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How to create reader-character intimacy in fiction

Updated: Nov 5


What is reader-character intimacy?


It involves POV and narrative distance. 1st person is innately intimate, but 3rd person can be as well by closing the narrative distance.


Using differing narrative distances, we can create emotional intimacy between our readers and our characters while revealing plot and setting by moving away when the situation calls for it.


What is narrative distance?


Narrative distance is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the distance between your narrator and the character.


While narrative distance is a continuum, there are five major distances:


1. Very Far Away

2. Far Away

3. Moderately Close

4. Close

5. Intimate


Let’s take a closer look at these individually and with examples before we put it all together.


1. Very Far Away: This mainly involves setting description. It is the farthest away from the character you can get.


Example: It was October 22, 1972, and it was raining in Vespar when Amy Witchinger stepped onto the sidewalk.


See how this sets the scene by listing facts with no emotion?


It is best to use distance during beginning narratives. The first line of the book, act, or chapter is when this is most effective.


2. Far Away: This involves introductions to characters on a basic level and has a somewhat closer feel.


Example: Amy disliked rain.


We have been introduced to the character and know something about her. It doesn’t tell us much, but it’s something.


It has a bit of a closer feel. Think of a movie where there is a shot of an incoming storm, then closes in on one person.


3. Moderately close: Mid-range gives an insight into her character yet still says at a distance.


Example: She had always hated rain, especially the cold rain that was falling now.


This reveals more about her character and the setting. She does not just disliked rain, but hated it, and cold rain was even worse.


4. Close: Close delves further into the character by giving readers the why behind what the character thinks what they do.


Example: Her glasses steamed up. Drops pelted her head, soaking her hair. Rain water slid down the nape of her neck, under her shirt to her back, making her shiver.


Now we are getting into specifics. While it is still a list of sorts, it explains why she hates the rain at this moment.


5. Intimate: Intimate can be either internal thoughts or insight into what they are thinking.


External example: If she was allowed to use her powers to stop it from falling, she would have.


Internal example: I could make it stop, but how much trouble would I get into?


Both of these examples are intimate and get into the character’s head.


Let’s put it all together…


It was October 22, 1972, and it was raining in Vespar when Amy Witchinger stepped onto the sidewalk. Amy disliked rain. She had always hated rain, especially the cold rain that was falling now. Her glasses steamed up. Drops pelted her head, soaking her hair. Rain water slid down the nape of her neck, under her shirt to her back, making her shiver. If she was allowed to use her powers to stop it from falling, she would have. I could make it stop, but how much trouble would I get into?


So, in one paragraph, we have gone from being very far away from our main character to being inside her head.


Can I skip degrees of narrative distance?


Absolutely. In fiction, Very Far Away is rarely used, and when it is, it’s mostly in literary fiction. For quite some time, fiction has been trending toward close narration. That said, your novel shouldn’t be written in just one distance, and some distances can be skipped without being harsh.


For instance you can go from Moderately Close to intimate without it being too difficult for your reader, but you don’t want to go from Very Far Away to Intimate or it will jar to the reader and could push them right out of your story.


Moderately Close to Intimate:


Amy had always hated rain, especially the cold rain that was falling now. If she was allowed to use her powers to stop it, she would have.


Very Far Away to Intimate:


It was October 22, 1972, and it was raining in Vespar when Amy Witchinger stepped onto the sidewalk. I could make it stop, but how much trouble would I get into?


The first seems more natural, while the second one is harsh. The reader might be confused as to why they are in the character’s head knowing nothing about them yet.


How can I go from the character’s thoughts to what is happening around them?


As with getting into their head, most of the time you will need to transition back out. However, if something happens suddenly, you can pop back out quickly, because the character will be shocked as well.


Intimate to Moderately Close:


I could make it stop, but how much trouble would I get into?


She took a deep breath to prepare for her dash to her first class, put her backpack over her head and ran the three blocks to the Center.


Intimate to Far Away:


I could make it stop, but how much trouble would I get into?


A loud thunder clap echoed and rumbled overhead. She jumped, and a tiny squeal escaped her.



Moving in close to your character and backing away creates both reader-character intimacy and good pacing. Although readers want tons of action, they need time to process what happened. Getting into the character’s head slows this down a bit, but you don’t want to be in their heads too long, or it will become emotionally overwhelming.


It is a delicate balance to strike, and it takes practice to master it.


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