Nobody is wholly good. And nobody is entirely bad. That’s as true of fictional characters as it is of flesh and blood humans. This idea that we all, fictional and real, exist somewhere along a spectrum of goodies and baddies was a large part of my motivation to use third person throughout my novel, Electric Shadows of Shanghai.
Giving any character first person privilege would have resulted in a very different story. Narratives are built on conflict and the novel is rife with rivalries: Amelia battles film star Feifei for her husband’s affections; independent journalist Julia is fighting the sneering superiority of colonialism, the rigidity of two cultures she doesn’t belong to and her lover’s wife; Will vacillates between friendship and enmity with his colleagues at the consulate and attraction and indifference toward his wife.
It was my job as the omniscient narrator to paint these characters in full and truthful colours: Feifei as femme fatale and victim, Julia as outspoken and bitter, Will as philanderer and poet, Amelia as unwanted and independent. Doing this required adding careful daubs of information to the story as it moved along. Rather than long analyses of each character’s motivations I instead focused on their interactions with others, dipping my narrative brush into their backgrounds now and again to fill in the blanks: why did these people enter into a miserable marriage? Why is Tamara so tough on her troupe of ballet dancers?
Because nobody wants to read a novel where every action is psychoanalysed, every throwaway comment justified by personal history. And that is where it is very tempting to use a first person narrator who can paint the world in black and white and just get on with telling a good story, confident in our sympathy. An omniscient narrator doesn’t have the luxury of personality. An all-knowing observer cannot simply take against someone – their knowledge runs too deep. I maintained a steady voice throughout the novel, not altering my tone to hint at approval or disapproval of any character or their actions. But I lifted the lids of their psyches to let the reader see what motivated them. Their environments, too, built a better picture of their motivations and their demons. I contrasted the glitter of Feifei’s professional life with the drudgery of being with her family, I showed Amelia in closed, private, feminine environments that stood in stark contrast to Will’s boundless Shanghai of neon and wood panelling, taxi dancers and government officials.
The third person allows a story without boundaries: nothing is unknown. But that requires an even finer filter in order not to fill a novel with needless detail. As the narrator turns their eye from one character to another they must focus on what is relevant, on the spaces that lie between the personalities that clash and collide, the events that turn good people bad and bad people good. My hope is that this way of writing allows the readers to come away with their own impression of the characters and potentially varied interpretations of the novel. And while I hope they come away thinking no one is wholly good or totally bad, the narrator hasn’t done their job if readers don’t rank the characters along their own internal scale of good and bad. The omniscient narrator allows everyone to have a favourite character: one that the writer hasn’t decided
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