni:
- In a variation, the original visual novels regularly switch between first- and third-person in a rather confusing way. The first-person sections are narrated by the protagonist — usually — but it's not until later that we find out the third-person sections are also being narrated- by the Game Master, who is always interested in tricking you. It can sometimes even be hard to spot when the POV switches. Unreliable Narrator ahoy!
- Episode 6 has a case of this. The difference from the series' normal use is that there are no sprites showing which character it is and the character in question is locked in a room from which s/he can't get out of. It quickly becomes very creepy.
- In the visual novel Ever17, the player can choose to play as either Takeshi or the Kid. You play with a first-person POV from the selected character, meaning you can only see Takeshi when playing as the Kid and can only see the Kid when playing as Takeshi. Taking it even further, once you've made the choice, lines spoken by your controlled character are not voice acted, denying you even the knowledge of what you sound like. All of this is crucial to the final act's Mind Screw plot twist: the person you play as isn't the same person you see. Actually, both the people you see are the same person; the Takeshi seen by the Kid is a grown-up version of the Kid seen by Takeshi. Even worse, you actually aren't playing as either Takeshi or the Kid, but as a 4th-dimensional entity who's observing things through their eyes (well, indirectly in Takeshi's case). Confused yet?
- A similar trick is pulled in Virtue's Last Reward, written by the same author as Ever17 above, where you view the game from the first-person perspective of the protagonist, Sigma. Once again, lines spoken by the main character have no voice acting. This is done to hide the fact that Sigma is actually older than he thinks he is, thanks to mental time travel.
- Likewise, its predecessor conceals the fact that there are actually two narrators both using I to make it seem like there is only one. Once the secret is revealed they can easily be distinguished by seeing which screen of the DS they narrate on.
- The Marathon series has an odd variation of this - you play a Heroic Mime character that is treated like a tool by most other main characters, and as such the only dialogue you get is overheard conversations in which you aren't mentioned or someone talking to you giving you orders. Aside from a short, vague prologue in the manual there is no background for your character, and he is never seen. Plenty of hints are in the game, with mention of military cyborgs and soldiers made from the reanimated dead, but arguments still go on as to what exactly he is.
- In Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, the first-person therapy sessions are actually Cheryl's point of view, not Harry's. You don't realize this since Dr. K will not refer to you by name until the very end.
- Done beautifully in one of the text sections in NieR. One villager's dream is written like a Lovecraftian classic, sanity slipping away as you trek through halls of wanton gore. Once you navigate your way out of the dungeon, the narrator mentions their torn dress. "I can see that the one known as Hello, Insert Name Here is disappointed that the torn dress will be given no further description, but he hides it well."
- An in-game book in The Elder Scrolls, Immortal Blood. The "I" hides the fact that he is a vampire himself.
- Dream High School: you barely know anything else about yourself. Page 2 gives your first hint, but on Page 4 you're first referred to as a "she".
- Limyaaels Fantasy Rants: Limyaael calls attention to a few pitfalls of first-person narration in this rant.
- A tale from the SCP Foundation, The Little Lost *blotted* is portrayed as a series of diary entries. The diary entries are peppered with ██████, [DATA EXPUNGED], and [REDACTED], in the usual method of SCP censoring delicate info. The narrator is despairing about the approach of final exams they haven't studied for and relating gossip about the dating habits of their acquaintances, when... something happens. The narrator ends up confined somewhere, alone, being tortured by horrible creatures for no discernable reason... and the last line cuts off in the middle of SCP-682's Catch Phrase.
- Used to great effect in the Journal of Aframos Longjourney, a story in The Wanderer's Library, to conceal the fact that basically every assumption you make about the main character is wrong.
- A common trait of Creepy Pasta, for example Captain's Log, where the twist is that the captain and his crew are The Greys.
- The Tex Avery MGM cartoon "Dixieland Droopy" tells the story of a dog (Droopy) who loved Dixieland jazz. The narrator tells how Droopy befriended an all-flea Dixieland band led by trumpeter Peewee Runt ("You know how fleas love dogs, do you?") and performed with them at the Hollywood Bowl. At the end of the cartoon, the narrator says that only Peewee knows the truth about how Droopy rose to fame...and he'll never tell.
Narrator: For you see, that flea, Peewee, is me! See?