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One of the ultimate goals of a fiction writer is to build a strong reader-character connection. Characters are often what stick with the reader long after they’ve finished the book. If you want a memorable character, you’ve got to find a way to bring the reader close to them.

While reader-character connection is one of the most important aspects of a book, it’s also one of the trickiest skills to master. One tool that’s relatively easy to learn is control of psychic distance.

What is psychic distance?

Psychic distance, also known as narrative distance, is a concept in writing that refers to the closeness of the reader’s experience to the thoughts, perspective, and emotions of the characters in a story. It is a way to gauge the level of immersion and intimacy between the reader and the narrative.

There are multiple levels of psychic distance ranging from very close to very far—it’s a spectrum with as many points as you’d like to invent, but here are four major points on that spectrum:

  1. Objective observation
  2. Indirect thought
  3. Direct thought
  4. Stream of consciousness

Those are listed from farthest to nearest distances.

When we have a very far-off, objective observation of the character, we are simply looking at them. This distance might be appropriate for a character introduction, or perhaps an omniscient narration. We are not connected to this character. We are sitting back and looking at them with the author.

Take this sentence:

 “A little girl opens the cellar door.”

Who is she? What’s she thinking? Why’s she going in the cellar? We don’t know! We know nothing about her. Because this is an unknown character, it is appropriate for the reader to be somewhat detached from her.

On the other side of the spectrum, you might have a sentence like:

“The next rung creaks in pain, and I grip the sides of the ladder, as if any part of the rotting structure is safer than the next.”

In the first example, we are far-off, objective observers of this girl. There isn’t a large sense of urgency, and we don’t have a strong emotional tie to her.

In the second example, we are the girl climbing into the hole. We are a part of the scene, we know our footing is unstable, and we feel more connected to the character’s experience.

Those are two ends of a spectrum, so a point in the middle might be:

“Ella opens the cellar, releasing the indistinguishable stench of rotting flesh into the innocent summer evening.”

This one is third person, so it’s a little further away than the second example, but we know her name, which puts us a little closer than just calling her “the little girl”. We might care about her a bit more. We aren’t so close that we’re in her head, but we’re not so far that she’s a stranger.

Here’s an example paragraph with zooming psychic distance. It starts wide with objective observation, then close in to a stream of consciousness. We’ll use this paragraph as our example throughout this lesson.

“A little girl opens the cellar door. Ella is scared of the dark. Anything could be hiding in there. Spider webs and shadows stand guard at the entrance, demanding she turn back, but she knows she has to climb down the dry-rotted ladder to what waits below—there is no other option.”

1. Psychic Distance: Objective Observation

“A little girl opens the cellar door” is objective. We’re not in her thoughts–we are simply observing the world for what it is.

This distance is great for establishing setting. It’s like a new scene of a movie: They start with an establishing shot. The outside of a building, a drone perspective of the terrain, the camera creeping through mouseholes in a castle and hearing little snippets of conversations.

In this tier, the narrator is in charge. We’re not getting input from the characters.

An example that keeps this distance of narration through the entire work is A Series of Unfortunate Events. Those books tell horrible stories of children getting orphaned and abused and trapped in marriages with their uncles. Why is it marketed to children? Because the psychic distance is far enough away. The reader views the characters through Lemony Snicket, so far off that it isn’t nearly as emotionally impactful as it would be from a closer perspective. Through the series, we’re constantly reminded that it is a story.

These are the opening lines:

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.”

They are taking you by the face and saying: This is a story. And that makes the children’s traumatic lives way more palatable for young readers.

Imagine the same stories as a first-person account from the older sister’s point-of-view. It would be a much darker, heavier narrative, and probably not at all appropriate for its target demographic. In this case, the narrative voice and the psychic distance are imperative to selling the books, period. It wouldn’t work otherwise.

The downside of a psychic distance this wide is that we lose out on reader-character connection. But as we just covered, that can be intentional and benefit the story. As always, it’s all about being intentional with our writing choices.

This is all of us sitting back and looking at the character with the author, because we are at the objective observation distance:

2. Psychic Distance: Indirect Thought

The second tier of psychic distance is indirect thought.

“Ella is scared of the dark.” is an indirect thought. We have a small glimpse into Ella’s experience, but she is not the narrator. This narrative voice puts a little barrier between us and Ella. We are still being told this story.

Think of this tier as voiceover. We’re getting inside information of a situation, but it’s not happening in real-time up close, so it won’t feel as urgent as it could were we a little closer to it.

This is a very common distance to be from characters, particularly characters we have just been introduced to and characters who aren’t our main focus.

3. Psychic Distance: Direct Thought

Tier three is direct thought.

“Anything could be hiding in there.” is Ella’s direct thought. We’re much closer to her now. From this distance, we might even infer a little bit about her headspace—she’s not looking forward to going down the ladder, but she feels some obligation to be there, despite that.

This is the most common distance you’ll see in fiction. It’s the standard narrative closeness, and likely will become your default in most cases.

4. Psychic Distance: Stream of Consciousness

And the closest tier is stream of consciousness.

“Spider webs and shadows stand guard at the entrance, demanding she turn back, but she knows she has to climb down the dry-rotted ladder to what waits below—there is no other option.”

This distance removes the narrator’s voice completely, and we’re feeling what Ella is feeling. She’s scared and maybe a little resigned or determined.

This is as close as we can get to our character. Even in third person, the narration can slip in so close that we essentially become the character at this distance.

In the Ella paragraph, we started far away and ended close. What if we reverse it?

“Spider webs and shadows stand guard at the entrance, demanding she turn back, but she knows she has to climb down the dry-rotted ladder to what waits below—there is no other option. Anything could be hiding in there. Ella is scared of the dark. A little girl opens the cellar door.”

That one feels a little less natural because it’s not following a logical progression. We don’t start out knowing how Ella feels, because we have no context for her. Who is looking into this hole? You want your reader to grow closer to your character–not further away. You don’t start very close, and then know less.

You can zoom in and out with the distance you view your character, but you cannot zoom in and out with the distance of how you know your character.

To further illustrate the flexibility of literary devices and writing rules: If we cut the last sentence, that paragraph would be fine. It could be like we’re starting in her eyeballs, then zooming out to see who she is. This could be considered starting in medias reis, or it could simply be stylistic. The only problem is that last sentence, because we can’t go from knowing her name and thoughts to calling her “the little girl”. It just isn’t slapping the way it needs to slap.

Psychic Distance with Character Names

You will hop around with psychic distance for your narrative in general, especially if you’re not in a first-person point-of-view, but one aspect you shouldn’t change is the closeness with which you refer to your character once you are on a first-name basis. This is one of the biggest ways new writers mess up with psychic distance–they hop around with how they refer to their character. This is a very obvious Writer Newbie sign that’s very easy to avoid.

Inexperienced writers will often call a character by their name, Ella, then they’ll use a synonym in the next sentence like, the little girl or the blonde child. We already know her name is Ella, so using synonyms is zooming in and out of the reader’s intimacy with the character for no reason.

Writers who switch psychic distance in referring to characters are often trying to do one of two things:

  1. Avoid the repetition of a character’s name.
  2. Remind the reader that the character is blonde by calling her the blonde.

Neither of these are good reasons to regress on psychic distance. If you feel you’re being repetitive with your character’s name, do you really need to be using their name so often? And if you want to work in description of a character, just describe them. If you need to hit us with a, “she puffed a strand of blonde hair from her face,” that’s better than psychic regression for description’s sake.

If there’s one rule to psychic distance, it’s how you use a character’s name, and of course, there are always stylistic and experimental ways to break any rule, but just be aware that this a rule so you can break it in a cooler way, if you so choose.

Apart from that, psychic distance is a fun tool to experiment with, once you’re aware of it. Decide what distance is going to be the most impactful for whatever you’re trying to accomplish in that sentence or in that scene or in the whole book like Lemony Snicket, and do it intentionally.

Happy writing!

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