Five Levels of Psychic Distance in First-Person Fiction
The modulation of psychic distance is a writing technique that writers apply to produce different effects. This article explains what psychic distance is and discusses five levels of psychic distance in stories written in the first person. The examples provided are a handy aid for selecting the appropriate psychic distance in your own stories, according to how you want to affect your readers.
What Is Psychic Distance?
Psychic distance is the extent to which a reader has access to a fictional character’s innermost thoughts and emotions. If psychic distance is great or high, the reader is kept remote from the viewpoint character. If psychic distance is small or low, the reader is close to the viewpoint character. Psychic distance can also be turned off altogether so that reader and viewpoint character become one. Writers select a particular level of psychic distance for effect. So, the psychic distance you choose depends on how you want your story to affect your readers.
Do you want to relax readers with a bedtime tale?… Then set psychic distance to a high level.
Do you want to suck them into a story so they feel they are living it? … Then set psychic distance low or turn it off altogether.
The most common level of psychic distance is medium, midway between these two extremes.
How Is It Like Photography?
A writer’s choice of psychic distance is similar to the decision a photographer makes when composing and capturing an image. There are two extremes in the spectrum of possibilities—a photographer can capture a landscape panorama using a wide-angle lens, or he can take a detailed close-up of a flower using the macro setting.
Even more intimate than ‘close-up’, in writing there is zero psychic distance, which involves being really up close and personal. It means the reader directly experiences the first-person protagonist’s thoughts, emotions and sensations. Having no psychic distance puts your reader right into the protagonist’s shoes.
The Psychic Distance Gauge
So, let’s look at five levels on the psychic distance spectrum in the form of a gauge, where 4 is the greatest psychic distance and 1 is the least, and 0 means psychic distance is switched off altogether.
When planning a story, you need to gauge the most appropriate psychic distance depending on how you want your readers to be affected.
Do you want readers to read a tale about a pirate? … Then ramp up the psychic distance.
Do you want them to experience being a pirate? … Then turn psychic distance off altogether.
a pirate's tale
a pirate's story
a pirate's story
a pirate's story
the reader IS the pirate
Of course, writers can make careful transitions between psychic distance levels within one story—or even within one paragraph, if you’re Hilary Mantel—but let’s keep it simple. So, the focus in this article will be on short stories where psychic distance is maintained at one level throughout.
Be aware that psychic distance is also affected by a writer’s use of third person or first person. In this article, we’ll consider psychic distance written in the first person, which is the more intimate of the two.
Let’s begin with Level 4, where psychic distance is greatest.
Level 4: General View
• formal tone
• distant characters
• 100% telling
• flat story
• used in folktales
The image above is remote and objective—equivalent to maximum psychic distance in fiction, where the narrator is distant. Readers are not privy to the viewpoint character’s physical sensations or inner thoughts and feelings. The narrator merely recounts in a detached way what is seen and what happens.
Maximum psychic distance is used in traditional tales. Most folktales are written in the third person, but The First Voyage of Sinbad is a first-person tale in which Sinbad the Sailor recounts his adventures (Lang 1993: 110):
One day, when the wind dropped suddenly, we found ourselves becalmed close to a small island like a green meadow, which only rose slightly above the surface of the water. Our sails were furled, and the captain gave permission to all who wished to land for a while and amuse themselves. I was among the number, but when after strolling about for some time we lighted a fire and sat down to enjoy the repast which we had brought with us, we were started by a sudden and violent trembling of the island.
Notice the formal tone and the detachment from the narrator. We readers don’t feel Sinbad’s shock and fear when the island begins to shake. We are simply observers from afar. We are told—not shown—the story. Because of its limitations, maximum psychic distance has a simplicity and directness that makes it suitable in tales for young children.
Level 3: View and People
• less formal tone
• dialogue used
• shallow characters
• telling rather than showing
At Level 3 on the psychic distance gauge, character is given more prominence. However, there’s no depth and we don't feel we know the protagonist.
Ernest Hemingway wrote short stories that include description that is told (not shown) and dialogue that moves the story forward without giving depth to his characters. Here’s the opening of Hemingway’s An Alpine Idyll (2004: 105), a short story with a first-person narrator:
It was hot coming down into the valley even in the early morning. The sun melted the snow from the skis we were carrying and dried the wood. It was spring in the valley but the sun was very hot. We came along the road into Galtur carrying our skis and rucksacks. As we passed the churchyard a burial was just over. I said, ‘Grüsse Gott,’ to the priest as he walked past us coming out of the churchyard. The priest bowed.
‘It’s funny a priest never speaks to you,’ John said.
Hemingway gives no clue as to the age or appearance of the narrator. He wants readers to use their imagination and fill in the gaps. Although the story is interesting because of its Alpine setting, readers’ emotions are not stirred. The story is very similar to a folktale. The use of direct speech introduces another dimension – what characters said to each other – which enriches characterisation, but the characters remain shallow.
Level 2: Character
• informal tone
• deepening of characterisation
• more dialogue
• telling & showing
Level 2 involves zooming in to have a closer look at the protagonist's character.
In Raymond Carver’s Viewfinder, the first-person narrator tells a story about loss (2009: 10). There is little exposition: the story is mainly told through dialogue. Here and there, the narrator makes comments that give depth to his own character. So, unlike Levels 4 and 3, we now have insight into the narrator’s character and so a closer psychic distance.
A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house. Except for the chrome hooks, he was an ordinary-looking man of fifty or so.
‘How did you lose your hands?’ I asked after he’d said what he wanted.
‘That’s another story,’ he said. ‘You want this picture or not?’
‘Come in,’ I said. ‘I just made coffee.’
I’d just made some Jell-O, too. But I didn’t tell the man I did.
The reader understands that the narrator doesn’t want to share his Jell-O pudding with his guest. Jell-O being a children’s jelly, his selfish attachment to it in adulthood reveals a weakness and vulnerability.
Later in the story, when the narrator and the photographer are outside, it’s an action scene and the narrator alters his language as the story rises to a crescendo at the end:
I threw that son of a bitch as far as I could throw it.
The large proportion of dialogue and the revealing of the narrator’s character (through his comments in the indoor scene and his word choices in the outdoor scene) result in a less formal story that is of medium psychic distance.
Level 1: Thoughts
• informal tone
• narrator's thoughts revealed
• showing rather than telling
When the gauge reads 1, this indicates a close level of psychic distance, as shown in Margaret Atwood’s The Bad News (2006: 1). This story comprises the ramblings of an old lady. The narrator's character is clearly shown through her observations, opinions, interests, reminiscences and wit, as in this excerpt:
At our place, the bad news arrives in the form of the bad-news paper. Tig brings it up the stairs. Tig’s real name is Gilbert. It’s impossible to explain nicknames to speakers of foreign languages, not that I have to do this much.
From this, we pick up on her opinion of newspapers: she believes they always carry bad news. We learn that she doesn’t have much contact with people of other cultures. And we are introduced to Tig, her husband. Because he brings her the newspaper while she is still in bed, this tells us something about their age, lifestyle and relationship.
Later in the story, there's this:
‘If someone really wants to kill you, they’ll kill you,’ Tig says. He’s a fatalist that way. I disagree, and we spend a pleasant quarter of an hour calling up our dead witnesses. He submits Archduke Ferdinand and John Kennedy; I offer Queen Victoria (eight failed attempts) and Joseph Stalin, who managed to avoid assassination by doing it wholesale himself. Once, this might have been an argument. Now it’s a pastime, like gin rummy.
Atwood concentrates on the narrator’s character, revealing her to be a well-educated, imaginative and amusing lady. The narrator no longer seems to be telling a story, but rather is talking directly to readers. By the end, they do not sense that they have just read a story, but instead feel they've got to know this interesting lady by ‘listening’ to her. This is close psychic distance.
Level 0: Emotions
• takes reader deep into protagonist's experience
Now we come to stories where there is no psychic distance between the viewpoint character and the reader: the gauge reads zero. This is also known as deep point of view (POV). The focus is entirely on the protagonist’s innermost experiences, thoughts and perceptions as they are being lived – there’s no sense of a story being told. Here’s the opening of a deep POV story called Suteta Mono de wa Nai (Not Easily Thrown Away) by Juliette Wade (2014):
‘Cram-school psycho’ was just a bully’s insult until I started hearing the voices.
One of them sounds like a whistle, and the other like a rusty trumpet, and when I sit at my desk at midnight, slowly hitting my head against my schoolbooks, they discuss my future.
And later the story continues:
Beyond the wall with its leafless ivy, the late train rushes by with a shudder and a shriek and I can scream as loud as I like and nobody will hear.
I won’t pass the exams.
I have to pass the exams.
‘She’s mine,’ says the rusty trumpet. And whistle argues, ‘No, she’s mine.’
Sometimes I just want to leave the world.
Wade's story demonstrates the immersive nature of deep point of view. The reader experiences everything through the protagonist’s senses. And what the character sees, hears and feels is shown, not told. The reader is sucked into the story and owns the character’s emotions. Because of the reader’s emotional investment, she should find that she’s still thinking about the story long after finishing it. And note the use of dialogue, even though it’s deep point of view.
Become a Psychic Distance Wizard!
If you have never given psychic distance a thought when writing a story, now is the time to place a psychic distance gauge next to your keyboard. And whenever you start to write a story after this, first decide on the effect you want it to have on your readers, and then use your psychic distance gauge to measure that you have done all that is necessary to produce this effect.
So what do you think? Before reading this article, did you know about psychic distance? Is the psychic distance 4-0 gauge with its five levels helpful? From now on, do you think you’ll make better use of psychic distance in your writing?
- Atwood, M. (2006) Moral Disorder. London: Virago Press
- Carver, R. (2009) What we talk about when we talk about love. London: Vintage
- Hemingway, E. (2004) Men Without Women. London: Arrow Books
- Lang, A. (ed.) (1993) Tales from the Arabian Nights. Ware: Wordsworth Editions
Questions & Answers
© 2020 Kate Fereday Eshete