Of all the things we consider components of a story—setting, plot, character, prose—one aspect that often escapes notice, unless it was designed to be conspicuous, is the narrator. This character, often invisible, is the author’s right hand when it comes to telling the story. If utilized properly, the narrator can be a powerful means through which to add depth and subtlety to your characterization and storytelling through something called narrative distance.

Narrative distance is an aspect of storytelling that centers on the interplay between POV character and narrator. The easiest way to describe it is how independent your narrator is from your POV character(s). It’s a spectrum, with one end intimate (the extreme being first person), the other removed (the extreme being omniscient).

Because it is a spectrum, narrative distance is also highly mutable and fluid. For a great example of how shifting not only POV but also narrative distance can be put to subtle and thematic use, see Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The things that determine narrative distance tend to be subtle and would go unnoticed unless specifically looked for—as you generally want the mechanics of your prose. One of the more obvious aspects is narrative voice and how much independence the narrator has. This can be broken down into many examples. Take, for example, purely how the world is described. If your POV character is not a fan of the outdoors and the sun gets described as “blistering,” the grass as “coarse,” and flowers as “odious” by the narrator, it is indicative of a very intimate distance. If the descriptions are more neutral and aren’t tinted by the character’s opinions, then there is more narrative distance at play. Related to this is the language used. If the narrator’s voice is markedly different from the POV character’s, perhaps more formal, flowery, grammatically correct, or involving figurative language that the POV character would not (or even could not) use to describe things, it creates more distance.

What the narrator describes also works to establish distance or closeness. If the narrator takes the shotgun blast approach and does a (hopefully) quick run through of everything in a room, it creates distance. However, if certain objects are lingered on or singled out to be noticed, it provides insight and intimacy with the POV character. Having a character notice the thin film of dust on the mantle but nothing else, or a character note the make and expense of a rug can tell us a great deal about them; the tradeoff is that we get less of the setting.

“Filter words” also contribute to distance. Filter words are words that qualify a thought or opinion as belonging to a character, rather than stating them as objective fact. For example:

“She noticed that the woman wore a cheap dress trying to masquerade as something more glamorous.”

The filter words “she noticed” tell us immediately that the opinion belongs to the character. This indicates more distance between narrator and POV character. However, take them out, and you get:

“The woman wore a cheap dress trying to masquerade as something more glamorous.”

This effectively describes the world through the character’s view of reality, which, as noted above, establishes closer narrative distance.

There is also the more subtle version of filter words that strikes a sort of balance between the two—establishing the opinion as belonging to the character without relegating him or her to the object of a sentence, as with the first example. This involves the use of one or both of two things: evidential adverbs and modal verbs.

Evidential adverbs express either certainty or uncertainty, such as surely, obviously, probably, or hopefully. Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb that change slightly the meaning of the verb they are attached to. There are nine of these: can, could, may, might, must, would, should, shall, and will.

Watch how subtly these words can change the motivation in a sentence.

“Naturally, the woman wore a cheap dress trying to masquerade as something more glamorous.”


“The woman would wear a cheap dress trying to masquerade as something more glamorous.”

Observe how quickly we realize this character is a total harpy. This approach allows for some narrative distance to remain, if the concern is conflating the character’s (in this case nasty) opinions with those of the narrator. Related to filter words is the separation, or lack thereof, between the narrator and the POV character’s internal monologue. Using “he thought” or “she wondered” or using italics to box off a character’s internal musings from the narration creates distance; leaving the two indistinguishable creates intimacy.

The beauty of narrative distance is its fluidity—it need not remain static throughout a story. A narrow distance between character and narrator is wonderful for that old adage “show, don’t tell.” Characterization can be subtle but perfectly clear, and the language used in descriptions can be very useful for communicating more subtle moods that don’t exactly lend themselves to dramatic metaphors, such as drowsiness, contentment, or melancholy. Integrating your POV character with the narrator also enables you to very naturally slip in bits from a character’s past or beliefs as you tell the story.

A greater narrative distance has its advantages as well, of course. There may be certain states, emotional or otherwise, that your POV character could not communicate effectively, or would be at a complete loss to describe. This is where the narrator can step in and provide the words your character wouldn’t have. One example is extreme pain. If your character slammed is finger in a door, his inner monologue would probably consist of one long, drawn out expletive, and not a metaphor or simile that helps the reader imagine the pain. This is where a distant narrator becomes useful.

Narrative distance is a powerful tool with many aspects, all of which can be utilized in telling a better story. It can be molded to fit the character or the scene, and, properly handled, is another arrow in a writer’s quiver.

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  1. Requiem on 2 July 2011, 19:30 said:

    I’m writing a story from the first person POV with little to no narritive distance and it’s a dark fantasy. But i’m wondering once I complete my first draft if I should change from 1st to third POV more often, the story is a bit complex and there are numerous characters. so what should I do?

  2. Snow White Queen on 3 July 2011, 00:06 said:

    This is a great article, kaikaikat! My only suggestion would be to use examples from ‘Pride And Prejudice’, just because you explicitly mentioned. This is, like you pointed out, a little-discussed topic, so I’m glad it’s getting the limelight on the main site.

  3. Thea on 3 July 2011, 01:33 said:

    Love how the article is put together, not to technical nor too dry, but informative and thorough nonetheless. Thanks! I very much appreciated the examples, which help my understanding a lot.

    Seconding SWQ on using examples from P&P, just because it’s been awhile since I’ve read it and can’t think of any offhand (though I can for Northanger Abbey. ;)

    @Requiem: I’m not sure switching from 3rd to 1st POV is the best choice, mostly because it’s one that annoys the heck out of me as a reader, and I know it bothers others too.

    However, it can be done, and done well, so don’t let me discourage you—just remember that the 1st person character is the narrator (which can be a danger particularly with “conflating the character’s… opinions with those of the narrator” on the part of the reader) and so he or she can’t show too much narrative distance (except as a narrator of some other character’s story) without undermining the characterization. However, if you do have a 1st- 3rd-POV switch already in place, the 3rd POV will allow you lots of flexibility in the most effective narrative distance. Good luck, and I hope I wasn’t too confusing!

  4. Steph (what is left) on 3 July 2011, 02:26 said:

    Kaikaikat: Nice article, and nice articulation. You explained this idea very clearly. While I think you could’ve gone into a bit more depth in places, especially because I’m so interested in it, you still covered everything. Nice one. :)

    @ Requiem: numerous points of view tend to be a bit confusing to read if they’re in first person. But on the other hand, a creepy dark fantasy might benefit from using first person as the horror is more immediate. However, it takes skill and practise to do first person very well, purely because it’s hard to find narrative distance between your own viewpoint and the viewpoint you’re writing from, as well as finding a character voice that isn’t obviously yours. I shy away from using first person POV for this reason.

    However, it’s your choice, depending on your confidence in your skills as a writer. If you do decide on 3rd person POV (which I’d recommend), you don’t need to finish writing your draft in 1st person. You can just continue your story in 3rd person, and change the part written in 1st person later. It’s only a draft, after all.

  5. Steph (what is left) on 3 July 2011, 02:29 said:

    Sorry, I misread Requiem’s question as overhauling the POV from first to third person completely, not switching between the two.

    In this case, I agree with Thea.

  6. Requiem on 3 July 2011, 03:36 said:

    well I don’t think I should reveal too much with the 3rd person POV, and since there are a lot of characters who would reveal too much in 3rd person POV. The story isn’t itself creepy, it’s more of a war is hell and war is glorious novel mixed in with different influences like final fantasy, gnostic religious themes,some lovecraftian influence, greek,norse,and hebrew influence as well and it’s based in a magitek/ dungeon punk setting. Anyway thanks for the suggestions and support as this is my first book i’m writing and I hope once it’s edited enough that it might be submitted and even if it isn’t good enough i’ll be glad to have made it anyway.

    The title is

    Aeon’s of Eternity: Wasteland of Fate

  7. VikingBoyBilly on 3 July 2011, 09:05 said:

    If you’re primarily writing in the first person, but want more insight on the other characters that only a 3rd-person omniscient narrative can provide, I think the least jarring thing you can do is to have your main character be the one narrating the POVs of the other characters. How you can accomplish this is a difficult beast to tackle.. but in my 1rst-person WIP, the POV character is a poet who collects stories, and also a bit of a historian, so he can write down things from the POV of the people who tell him. But even this relies on the main character and other characters to gather information, so it can never truly achieve the distance of 3rd person omniscient.

    Orson Scott Card is notable for briefly slipping into first person to elaborate on a character he puts his focus on. This is fine, for an omnipresent, mind-reading, invisible narrator. But never, ever just switch to 3rd person omniscient from a story told primarily in first person, unless it’s clear your main POV character is still the narrator.

  8. Requiem on 3 July 2011, 11:50 said:

    well i’ll consider changing it from either first to third later on once it’s been read by a test audience to see what they think. Using the first person view though for this story is reliable, sure you don’t see or hear everyone’s thoughts but it’s meant to do that to add suspense. If I change it to third person though I may have better insight into the others characters thoughts but i’ll risk revealing too much. so I guess that leaves me with three choices

    1. continue in first if it works

    2. change to third person to allow everyone to present themselves yet not reveal too much of their thoughts or emotions as a vague narrator

    3. first and third, using primarily first to provide only deeper insights into the main character

    so i’ll leave it at that until my story is completed and then if the test audience see’s the first person view as a problem I can alter it.

  9. Inkblot on 3 July 2011, 14:26 said:

    Wow, this is great. Technical stuff is always fun to read.

    I personally find myself slipping more and more into a first-person perspective in my urban fantasy just because it’s so freakin’ fun to write. It’s immediate, it’s kinda gritty, it’s dry and humorous. Great stuff.

  10. Thea on 3 July 2011, 22:54 said:

    Requiem, it sounds like you want third person limited omniscient instead of first. Basically, that’d mean you would focus almost entirely on one character, but still be able to ‘pull back’ and peek into the heads/thoughts of other characters at any level the story needs—just because you’re in 3rd person doesn’t mean the characters have to reveal themselves entirely.

    It’s a first person narrator holding things back that’s cheating the reader, third person does it all the time.

  11. Requiem on 3 July 2011, 23:53 said:

    alright Thea, I’ll probably go with 3rd person limited omniscient. But i’m going to see how the first person pans out if it ends up not working I can always edit it since it will be much easier to change it once it’s fully complete and it’ll be my first draft anyway.

  12. NeuroticPlatypus on 5 July 2011, 13:02 said:

    This is a great article, very informative. I’ve never given a lot of thought to this topic, so it was interesting to read.

    Observe how quickly we realize this character is a total harpy.


  13. fffan on 8 July 2011, 08:37 said:

    “She noticed that the woman wore a cheap dress trying to masquerade as something more glamorous.”

    Is that line from The Secret Adversary or am I imagining things?