View Full Version : Third-Person Characterization: Distant vs. Close

Kyle R
July 13th, 2015, 06:12 PM
There are two identifiable ways authors use third-person characterization: for ease of reference, we'll refer to these as distant and close.

Each can serve different purposes.

Distant third-person characterization means describing the internal state of the character using the narrator's objective voice. It means keeping the POV character at an increased narrative distance (https://www.google.ca/#q=narrative+distance) from the reader, with the third-person narrator (the author, or the unnamed godlike narrator) working as the middleman.

Third-person characterization—DISTANT:

Jim glanced and around and saw that he was alone in the library. He felt a sadness wash over him, an overwhelming dissatisfaction with his life. And though he tried to fight it—tried to talk himself out of it—there was no escaping the obvious: his existence was pitiful. He placed his head on the table and began to cry.

Close third-person characterization means portraying the internal state of the character using the character's subjective voice. It means pulling the reader as close to the POV character as possible, in an attempt to eliminate narrative distance, by making the narrative appear to come directly from within the character himself.

Third-person characterization—CLOSE:

Jim glanced around. The damn library was empty. Empty, just like his stupid life. Well, he had a new car, didn't he? That had to count for something. He sighed. Ah, who the hell was he kidding? Nobody would even care if he died right here. Not a single person. God. Maybe that's what he should do. Just die already. He placed his head on the table and began to cry.

Distant third-person characterization can help place the voice of the narrator (in most cases, the author) on center stage. Here the author's style, insight, and prose can be highlighted, while simultaneously keeping the characters at a pensive distance.

Close third-person characterization can help place the voice of the character on center stage. Here the character's voice, internal motivations, and internal conflicts can be highlighted, while keeping the reader close to (or within) the character's skin.

Distant and close can be seen as a spectrum, with some authors writing more in one end than others.

What do you think about third-person characterization: distant vs. close? :encouragement:

Jon M
July 13th, 2015, 06:18 PM
I think this terminology is biased, 'shallow' perhaps seen as superficial or not as interesting as a 'deep' point of view.

Kyle R
July 13th, 2015, 06:34 PM
Good point, Jon! It's somewhat commonly used terminology (the POV books I own refer to it as "shallow" and "deep"), but I agree with you—it can sound a bit biased.

I've made changes to fix that. :encouragement:

John Galt
July 14th, 2015, 11:31 PM
I'm strongly biased toward 'close' third. To my ear, 'distant' feels tell-y, but close feels more like I'm experiencing the character more fully. I'm in their head and this is how they see things, their state of mind, their disposition. It might just be remnants of my early first person fiction, but I adore a narrative voice and I suspect most readers do (especially YA reading adults and new adults). I think close is friendlier too. I feel like Jim's my friend, not just a guy.
My current WIP is kind of dependent on close third (a drug addict sees the world awfully when he isn't high, uses drugs to make it seem nicer).

I'm not saying close is all out better in every situation. You could use distant to create that feeling of "Jim's lost everything and now he isn't really feeling himself". Of course there are works that would be just as good or better if distant is used, but I think a little voice never hurt most folks.

Jon M
July 15th, 2015, 07:21 PM
I do not understand this obsession with what is essentially fictive tunnel vision--this weird desire to occupy a character's mind and body and experience everything through him. Isn't a story's appeal wider than that?

Riis Marshall
July 17th, 2015, 12:10 PM
Hello Kyle

Alicia Rasley in her The Power of Point of View (please see my post under 'Writers' Resources') has a great deal to say about many of the subtle differences between POVs. She also includes loads of excerpts from a whole range of genres.

I recommend this book heartily - and good condition used copes are available from Amazon for mere pennies.

Thanks for starting a great thread.

All the best with your writing.

Warmest regards

Kyle R
July 17th, 2015, 01:47 PM
Hey John!

I feel the same way you do. Close third feels a bit more welcoming and immersive, to me. I enjoy a well-written distant-third story, as well! But there's something about close third that really pulls me in. And I agree with you: close third does feel like a friendly cousin of first person, doesn't it? :encouragement:

Hey Jon!

I suppose it depends on the reader. Some like to have a broader, more distant perspective, and all the flexibility that can come with it. Some like to feel like they're living in the character's skin. I can't answer why, though. Different strokes for different folks, I assume! :encouragement:

Hey Riis!

I agree, Rasley's The Power of Point of View (http://www.amazon.com/The-Power-Of-Point-View/dp/1582975248) is a good, comprehensive book on the subject of the various POVs. Chapter ten ("LEVELS OF POV") is where she explores the concept of narrative distance, which she ranges from the "camera" level all the way down to "deep immersion." I found her book a solid introduction to the subject of POV. Very well-rounded!

I also enjoyed Nancy Kress' Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint (http://www.amazon.com/Characters-Emotion-Viewpoint-Techniques-Viewpoints/dp/1582973164/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1437137069&sr=1-1&keywords=characters+emotion+and+viewpoint). Her fourteenth chapter ("THIRD PERSON — SEE DICK RUN") does a great job explaining the differences between Close Third, Distant Third, and, her personal favorite: Middle-Distance Third, which she calls "The Golden Mean." I think Kress also does a great job explaining narrative distance (and how to remove it when using Close third, including a few paragraphs explaining what kind of filter words to avoid).

I have a few other books on POV, but my personal favorite, by far, is Jill Elizabeth Nelson's Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View (http://www.amazon.com/Rivet-Your-Readers-Deep-Point/dp/1470063859/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1437137120&sr=1-1&keywords=rivet+your+readers+with+deep+point+of+vie w). Jill makes a convincing argument (to me) about the pitfalls of narrative distance and the benefits of writing in a tight, close narrative. As she would say, that's the way to "rivet your readers!" I recommend anyone interested in writing close POV (whether third person or first person) get a copy of Nelson's book. You'd be surprised to find how many ways you might be doing it wrong.

My handling of POV improved greatly after going through her practice exercises. And nowadays, I'm a believer in the power of close third. :encouragement:

July 17th, 2015, 05:36 PM
As I don't care for italicized thoughts, I find myself dipping into close characterization when a character feels a certain way but has no reason to say it out loud.

A sick sensation crept into Markus’s stomach as he recalled the carnage. What has once been living, breathing humans were now only painful memories and destroyed potential. Had their families known their lives would be cut so short? Would they have agreed to the evacuation if they had been aware of the danger? His own mother had seen him off willingly, convinced he was being relocated to someplace safer after the deadly earthquake last spring. But how could she have known how bad things would be when even he remained in the dark?

Although, as I reread your two examples, I'm not entirely sure which method I'm using there. The questions asked are Markus's questions, but they're asked with narrative detachment. Which is it?

Kyle R
July 17th, 2015, 05:59 PM
Hey, Gamer!

Looks good to me! A fluid mixture of the two. Or, as Nancy Kress calls it, "Middle-Distance Third":

It's important to emphasize that close, middle, and distant third-person viewpoints are not really separate and discreet categories. Rather, they're a continuum, just as a camera moving progressively farther away from a film subject would have no absolute point labeled "far." The terms are relative and flexible.

Somewhere in the ill-defined central territory of this flexible continuum lies middle-distance third person. It's the most flexible of all points of view. It means that, for the most part, you're viewing the action from a few feet away but with the freedom to slide in closer, into the character's head, or to back away, viewing him from the outside.

— Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint

July 21st, 2015, 03:39 AM
First of all I am so glad to see this thread! POV is probably the area I struggle with the most.

This may be an issue of terminology but some people in my critique group tear me up for using 3rd person omniscient. I’m not sure how that relates to 3rd person close and 3rd person distant.

After reading some good articles in Scribophile I am trying to use 3 types of 3rd person:

3rd Person Omniscient – for event scenes. Such as battle and dogfight scenes. The characters are reacting to events without the time to feel about them.

3rd Person Limited – When I am getting closer to a particular character. Such as after a battle and they are absorbing the emotions. I also use this with 2 characters that are in Washington DC. I stay with just what they know. It keeps me from getting too close to historical figures. (real people)

3rd Person Multiple – I use this when a conversation involves several people. There are point of view changes inside these scenes. I try to choreograph the POW changes so they a) move with the action and b) are logical progressions and not random head hoping.

From the examples I think I stay distant with all the techniques.

So how does 3rd Person Distant vs 3rd Person Close play in to this?

Also I have 2 people in my critique group who constantly complain about me using 3rd Person Omniscient no matter how I present it. Why is 3rd Person omniscient treated like a dirty word?

Am I just using un-hip terminology?

July 22nd, 2015, 01:22 PM
I think sometimes you can zoom out even beyond the bounds of a person, into the omniscient pov. Describe distant moutains, history, stuff that is not contingent on there being a character to hear it. Of course too much of this tends to lead to exposition and infodumping and before you know it, you're wading knee-deep through the Silmarillion ;)

July 23rd, 2015, 10:38 PM
I've seen close done insanely well, Wolf Hall. I've seen it done not so well, where, basically, the author is chatting as though he or she is like the person or as though they're telling you the events over a drink, but doesn't illuminate subtext or deepen and widen the events of the story.
The distant third person is all about what you choose to describe and how well you do dialogue, so for me is arguably harder, though, as above, it's hard to get 'close' right anyway if your 'register' is off.