In my post entitled It’s all a matter of perspective, I touched on something called psychic distance – sometimes known as narrative, authorial or emotional distance. Psychic distance is about how much space there is between the reader and the character whose story it is. While there are books with multiple viewpoint characters, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on narratives with a single point of view character, and on what is often seen as the default perspective in modern novels – stories written in the third person and in past tense, ie he said, she went.
In contrast to first person narratives, where the main character is the narrator of their own story, a third person narrative is a story about the main character, told by someone else. In my view, psychic distance is largely about how that someone else, ie the narrator, functions within the text.
Let’s have another look at the examples John Gardner set out in The Art of Fiction.
It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
This doesn’t feel as though it could be anything other than an opening line. The reader is given some key information about the setting, and a very basic physical description of a character, but they’re kept at a distance. There is a clear sense of a traditional narrator – someone stepping onto an empty stage to set the scene. It’s similar in tone to the famous prologue to Romeo and Juliet.
Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene)
Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
In this example, the reader is allowed slightly closer, with the main character introduced by name. At this level of psychic distance, however, there is still a sense of a stage-type narrator, giving a quick summary to the audience, in order to familiarise them with the character who has moved into the spotlight.
Henry hated snowstorms.
Here, the narrator has less to do. They’re interpreting Henry’s thoughts and feelings, but it’s not as formal in style. They’re still acting as an intermediary, but it’s as though the reader has been allowed to sit next to them in the wings, while they comment on what’s happening on stage.
God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
In this example, the narrator has even less work to do. Henry’s thoughts are beginning to come through, along with a hint of his own voice. The narrator is still there – it’s still a third person narrative – but they’re much less obtrusive. They’re essentially acting as an interpreter, tidying up Henry’s internal monologue, and passing it on to the reader in a form that makes sense.
Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul…
In this one, the narrator has almost merged with the character, taking the reader with them into Henry’s head. There’s little practical difference between this very close, intense form of third person and a first person narrative. Both place the reader right inside the viewpoint character’s mind, looking out through their eyes, and having full access to their thoughts and feelings.
These days, most novel-length fiction is written in either first person or fairly close third person, giving the reader insight into what the character is thinking and feeling, but allowing the writer some flexibility to move in and out. Many stories start off by giving the reader a wide-lens view of the setting or time period – as in the first Henry Warburton example – before zooming in closer to the main character. You might want to take the reader closer still when the character is experiencing strong emotions, and you might want to zoom out slightly in order to give a quick description of a setting without laboriously listing every tiny detail the character notices. The key is to make sure that any transitions are smooth. Try to avoid big jumps of perspective, and be particularly cautious when zooming out. If a reader has been restricted to the things directly experienced by the character, and they’re then essentially tapped on the shoulder, taken aside and made privy to information that has been withheld from that character, it’s a clear reminder that the story is just that – a story, with an author who, in that moment, needs to service the plot in a way they can’t manage from inside the character’s head. It’s like that stage narrator suddenly jumping back into the spotlight and saying ‘oh, by the way, there’s something I should have mentioned about those two households in Verona…’
As a general rule, you should also try to avoid head-hopping, where the point of view suddenly switches away from the main character, giving the reader insight into the inner workings of someone else. Again, this is insight which the main character themselves doesn’t have. The omniscient narrator, with their ability to dip into various characters’ minds, has fallen out of fashion in recent years. This is probably at least partly due to the fact that it’s hard to do it well. Jane Austen uses an omniscient narrator extremely effectively. While her stories tend to have a main viewpoint character, the narrator sometimes draws the reader back, before leading them quietly over to another character, letting that person’s thoughts come through for a short while. This sort of shifting perspective requires deftness of touch in order to achieve smooth variations of psychic distance that don’t jolt the reader, or weaken their connection to the main character, but what we often see when this is attempted is a sudden lurch from one close point of view to another, as though the narrator has staggered drunkenly, colliding with another character.
If the story is being told from a close third person perspective, with a single viewpoint character, the reader should stay close to that character. Other characters should be viewed from the outside, with information about what they might be thinking or feeling coming only by way of body language, tone of voice etc. Even if there are multiple viewpoint characters, you should avoid jumping rapidly between them. Most books with multiple points of view shift perspective between chapters, which gives the reader a clean break, and allows them to settle into the head of each new character, confident that they’ll be staying there for a while.
So that’s a quick dip into psychic distance. For more detail and some suggestions for how you can use it to create a close connection between reader and character, have a look at my post on Keeping the Reader Close.