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.
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.