Psychic distance isn’t about mind-reading

I got a little distracted last week, but let’s return to the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist. We were talking about point of view, or viewpoint. One aspect of viewpoint is psychic distance.

The psychic distance is appropriate for the story and genre.

inside the character's head

© rolffimages – Fotolia.com

This doesn’t refer to the number of miles across which your telepathic characters can transmit a message. It refers to the depth to which the author embeds the reader in the POV character’s psyche. An omniscient narrator is not deep at all: he’s almost completely exterior to the characters. Although he can describe how they feel, he does it from outside. When your POV character is your narrator, you put the reader inside the character’s head. This can be done at a moderate distance, often called middle third person or, as Nancy Kress puts it in Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, medium-distance third. But modern readers, as we’ve said before, prefer deep POV.

Some stories call for more closeness, while others can be more detached. Psychic intimacy or distance can vary among scenes, but not greatly. You have to choose what works best for your story. In an epic historical drama with lots of POV characters, you probably want to keep the distance in the middle. But in a romance where you only have two characters, getting into their minds and hearts will be more engaging for the reader.

One thing I see a lot of—and I suspect it comes from a desire to create mystery—is what I call Hidden Identity Syndrome. It’s really hard to pull off in novels (as opposed to movies), though earlier I gave some ideas about how to conceal a character’s identity.

The problem is that if you have a POV character who’s thinking about herself in some distant way—as if she were an omniscient narrator instead of herself—you’re really giving her a kind of mental disorder. Psychiatrists call it dissociation: the sense of a person being detached from his or her own body. You can read more about dissociative disorders at the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation website.

A dissociative disorder may be fine fodder for a story, but generally speaking, our characters need to be fully present, aware of their surroundings, and in touch with their emotions.

Here’s an example of a scene with an improperly dissociated POV character:

Amy watched the celebrants toast the bride. They were all very effusive, wishing the new couple well. Amy glanced at the clock. The reception was half over, and her best friend had yet to arrive.

Springing on the reader at some point a page or two later that Amy is the bride will have readers questioning why she is so dissociated from her own personality as to think of herself as “the bride.” Plus, we’re told her friend is late, but we’re not shown how she feels about that.

Nothing is to be gained from pulling this trick on the reader. Nothing. If you’re going to put this scene in Amy’s point of view, you need to place the reader fully into Amy’s white satin pumps.

Amy mustered a faint smile as yet another well-wisher toasted her and Rory. Her veil tickled her cheek as she turned to gaze at him again—more dashing than ever. Yet a memory tapped on a closed door within her mind, hinting that something was amiss…this day, full of delight, marred…because her best friend was late.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

3 thoughts on “Psychic distance isn’t about mind-reading

  1. Steven Sandlert says:

    Hi Kristen,
    I am enjoying your posts, but I don’t get your preference for the “deep” POV. First, it sounds like a value judgment: everything else must be shallow. Second, you seem to prefer getting rid of the narrator. How about this narrator:
    “A log raft in the river invited him,and he seated himself on its outer edge and contemplated the dreary vastness of the stream, wising, the while, that he could only be drowned, all at once and unconsciously, without undergoing the uncomfortable routine devised by nature.” Shall we take Mark Twain out of Tom Sawyer? I don’t think so.
    This deep POV might work for some novels, but the disadvantages seem obvious to me. The author must limit his vocabulary to that of the POV character, and he cannot describe any unconscious thoughts or feelings unknown to the character. To me, this sounds like a literary fad that limits creativity.
    Steve Sandler

    • Steve, I get you. In another place I say that the choice of viewpoint is dependent on the story. Some stories are better told that way.

      My preference for deep POV is based on reader engagement. What we’re seeing is that — in general — readers engage more deeply with characters when books are written in deep POV, e.g., Hunger Games, and Harry Potter.

      But I am never one to take a tool from a writer’s hand and say “never use that.” I’ve said it before: what I write here is not rules — it’s advice.

      Update: Your example from Mark Twain is excellent, though probably not for the reason you think. Yes, Tom Sawyer is written in omniscient POV, as most novels were back then. But Huckleberry Finn is written in deep POV. It wasn’t called that back then, of course. Back then they would have said “first person,” because only in recent decades have writers started using this depth in the third person. But the point is that Twain used different viewpoints depending on the needs of the story and the mood he was trying to create.

  2. […] to be done that way because of some nonrule. So once you’ve verified the viewpoint character and psychic depth, you can examine whether the story is best told from first person or […]

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