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Psychological Fiction: Definition and Examples

psychological fiction

You’ve probably had a friend pass you a book and say, “You’ve got to read this. It’s a total head trip.” All books take you on a journey, but when getting a book recommendation like this, that particular journey is probably veering into the realm of psychological fiction.

This is the world of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gillian Flynn, and Edgar Allan Poe. Psychological fiction places readers in close association with minds that intrigue, disturb, even repulse.

And yet readers flock to this brand of tale.

Let’s find out why as we explore aspects of writing psychological fiction effectively.

psychological fiction

What is Psychological Fiction?

Psychological fiction takes readers deep inside the minds of its characters. As such, it is a genre of the inner, a genre of intense interiority. It is a genre in which plot is usually subordinate to character.

The text of psychological fiction reflects mental and emotional states rather than external events, though those events may play a key role in pushing those internal states in interesting directions.

Psychological fiction is a genre that attempts to show readers what makes a particular character tick, whether that character be an obsessive musician or an unrepentant murderer. Often, it explores characters at the fringes of society, giving readers glimpses into the minds of those they wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

Writers in this genre explore:

  • Thoughts,
  • Emotions,
  • Motivations, and
  • Behavior.

In other words: the complexities of the human mind. Sometimes the question the author is exploring is as simple as, What drives a character to … ?

  • What drives a character to commit murder?
  • To suddenly leave a spouse of twenty years?
  • To pursue artistic endeavor at the expense of all else?

The best practitioners of the genre may not be psychologists, but they are those who nevertheless display a highly attuned sense of psychological insight and empathy.

They are sensitive to the desires that lead people onward. They are willing to follow often-dark thoughts and compulsions, wherever they may lead.

And readers thank them for it, the thrill of a psychologically complex book being that of slipping into another’s mind space as though into another’s jacket. And once worn, the reader may be forever changed.

Note: Psychological fiction is referred to here as though the form is a singular genre, but it can be an element of any genre, and it will be employed in such subgenres as:

  • Psychological thriller,
  • Psychological horror, and
  • Psychological drama.

psychological fiction

Psychological Fiction Examples

The best way to write a book is to look at similar examples. So here are 10 popular examples of psychological fiction.

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: Amy’s disappearance unveils dark secrets, blurring truth, and lies in a marriage’s psychological warfare.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: Holden Caulfield’s introspective journey through adolescence explores alienation, identity, and societal disillusionment.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy: A father and son’s post-apocalyptic journey through a desolate landscape explores themes of survival and human nature.
  • The Shining by Stephen King: Jack Torrance’s descent into madness in a haunted hotel mirrors his struggle with alcoholism and family trauma.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: Dorian’s bargain leads to a portrait’s haunting transformation, exploring the nature of beauty and morality.
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: The new Mrs. de Winter uncovers secrets surrounding her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, in a haunting tale of obsession and identity.
  • Verity by Colleen Hoover: Author Lowen Ashleigh’s discovery of a manuscript unveils dark truths about Verity Crawford’s past, blurring reality and fiction.
  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: Alicia Berenson’s silence after murdering her husband leads to a gripping psychological thriller.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: A woman’s obsession with a couple leads to a shocking discovery of secrets and deception.
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: Murdered teenager Susie Salmon narrates from the afterlife, witnessing her family’s grief and her killer’s descent into darkness.

Elements of Psychological Fiction

As mentioned above, while other genres might focus more on external pursuits, psychological fiction often features the following elements:

Exploration of Inner Lives

What forces shape human behavior and relationships? Here a character’s thoughts drive the action, so authors may use techniques such as stream of consciousness or unreliable narrator to achieve their objectives.

Internal Conflict

Perhaps more than any other genre, psychological fiction pits the self against the self. See the magnificently realized character of Raskolnikov in the classic Crime and Punishment—an absolute master class in character development.

Character Development

It could be argued that character development, on some level, is an aspect of all good fiction. But it’s absolutely crucial in psychological fiction, with characters undergoing psychological and emotional transformations of often breathtaking scope.


In psychological fiction, objects may take on heightened significance to reflect characters’ psychological states and get at the author’s deeper meaning. Symbol, even in the form of something like a recurring color, can be employed to offer a kind of shorthand for psychological states.

Complex Themes

Psychological fiction may explore those big existential questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I?
  • Why do we suffer?
  • What does it mean to be human?

The genre frequently uses a single character to represent shared experience and explore, if not answer, those eternal quandaries presented to us all at birth.

Heady stuff, indeed.

psychological fiction

Tips for Writing Psychological Fiction

Writing psychological fiction is a relentless foray into discovery, so prepare yourself for the journey and commit to the task. Don’t be surprised by revelations that occur or insights that strike. And don’t be daunted by the prospect of, at some level, figuring it out as you go.

Go All In on Character Development

Here it is extremely important to flesh out your characters with the usual suspects of character development:

  • Backstory,
  • Motivation,
  • Personality,
  • Past experiences, and
  • A heavy emphasis on motivation.

Identify Psychological Themes

Stating the controlling theme for your work can act as a guiding light at the end of every twisty corridor in your character’s psychological makeup. (And don’t be afraid to walk down those corridors.) Whether you’re exploring:

  • Identity,
  • Growth,
  • Trauma, or
  • Mental illness…

… don’t stray far from your controlling theme.

Read, Read, Read

Okay, this might seem a bit of a cheat, as reading widely, reading outside your genre, is good advice for any kind of writing. But it nonetheless holds true here. The key is to note how other writers employ technique to develop inner lives. Then apply those techniques to your own work.

Play with Symbolism

Objects and events provide great vehicles to represent deeper themes and emotional states. Check your work.

  • Does an object or event recur without your having noticed it?
  • Is there significance there?
  • What little thing can be employed to represent a larger truth?

Turn Your Structure on Its Head

Just as a disordered home can signify a disordered mind, the structure of your work can create an impression within the reader of the character’s inner state.

  • What would be the psychological impact of a nonlinear timeline?
  • Of shifting perspectives?
  • Of exploiting flashbacks?

Bring Out the Senses

Sensory details of characters and setting place your readers within the world and deepen the experience, bringing them closer to the emotional states you’re trying to convey. (And remember that Fictionary Story Elements serve as a great prompt to keep sensory top of mind in every scene.)

Get a Second Opinion

Because psychological fiction so often explores mental health and psychological issues, it is important to ensure representation is as accurate as possible, and that no inadvertent harm is committed by any representation. An authenticity/sensitivity reader or other expert can be helpful in this area.

psychological fiction

Psychological Genre Conclusion

Crafting an effective piece of psychological fiction isn’t easy.

But by committing to the task and being unafraid to go deep, deep inside the minds of your characters, you’ll deliver the immersive experience that readers crave—and that may even deepen your own understanding of the world around you.