Tag Archives: psychic distance

Getting Inside a Character’s Skin

How is it that sometimes words on a page can make us feel as though we are experiencing what the character experiences? We feel the danger, loss, grief, whatever as though it’s happening to us.

Writers often achieve this by minimizing “psychic distance.” We have John Gardner to thank for spelling it out in The Art of Fiction. There are degrees of psychic distance that range from viewing a character as an observer to inhabiting the character’s skin. Gardner illustrates how a narrator’s description of a character can be more or less objective or intimate:

1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

There’s more on the subject of psychic distance on the blog of Emma Darwin, “The Itch of Writing.” (Thanks to Sharon Scarborough for that.)

As for my own writing, I only achieve intimate psychic distance on revision. First of all, in early drafts I’m just getting the story on paper. I don’t outline, so I’m busy figuring it out as I go. Second, getting inside a character often requires diving into emotional depths that don’t necessarily want to be explored.


A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent,or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

–Junot Diaz