Psychic Distance in Writing – 4 Tiers to Know

Posted on Jul 31, 2020

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Do you find that you struggle to connect your readers with your characters? Does your MC feel distant and detached? You might need to work on your psychic distance!

Psychic distance, also known as narrative distance, is an important literary element that affects how your reader relates to your character.

A simple definition of psychic distance is how close a story’s narration is to its character.

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Psychic distance in writing overview

There are multiple levels of psychic distance. You can have a very far-off, objective view of the character–take the sentence:

 “A woman sprints through the forest.”

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

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

“Moss slips under my feet as I run through the forest.”

In the first example, we are far-off, objective observers of this woman. 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 woman. We are a part of the scene, we know our footing is unstable, we feel more connected to the story.

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

“Carol runs through the forest, slipping on moss.”

This one is third person, a little further than the second example, but we know her name. Knowing Carol’s name puts us closer to the character than if she were just a “woman.” We might care about her a little bit more. We don’t know her thoughts, and we obviously aren’t her, but we know her name.

Psychic distance is a spectrum with endless points, and they range from very far from your character to very close to your character. To explain this a little easier, let’s pick four points, or tiers, on the psychic distance spectrum.

Let’s say tier 1 of psychic distance is objective observation, tier 2 is indirect thought, tier 3 is direct thought, and tier 4 is a stream of consciousness directly from your character.

Here’s an example paragraph with zooming psychic distance. It starts wide with objective observation, then zooms to a stream of consciousness.

“The woman walks into the forest. Carol has always loved trees. They’re so quiet and unopinionated, filtering harsh sun to a kinder glow, cutting winds to a gentler breeze, inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling calm.”

Tier 1 psychic distance: objective observation

“The woman walks into the forest” is objective. We’re not in her thoughts–we are simply observing the world for what it is. This distance is great for setting the scene. Picture an opening scene of a TV show or movie: they start with an establishing shot. The outside of a house, a panning shot of a forest, maybe even an overhead angle of a city. The objective distance takes in the wider world or a glimpse of a character we don’t know yet.

In this tier, the narrator is in charge. An example that keeps wholly in this distance of narration is Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Those books tell horrible stories of child abuse and endangerment. 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. Imagine those same stories as a first-person account from Violet’s point-of-view. It’s much darker and heavier, isn’t it?

Keeping so far away makes it very difficult to connect reader to character, but, as in the above example, it can be done intentionally and serve the story well.

Tier 2 psychic distance: indirect thought

“Carol has always loved trees” is an indirect thought. We have a small glimpse into Carol’s head, but we’re still in a separate narrator’s perspective. That narration puts a barrier between the reader and Carol.

Think of this tier as voice-over. We’re getting inside information of a situation, but it’s not happening in real-time or up close, so it’s not as urgent as it could be.

Tier 3 psychic distance: direct thought

“They’re so quiet and unopinionated” is Carol’s direct thought. We’re much closer to her now. From this distance, we can even infer a little bit about her perspective–why would she note that the trees are quiet and unopinionated? Maybe there’s a little subtext there. Did Carol have an upsetting conversation with an overstepping friend? Maybe that’s why she’s taking a walk in the woods.

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

Tier 4 psychic distance: stream of conscious

From “They’re so quiet and unopinionated,” we slip right into a stream of consciousness: “filtering harsh sun into a kinder glow, cutting winds to a gentler breeze, inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling calm.”

Tier 4 removed the narrator’s voice completely, and we’re feeling what Carol is feeling. She’s super into these trees. We get it, Carol.

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

In that example paragraph, we started wide and ended narrow. What if we reverse it?

“The trees filter harsh sun to a kinder glow, cut winds to a gentler breeze, inhale carbon dioxide and exhale calm. Trees are so quiet and unopinionated. Carol has always loved them. The woman steps into the forest.”

How did that paragraph feel? Not as satisfying, right?

The reversed example doesn’t foster the same reader-character relationship. We don’t go into it knowing it’s Carol thinking about the trees, because we have no context for her. You want your reader to grow closer to your character–not further away. You don’t start very close, 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.

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.

Inexperienced writers will often call a character by their name, David, then they’ll use a synonym in the next sentence like, the man or the prostitute. We already know his name is David, 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 repeating 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? Here’s a video by Jenna Moreci about dialogue tags that might give you some ideas of how to avoid using a character’s name too often. And if you want to work in description of a character, simply describe them in a natural way instead of using a synonym for their name.

If there’s one rule to psychic distance, it’s how you use a character’s name. Apart from that, psychic distance is a fun tool to experiment with for dynamic narration! Decide what distance is going to be the most impactful for whatever you’re trying to accomplish in that sentence or in that scene, and do it intentionally.

For an example of purposely using different psychic distances, think again of how you set a scene. You start wide to establish your setting: where are we, what time is it, what’s the weather like–then we zoom into what the character is doing. A wide psychic distance is used to establish setting and context, a tighter one is for when we’re close to our character.

As with any writing advice, you should keep in mind that there are no hard and fast facts about what to do and not to do, but you have to know the rules before you break them, or you’re gonna look like an idiot. You can break the “rules,” as long as you know that you’re breaking them.

How should authors use psychic distance?

To summarize, be aware of where your psychic distance is, use it intentionally, and use it to your advantage. And once you’ve named your character, call them by their name. One of the quickest ways to spot an amateur is when they call the character by some descriptor other than their name after we are intimately familiar with the character. So watch out!

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