I'm not going to go into depth (in this post) about what contributes to narrative distance, but as I said in my 2006 article on point of view, you can use lots of niggly little grammatical tools to create a sense of closeness. Articles can convey the internal knowledge of the protagonist; deictic pronouns (this that here there etc.) can add a dimension of closeness by implying the physical and temporal location of the protagonist; choice of words with implied desires, volition or judgment can infuse your narration with the sense of your protagonist as someone with wants, goals, and judgments.
Another thing that can contribute to narrative distance is the choice of how to express thoughts and perceptions. The more instances of "I/he/she saw," "I/he/she thought," etc. that appear in the narration, the more distance the reader is going to perceive. People don't think of themselves in these terms. For example, we don't stand back from ourselves and say "I see someone coming in" - we say, "Gee, someone's coming in!"
In this post, I thought I'd share with you something about narrative distance that I thought was just fascinating. It concerns the Royall Tyler translation of The Tale of Genji, which was written in the year 1009 in Japan by a woman known as Murasaki Shikibu. Here's the kicker, and why it's related to the issue of narrative distance: in the ancient Japanese in which the Tale was written, there was no such thing as indirect quotation.
Think about it. No way to say, "He said he would take the carriage." You could only say, "He said, 'I will take the carriage.'" Similarly, there was no way to say, "She thought she would die of grief." Instead, you had to say, "She thought, 'I will die of grief.'"
Here's a quote from a lecture by Royall Tyler (the lecture itself can be found in full here):
Murasaki Shikibu seems to have been the first Japanese writer to exploit interior monologue fully as a narrative technique. When it appears, one suddenly finds oneself listening directly to a character's thoughts, as in the following example from chapter 49. A young man whose great love has died nurses his sorrow, even as his politically advantageous but otherwise unwelcome marriage approaches. The text shifts from third-person narration to first person interior monologue and back again.
- At heart he knew he would never forget a loss he still felt keenly, and he simply could not understand why, when they had clearly been meant for each other, they had nonetheless remained strangers to the end. Oh, how I could love someone whose looks recalled hers a little, even if she were unworthy in rank! If only I might see her again, just once, at least in the incense smoke of that old story! He was in no hurry to consummate this exalted alliance.
Tyler says,"...first-person musing like this is unusual in English." I think this was true for a very long time, but on the other hand, Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game springs immediately to mind as an example of a book that uses this precise kind of switch from third person narration to first person expression of thought. Today isn't the first time that I've told people they'll be closer to their narrators if they avoid such expressions as "he thought" and the like.
The effect is dramatic. The culture of Genji's Japan is removed from us by a millenium, but when you read Royall Tyler's translation, you feel it with amazing immediacy. The most remarkable thing to me is that the immediacy in the narrative isn't just a decision made by the translator, but a more accurate reflection of the actual use of the language of the time.
The Tale of Genji comes alive. And narrative distance comes full circle.
Those who are interested in learning more about Royall Tyler and his translation can check out an interview with him, here.