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Want YA Readers to Love Your Characters? You’ve Got to Master Close Psychic Distance

Where the Wild Things Are book cover

YA literature is ripe with characters that teenagers identify with: high schoolers struggling with first love, depression, and environmental anxiety, athletes trying to make the varsity soccer team, runaways searching for connection. These characters may not represent your readers exactly, but their feelings and emotions certainly do. Your goal, then, should be to make sure your readers experience your characters’ feelings and emotions deep inside — that is, viscerally — so that they can identify with and sympathize with those characters.

The single most effective way to accomplish this goal is by having skillful control of psychic distance.  

Psychic distance is a narrative tool you can use to bring readers closer to your characters. According to editor Janet Burroway, psychic distance is…

“the degree to which we as readers feel on the one hand intimacy and identification with, or on the other hand detachment and alienation from, the characters in a story.”

Close psychic distance can pull your readers in and keep them reading. It can make them feel deeply about your characters. And when they feel this way, chances are, they’ll also feel like someone finally understands their own deep-seated emotions.

Here are three tips that will help you master close psychic distance:

  • TIP #1: Use concrete details.
    Details inform readers and enrich their experience; but, more importantly, they reveal your characters to your readers. Don’t just tell readers there were three chimneys in the house. Tell them that of the three chimneys in the house, Darcy avoided the one in the third floor living room, because that was the one Jaime used to hide in when they played hide and seek, back when they were small. That was the one where Jaime got hurt
  • TIP #2: Get inside a character by sharing their inner thoughts.
    A character’s inner thoughts show the reader how the character really feels, even if they aren’t saying it out loud. Don’t just have Darcy say, “I love the smell of sunscreen.” Let your readers know that Darcy loved the coconut smell of the sunscreen because it reminded her of the end of summer, when she and her mom would sit under the peach umbrella for hours, eating Skittles and rubbing sunscreen on each other’s backs. A character’s inner thoughts can give readers a key to that character’s heart, helping them to know who that character really is. 
  • TIP #3: Use scenes instead of summary.
    Scenes make it more interesting for readers to stick around and explore the world of the story — they give room for the protagonist’s inner thoughts and feelings and create a believable setting. 

Mastering close psychic distance will help you give your readers new ways to connect with your characters, identify with them, and feel their joy and pain. And once they do that, they’ll feel as if someone has finally understood them.

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© Danielle Sunshine, All Rights Reserved
Site by
So It Goes Design

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