We are used to getting inside our character's head when we write. What does she see, what does she smell, how does she feel? Describing our viewpoint character from the outside, as if seen from a distance, is the cardinal sin. We want our reader to identify with our viewpoint character.
Except when we don't. Because sometimes we won't. (To quote Dr. Seuss.)
Sometimes we don't want readers to identify with the viewpoint character too closely. Sometimes we don't want readers to like the viewpoint character at all. That's when narrative distance comes in. Terms like "he thought" instead of just typing out the character's thoughts add some distance. And distance can come in handy when we don't want readers to think that our viewpoint character is important past their one viewpoint scene. Here's an example:
Zombie Thomas Jefferson paused. Life had been full of moral dilemmas, and now death was proving just as confusing. He needed brains--oh how he needed brains. But was it right?Zombie Thomas Jefferson lurched down the hallway of Monticello, groaning, "Brains, brains," as if he were unaware of his grand surroundings.
Both samples describe the same moment in time. If I want you to eventually root for the zombie presidents, I would use example one. If my main character is going to be chased by Zombie Thomas Jefferson in a few chapters, I would use example two.
For a fun exercise, pull a few books off your shelf and open them to random pages. Read a paragraph from each book and rate them in terms of narrative distance, from "totally inside this character's mind" to "as objective as a newspaper article." Which characters do you like the best? In a multiple viewpoint novel, look at a paragraph from a "good guy" and a paragraph from a villain. Does the narrative distance change?
No, it really is a fun exercise, I promise.
-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages