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I know: deep thoughts for a Saturday. I ought to be thinking about all the sleeping I’ll still be doing tomorrow at 8 am, or how many margaritas I intend to drink tonight. Maybe which movie I want to watch, where I will take Her Dogginess for a walk this afternoon. Or, lovely of lovelies, how awesome two hours of House, MD will be on Monday.


But I am not. Instead I woke up thinking about narrative distance, because I am a writer, and a freak like that, and I had several odd dreams toward 6 am that were all the same event, from the same perspective, and at more of a remove each time. Yes, my brain is a weird, weird thing.

I’ve had occasion to ponder narrative distance plenty recently, because in early spring I stopped working on the books/outlines in my Sword series, which are all close third limited, and moved on to three other projects. #1 is another close third, #2 a third at a (very) slight remove, and #3, which has become the current WIP, a first person, and as close as it gets. Juggling these was hard enough; juggling them after being immersed in the heads of four other much-loved characters for just under 2 years was kind of like throwing yourself off the roller coaster in the middle of the loop.

Narrative distance, like so many other things in a novel, is something I have to constantly work at. It’s not a choice I make once or twice in the beginning and/or throughout, like point of view: it’s a continuum that has to be maintained, like (and very much a part of) voice.

I’ve read  books (and written at least one trunk novel) where the space between reader and character changes, sometimes only for a sentence, sometimes a whole chapter… and it’s jarring as hell when it happens midstream. I’m completely in a character’s head, and suddenly I’m reading about something this character should not have seen/heard/known about, or something that this character wouldn’t dwell on long enough to explain it to me, because it’s so much a part of their lives they don’t think about it.

Instant huh? Now I am aware of the author, that guy or gal behind the curtain. Literary transparency. Badness.  There’s a difference now between the character and the narrator: they aren’t the same person anymore.

its all about perspective

it's all about perspective (pic by striatic; click on the image for origin)

On the other end of the spectrum, this can be one hell of a tool in the hands of a writer who knows how to use it. (I am not one of these writers yet, and I know it. I hope to be one day.) And not necessarily just when writing in omni: if it’s done right, narrative distance can have a nice panning-in effect that makes for a very cool introduction to a close third perspective, or it can be a means of changing POV between scenes that gives shades of empathy to different characters. It can be a wonderful mood-setter giving a sense of irony, or foreboding, or whatever, to a scene, that the characters playing said scene out might not be allowed to be aware of at this point in the plot or in their development.

I haven’t dared to try any of these things yet. I just appreciate them when I see them. But I run into it nonetheless: reading my old attempts at novel-writing, I can see where I tried it without knowing that’s what I was trying, and screwed it up. Reading over more recent stuff, I can see the difference between character A and character B, the levels of sympathy and/or objectivity applied to their separate perspectives. I identify most easily with this character, and it is apparent in the story even when I made no conscious decision to choose one over the other. I am endlessly fascinated by this stuff.

Writing a fictional first person perspective for the first time in –eek, 10 years at least– puts all this stuff front and center in my head. Because first person is instant intimacy, whereas with third limited, even a really close third limited, you have the option of pulling back just the tiniest bit, so that your reader can see that this character isn’t thinking clearly, or understanding a situation correctly, etc.. I like that, and oh-damn is it hard to pull it off when your narrating character has sole responsibility for the story, as is the case with this WIP. I’ve seen it done — Susan Kay’s Phantom comes to mind–but I don’t think I’ve got enough practice at this yet to do it myself.

Whoo. Long post, folks. Sorry. I’d love to hear opinions: do you use narrative distance consciously in your writing? Is it easy for you? What stuff do you want to try in your writing and aren’t sure you’re ready for?