Monday, July 30, 2012

Psychic Distance

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor

Steve Berry, in his workshop at Craftfest, the first two days of Thrillerfest, spoke about “psychic distance”—how close the reader feels to the various characters. These days, it’s considered more effective to draw your readers in “up close and personal” to your protagonist, so they get more emotionally invested in him and his plight, and want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens to him. Conversely, it’s best to keep minor characters and walk-ons at an emotional distance proportionate to their importance to the story.

The following list shows examples of ways to refer to your characters in your book, starting way out in the distance, in omniscient point of view (or from the POV of a character referring to another “walk-on”), then gradually moving closer as the characters become more important to the story, until we’re right in their heads, in close third POV (or first-person POV), seeing and feeling what they are, reacting right along with them. This list is based on Steve’s hierarchy, but expanded by me, with more details added.

Starting from furthest out and going down to right in their heads, refer to your characters as:

· Generalities: person, people, kids, teenagers, men, women, office workers, moms, taxi drivers, police officers, man, woman, etc.

· By their title, job, profession, etc. without their name, eg. the detective, the police officer, the reporter, the cab driver, the waitress, the hotel clerk, etc.

· Title plus name, eg. Detective Jackson, FBI Agent Michael Smith, etc.

· First and last name without job title or descriptor – Cotton Malone, Wade Jackson

· Last name only – Malone, Jackson

· First name only – Cotton, Wade

· “he,” “she,” “I”

Steve Berry will start out a book with the full name of his POV character, for example, Cotton Malone, to get us right into his head fast. He doesn’t start with “the former Justice Department operative” as that’s too distancing for the protagonist, whom we’re supposed to identify with and bond with quickly. Then Berry immediately switches to just Malone, and works in later that he retired from the Justice Department. Berry doesn’t use the full name again, as that would put us back at arm’s length from the character. Using their title as well as the name (Detective Wade Jackson) would back up the reader even more, and once we’re in their head and the story is progressing, using the title alone (“the detective”) would probably make the reader wonder who we’re talking about.

But Berry takes it one step further and prefers to just use “he” most of the time when in Malone’s point of view, to keep the psychic distance to a minimum. In this case, “he” is the equivalent of “I” in first-person point of view. For example, Berry uses Malone’s name, then continues for three pages with just “he”, until the beginning of the next chapter, where he starts with his name again. In another novel, Berry starts out with “Tom Sagan” (his protagonist), then switches to “Tom,” then just uses “he” most of the time. As Steve says, “the tighter the psychic distance, the better it is.”

You may not wish to take it this far, but do remember that if we’re in a character’s head, especially your protagonist, you don’t want to use distancing descriptions of him or her like “the PI” or “the doctor.” It makes sense to start the novel with the full name and title, like “Special Agent Warren Cross” for clarity and to orient the reader quickly, but soon after, you’ll likely switch to “Cross” (or maybe their first name) and stay there. If we’ve been in his head for a while and you suddenly refer to him as “the special agent” it will be very jarring to the reader, who may even wonder if another special agent has arrived on the scene. 

Berry prefers to call female POV characters by their first name, and I tend to agree with him, for the most part. If the female is, say a police officer, in a milieu where everyone refers to each other by their last names, then use her last name when she’s at work, and her first name when she’s at home or among friends. In general, though, it seems more natural to call “close” female characters (and even most males) by their first name, especially when we’re in their viewpoint. Along the same lines, Berry will usually refer to the villain by his last name, even in his POV, to create some psychic distance.

Using a related example, disguised from my own editing, say your young mid-20s male protagonist has hooked up with a female in her early 20s and they’re on the run from the bad guys. Very soon, he’s not thinking of her as “the young lady” (if he ever was—he probably thought of her as “the girl” at the beginning) or “the grad student,” or “the tall, thin girl” or whatever. As their bond increases, he’s thinking of her only by her first name or “she.” And to describe something they’re doing, don’t say “the two young companions” as again, that’s too distancing. It reads like someone else talking about them, but we’re in his head and he’s become very close to her. He’s not thinking of the two of them as “the two young companions.” Just use “they” or “the two” or whatever.

On the other side of the coin, you definitely don’t want to get into the point of view of any minor characters like store clerks, taxi drivers, restaurant servers, etc., and best not to give them a name at all, unless they play a bigger role in the overall plot. Naming these walk-on characters can be distracting to the reader, who starts to think they have more importance somehow. So in general, just stick with “the cab driver,” etc.

What do you think? As a reader, have you ever felt jarred by language that perhaps inadvertently changes the psychic distance between the reader and a character? As a writer, do you have any opinions about this issue?

Copyright © Jodie Renner, July 2012
See also: "Open Your Novel in Your Protagonist's Head"

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medal winner in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Interesting post. I agree, especially with the nuances for referring to a male character by his last name vs. using first names for females. Having worked in newsrooms (back in the days of dinosaurs when AP and Reuters feeds came through on a roll of paper and a little bell rang when something big hit), I have always appreciated that few women should be referred to by their surnames. Even though I love seeing it for men. Harlan Coben has a lot of fun with names. I'm a huge fan.

  2. Margaret, some people might consider it sexist to refer to a man by his last name and a woman by her first name. If we're close in, I'd refer to both by their first names. But psychic distance apart, many women still take on their husband's last names (or their "maiden" name was their father's, not their mother's), so using the last name only for a woman is not only confusing if her husband or some other family member is also being named, but it's almost denying her her own identity as an individual.

  3. Thanks, Jodie, for mentioning my character (Detective Jackson). I knew when I named him that he would be called by his last name, so I chose a last name that also makes a great first name.

    This is Interesting discussion. I go back and forth on this all the time. It's easy to lean toward last names for men and first names for women, especially in crime/thriller fiction. But it is sexist.

    My Detective Lara Evans is called Evans by her coworkers, so I call her Evans everywhere. Everyone once in a while, someone will call her Lara, but she has earned her spot on the otherwise all-male violent crimes unit, so she doesn't expect or want special treatment because of her gender.

    But in The Gauntlet Assassin, when she's not a cop, I used Lara.

    Good post.

  4. Donald Maass said in a workshop once that it aggrivated him not to see theh POV chracter's name used more often in paragraphs. I think he may not appreciate the "he" approach for pages.

    When I first wrote the manuscript I'm working on now, a police procedural, I used last names for all of the law enforcement characters but was advised by two LEOs that that wasn't necessarily appropriate, and in fact in my small mountain community, would probably not be realistic.

    As a reader, when it's a new author to me and a fairly populated book, I appreciate a reminder of who the character is, even though it might momentarily distance me from them. Easier than going back to where I think I may have first read their name to figure out who they are.

    Thanks, Jodie!

  5. LJ, you and I have had the discussion a few times, I think, about whether to call Lara Evans by her first or last name. I agree with your choice to call her by her last name at work or around her colleagues, if they all call each other by their last names. But when she's with close friends or family members, or a boyfriend, I would switch to "Lara," as close personal friends and family are not thinking of her as "Evans." Also, she's not thinking of herself as "Evans" in her off-duty, relaxing times.

  6. Peg, Steve Berry did mention that a number of bestselling authors disagree with him, and I think you make a good point about needing the occasional reminder about their name, especially in the first chapters. Of course, Berry does start out each new chapter and scene by using their name.

    Personally, I like to read bestsellers and writing guides critically and take whatever I agree with from each person's theories and apply that to my editing, and leave the rest. And I imagine people do that with my craft-of-fiction articles, too. Take what resonates with them, and ignore the rest--at least for now. :-)

  7. Also, I wouldn't follow Steve Berry's advice to the letter if you've just had a paragraph with another character of the same gender talking or being referred to. Then when we get back to the protagonist in the next paragraph and just say "He," the reader might think you're still referring to the other one. So in those cases, following someone else, I'd use the main character's name again, for clarity.

  8. It's an interesting subject, and surprisingly, not one I often give much conscious consideration. Like most of my writing, I go on intuition. As I edit my manuscript, often a reference doesn't have the right "feel" to it. I suppose somewhere in my writer's brain, I'm subconsciously using the same principles you mention here without even realizing it.

    I think it can also be a situational thing. For example, I'd be more likely to refer to law enforcement personnel by their last names than I would civilians. And then there are cases when two males are speaking, and the reader isn't sure who is doing or saying something. At that point, I'd throw in a name, just to avoid confusion. Other times, it's purely a rhythm thing, and the name just "sounds" better.

  9. I agree with how authors should distance develop a distance for their characters. Not doing so can really confuse readers a lot. I recently read a "suspense" novel in which the author spent about a half page describing a couple who had entered a retail establishment. As I was reading, I kept wondering how these characters were going to figure in to the story. There were all sorts of possibilities. When the scene was over, it was obvious that the couple had nothing to do with the story other to fill up space.

  10. Good points, Drew. And whatever you're doing, it's working!

    Terry, that's of course the other side of the coin. If we hear a lot about a character or characters, we assume they'll be playing a fairly important part in the plot, or at least returning! That author obviously needed to go back and edit that bit out!

    Thanks for your comments.

  11. Follow-up: It's funny, I'm editing a thriller by a writer who also attended that workshop, and am having to add in the name of the POV character in several places where the author just put "he," as it's ambiguous and confusing otherwise, especially if she's just been talking about another male character. Then the "he" naturally refers back to that other character, not the POV character. So, like any theory or concept, this one can be taken too far and result in confusion if the author doesn't use their own discretion and common sense.

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  13. I like the title of the book: Psychic Distance. It had clairvoyant overtones. Nicely done.

  14. John Gardner described psychic distance thirty years ago in a book called The Art of Fiction. In my opinion, like all writing tools, it should be used by the writer like a craftsperson--like a chisel to a woodworker, using this tool in various amounts, varying angles and pressures to produce a desired effect. The writer should be aware of and understand both the tool and the effect. Something Berry doesn't go into is how unwanted psychic distance can be created unknowingly by writers who describe a POV character "hearing", "seeing", "watching", an action in a scene, which pushes the reader out of the POV character's head and forces that reader to imagine, from a distance, the POV character witnessing the action, for example:

    Jim watched Zoya walk into the tavern, saunter to the bar and light up a cigarette.

    instead of:

    Zoya walked into the tavern, sauntered to the bar and lit up a cigarette.

    In the second example, if this isn’t the first sentence of the scene, it’s not necessary to say “Jim watched …” since POV should already be established and the reader will know that Jim is the one witnessing this action. Also, the woman’s action seems more immediate if not filtered through Jim’s head before going to the reader. This makes a for a minimal psychic distance—the reader more easily immersed into the psyche of the viewpoint character and thus more likely to find empathy for that character.

    That understood, if this is the first sentence in the scene, saying “Jim watched …” might be a better choice in order to establish POV for that scene and the reader shouldn’t need to be reminded whose POV it is after this opening line. Also, if the way Jim is watching is important to the scene, then the closeness of psychic distance might be forfeited or traded for a desired effect, for example:

    Jim ogled the young woman as she sauntered into the tavern and up to the bar. Zoya was much more attractive than he’d expected, and he imagined the taste of her full lips as she lit up a cigarette and drew in the first puff.

    Understanding this aspect of psychic distance and using it as a tool can make a huge difference to the reader and the success of a scene.

    That’s my subjective view of this very important fiction writing aspect, and only further illustrates the beauty of this art, a subjective endeavor in which no two writers will ever find perfect agreement.

    1. Thanks for your detailed, thoughtful comment, Gordon! I agree 100%! But I would definitely start with some indication at the beginning of the scene that we're in Jim's head for this scene. Thanks again for taking the time to submit such an articulate comment, with great examples!

  15. Nice article. Thank you for sharing! Side note: Have you noticed that every man's photo on this page has a steely face and the women look friendly with their smiles? It's personal preference but the men could 'cheer up' a little in their photos. :)


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