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.
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:
- Motivations, and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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:
- 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.
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.
Article Written by James Gallagher
James Gallagher is a Fictionary-Certified StoryCoach, copy editor, and proofreader. James has worked on more than 250 books and particularly enjoys horror and romance. An active member of the editing community, James loves to help authors bring out the best in their stories.
More about him can be found at https://castlewallsediting.com
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