I Never Expected Readers to React So Strongly to a Left-Handed Protagonist

The protagonist of the novel I’m revising is left-handed.

Me? I’m right-handed. According to various online quizzes which measure your place on the left-handed-to-right-handed spectrum, I’m an extreme righty. Because right-handedness is assumed in most circumstances, I only think about it when my right hand is injured. Or when I’m writing a left-handed character.

All of my beta readers had significant reactions to my protagonist’s left-handedness. I understand why my lefty beta reader reacted (and I’m relieved that he didn’t have any objections). What surprised me was that all my righty beta readers also reacted strongly.

I’ve done some research about left-handedness. Some of that research is mechanical ‘do left-handed people need a tool designed for left hands to do this’ stuff, and some is more cultural/literary.

According to my research, few fictional protagonists are left-handed. The internet has various lists of left-handed characters in TV and movies, but I have yet to find a list for prose fiction. That makes sense. Movies and TV have to show which hand is dominant. Prose can get away with not revealing which hand is dominant. There’s a debate about whether characters played by lefty actors are ~really~ left-handed. My opinion is: if the movie/show depicts the character as left-hand dominant, that character is left-handed, period. If the director wanted the character to be right-handed, they should’ve told the actor to switch hands.

So why is my novel’s protagonist left-handed?

It starts with the antagonist. For spoilerish plot reasons, the antagonist and the protagonist must have different hand dominances. The antagonist’s identity is a mystery. Making the antagonist left-handed would narrow the ‘suspect’ list too much, so I want the antagonist to be right-handed. Because the antagonist is right-handed, the protagonist must be left-handed.

When I wrote the rough draft, I wasn’t trying to subvert the “A Sinister Clue” trope, but I’m 100% okay with subverting that trope. Yes, my novel invokes the “Southpaw Advantage” trope. I’m not trying to subvert every hand-dominance trope. I invoke/subvert yet another hand trope, but telling you which trope it is would be a major spoiler (I won’t even tell you whether I subvert it).

Left-handedness also explains some of my protagonist’s character development. Specifically, why she grew up believing that she’s clumsy. She grew up in a culture/society which considers left-handedness to be ‘wrong’ and her family forced her to use her right hand like a righty (except she couldn’t).

And that is where the strongest reader reactions came in. For example, one beta reader has a left-handed father who grew up in a society which discourages using left hands. His schoolteachers forced him to write with his right hand.

Noting where readers figured out that my protagonist is left-handed was also interesting. The first page of my novel hints that she’s left-handed, and there are more signs up to where the narrative explicitly mentions her left-handedness. Some beta readers figured it out earlier than others.

Recently, I read (actually, DNF’d) a novel which states that a major character is right-handed. If I hadn’t become so sensitized to the handedness of characters because of my own novel, I would’ve missed/forgotten that one line. Now I wonder what other novels I’ve read which revealed a major character’s hand dominance and… I just didn’t notice.

What about you? How do you react to the hand dominance of fictional characters?

5 thoughts on “I Never Expected Readers to React So Strongly to a Left-Handed Protagonist

  1. I can only think of two examples in literature I have read where the handedness of a character is relevant or even mentioned: Violet in A Series of Unfortunate Events (her being right-handed is relevant to how she outwits the villain in book one) and Athos in The Three Musketeers (he is ambidextrous and can continue a sword fight just fine with his left hand after his right arm is injured). I wonder if it’s a detail that authors don’t tend to mention, or if it’s a detail like hair or eye colour that I tend to ignore or forget unless it’s plot-relevant.

    I’m excited to hear that your novel has a left-handed protagonist. Treating left-handed people as an aberration or inconvenience absolutely still happens and the world could thus definitely use more books that subvert the Sinister Clue trope and normalise the existence of lefties.

      • Oh yeah Violet in the first A Series of Unfortunate Events book being right handed being so relevant! I loved that Violet Baudelaire character so much she is part of the inspiration for my current username 😉 I had forgotten though until you mentioned it. Probably should look at that TV tropes page.

      • It’s been so long since I read A Series of Unfortunate Events that I forgot that part.

        Coincidently, a few weeks ago I saw Daniel Handler in a Zoom event.

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