October 5, 2012

Psychic Distance and the Novel

I've been spending a fair amount of time working through the "psychic distance" of my narrator in my novel this past month. Not a topic I've specifically considered in the past, but now that it's on my radar it's difficult to read someone else's work without noting its value in a narrative.

Disclaimer: psychic distance is not about Dionne Warwick or The Amazing Kreskin. It is about the placement of your narrator in a story, where they stand in relation to a character, what information they are privy to. It links to who the narrator is and from when they are speaking from. More importantly it identifies a line of sight for the reader.

The narrator can be like a camera placed behind and up a little from the character. It can pan up and away, or come in for a close-shot. It can dilate like the pupil of an eye, as a friend once told me. It has the ability to see more than the character can by rising up, or it can enter a character's line of sight and see only the immediate. I don't get the impression that there is a right or wrong placement of psychic distance, but I do get the impression that the writer should be aware of where they are placing the narrator and for what reason.

Why do you (the writer) want to reveal a particular detail at this time? How would it be most effective? How will the reader be aware of it? Is it consistent with the rest of the narrator's perspective? These are all questions that come to mind when I'm writing, and being aware of psychic distance can help mitigate the overwhelming nature of finding the right response. At least I hope it can.

Two books I've been referencing in this regard are Suzette Mayr's Monoceros and Laleh Khadivi's The Age of Orphans. For the most part Mayr keeps her narrator close to the shoulder of her characters, often inside their heads, looking through their eyes. Khadivi runs the gambit. At times, her narrator stays removed and objective, then briefly swoops into the head of a character. Other times, the narrator stays inside a character's head for long periods or becomes a mythological collective - a chorus.

Both authors do this brilliantly in my opinion, and it's rather breath-taking. It's what I love about writing and reading good literature - these complexities that are usually taken for granted by the reader, but impact them without their knowing. 

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