Psychological Fiction

You must have come across famous movies like Shutter Island (2010), Black Swan (2010), The Shining (1980) or even Inception (2010). Well, what do all of these films have in common? All these films feature a protagonist with mental illnesses and personality disorders. It is through the protagonist's uncertain state of mind that we see the movie's plotline play out. The events being shown on screen are mostly driven by their delusions and fragmented patterns of thinking. These movies fall under the popular genre of psychological fiction. 

Psychological Fiction Psychological Fiction

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Table of contents

    But what does psychological fiction mean as a genre in literature? Let's look at its definition, characteristics, genres and examples to find out!

    Psychological fiction: definition

    Psychological fiction, also known as psychological realism, is a genre in literature that places a large amount of emphasis on the character's mental state and motivations to drive the plotline of the story. It is also known as psychological realism. All the action taking place in the story is a result of a character's interior thoughts and feelings, or their inner 'person', rather than any external action.

    As a result, a lot of psychological fiction features inner monologues, flashbacks and streams of consciousness as these narrative devices help explore the inner mentality of a character.

    Monologue: a long speech by one character, usually to express the thoughts and feelings of the character out loud to the audience.

    Stream of consciousness: In literary terms, stream of consciousness refers to a narrative mode wherein a character's inner thought processes are written down, almost as if the readers are able to overhear their minds. This 'stream' is a complete flow of thoughts rather than a rational overview of their feelings.

    Hence, in psychological fiction, the plot is subordinate to the character. Events occurring in the story might not be factually true or in complete chronological order, but usually follow the thought processes, memories, flashbacks and contemplations of the protagonist.

    The popularity of psychological fiction coincided with the discoveries of Sigmund Freud, which shed more light on the complexities of the human psyche. You might have heard of the three parts of the human personality- the id, ego and superego. This psychoanalytic theory clearly demonstrates that the human personality consists of unconscious instincts and desires, a moral compass and the desire to find a healthy balance between the two.

    During the literary realism movement, writers such as Henry James, popularly known for his psychological horror novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), pioneered the philosophy of writing stories where the psychological makeup of humans and their emotional reactions play a bigger role in their behaviour and actions, rather than external factors. In the spirit of realism, this focus on characterisation was adopted by many other modernist writers in an effort to be candid and realistic about the way life actually works.

    Realism: a style [in literature] that represents the familiar or 'typical' in real life rather than an idealised, formalised, or romantic interpretation of it.¹

    Psychological fiction: characteristics

    There are several characteristics that can be considered the tropes of the psychological fiction genre. Characteristics include:

    Characteristic of psychological fictionExplanation
    Emphasis on interiorityThe main focus of psychological fiction is the interior life of the characters, including their thoughts, feelings, and motivations.
    Limited actionThese works tend to have less external action; instead, the action is often mental or emotional.
    Complexity of charactersCharacters in psychological fiction are often deeply complex, and the narrative explores their multifaceted personalities and motivations.
    Stream of consciousnessThis narrative technique, which seeks to replicate the flow of thoughts in the human mind, is often used in psychological fiction.
    Exploration of human psychologyPsychological fiction often delves into themes of mental health, human behaviour, and the complexities of the human mind.

    Let's look at each of these in detail.

    Psychological fiction, A woman against a black background has covered her face while another set of hands grab her hair, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Characters in psychological fiction are often complex and flawed.

    Flawed characters

    Psychological fiction places more importance on characters rather than action and plot. Hence, unlike other genres, the characters of this genre are multifaceted- built with both strengths and flaws. There is no clear-cut hero or villain in the story, but rather, a subtle overlap between the two.

    This form of characterisation makes room for an exploration of these people's complex personalities, moral dilemmas, and ethical decisions, allowing for a more character-driven plotline.

    Psychological fictions are infamous for exploring the darker sides of human behaviour. A lot of the time, these characters suffer from deep psychological problems such as mental illnesses, addictions, dark secrets, overpowering feelings of guilt, fear, jealousy, paranoia, obsession, etc. As the novel progresses, these flaws play a large role in propelling the action of the plot. The story usually ends with the character learning how to conquer these demons or succumbing to them entirely.

    In Stephen King's The Shining (1977), the protagonist of the story, Jack, also happens to be the antagonist of the story and is responsible for his own downfall. Although Jack possesses the good qualities of a protagonist, that is, his willingness to be a good person and his love for his family, he is plagued by a temper, alcoholism, and childhood traumas. These traumas are then triggered throughout the story, causing Jack to lose his sanity and transform into a monster that attempts to kill his own family.

    In psychological fiction, the events of the story are often presented to the readers through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Hence, lies, delusions, and fragmented memories all add to the suspense of the plot. How can we trust what we are being told? What if the story being narrated to us is a version fabricated by someone aiming to deceive us? What if the version we are reading is of someone who has a collapsing state of mind?

    As a result, narrative modes such as flashbacks, fragmented scenes, inner monologues and streams of consciousness dominate this genre. Writers of psychological fiction aim to plunge readers straight into their characters' psyches and, as such, give a full range of their thoughts, feelings, and inner processes, regardless of whether the narrative form is reliable or not.

    In Gone Girl (2012), writer Gillian Flynn makes use of the double unreliable narrators where readers are taken through a criminal investigation of a missing woman Amy, from the perspectives of both Amy and her husband, Nick. In a narration filled with contradictions, lies, and delayed revelations, Flynn adds to the suspense and twists, often blurring the lines between which character is the victim or the villain.

    In psychological fiction, the story's main action is usually driven by some internal conflict within the characters rather than external forces.

    Internal conflict in psychological fiction can manifest in the internalisation of strong emotions such as guilt and obsession. For instance, a character experiencing guilt is usually haunted by the wrongdoings they committed. However, they also fear the consequences of the truth being revealed. This conflict often leads to the collapse of the character's mental state.

    The protagonist of Denis Lehane's Shutter Island (2003), Teddy Daniels, is so overwhelmed by the guilt of murdering his own wife that his deluded mind creates an elaborate story where he gives himself the identity of a US Marshal investigating a missing person case at the very mental institution that he himself is a patient in. The creation of this second identity was Teddy's subconscious attempt to avoid taking responsibility for his crimes. Here is a quote by Teddy that clearly shows his internal conflict in the last few lines of the novel:

    Which would be worse: to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?

    (Chapter 25)

    Usually, the development of these internal struggles is a result of past traumas. Hence, most characters in psychological fiction also come with solid backstories to provide context to their mental traumas.

    Writers of psychological fiction put a great amount of work into building tension among readers by constantly keeping them in suspense. We have already seen how unreliable narrators can add to the story's suspense. Other storytelling devices to add to the mystery may include dramatic plot twists and cliffhangers.

    Psychological fiction: genre

    There are four genres of psychological fiction. Note that there can be overlapping characteristics between many of these subgenres, and literary works can fall under more than one subgenre.

    Psychological thriller

    This is the most popular subgenre of psychological fiction.

    This subgenre features a psychologically stressed protagonist with an unstable mental or emotional state. This causes them to become dangerous and violent. Usually have elements of drama, mystery, paranoia and even horror.

    Psychological horror

    In this case, the psychologically disturbed state of a character is used to induce horror and fear.

    Psychological drama

    This subgenre of drama records characters' mental struggles in response to relationships, careers, life etc.

    Psychological science fiction

    This contains elements of sci-fi, such as fictional settings and plotlines and a character's mental struggles in response to some sort of futuristic technology or political entities in these fictional settings.

    Psychological fiction: books

    Psychological fiction is a specific genre of novels that places a heavy emphasis on the inner thoughts, emotions, and mental processes of its characters. Examples of such novels in English literature include Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse by (Virginia Woolf, and The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. These novels delve deeply into the psychology of their characters, often using techniques such as stream of consciousness to depict their inner lives. Other examples include Crime and Punishment, The Turn of the Screw and Flowers for Algernon.

    Crime and Punishment (1866)

    In this notable example by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Raskolnikov, a poor former student, plans to murder an old woman to rob her of her wealth. Although Raskolnikov was short on money and living in the slums of St Petersburg, his pride deluded him into believing that he was an 'extraordinary' man far above other human beings and the laws made by them. He justifies his crime by believing that by stealing money, he would be free from poverty to achieve great things in life and that in cases such as his, certain crimes were justifiable in they served a purpose for the 'greater good'.

    However, soon after the murder, Raskolnikov is forced to deal with the external consequences of his actions by trying to escape an investigator. At the same time, he is racked by his own guilt and paranoia, and his conscience is at constant war with his former 'justifications'. The readers are taken through Raskolnikov's mental anguish as he struggles to justify the horrors of the crime he committed and his need for redemption.

    This example falls under the genre of psychological thrillers.

    The Turn of the Screw (1898)

    In this novella by Henry James, an unnamed narrator is employed as a governess to two children at a remote country estate called Bly. Soon, the governess begins to see the ghosts of two former employers at Bly- the previous governess and a valet, who was sent away due to their illicit affair. Other than the governess, no other employer at Bly is able to see the apparitions, although the governess believes that the children were deliberately pretending to not see the ghosts. She starts to see the children consorting with the ghosts, and believes that they were being sexually abused. In an attempt to protect the children from the two spirits, the governess ends up traumatising the girl and killing the boy.

    On first read, this story appears to be a horror novella with supernatural elements. However, upon a second read, its deliberate ambiguities have caused many readers to speculate whether or not the ghosts were just a figment of the governess' insane mind. This makes it a classic example of the psychological horror genre.

    Psychological realism An illustration for the serialised printing for Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw. The illustration features the governess at the top of a gloomy staircase looking down at the ghostly impressions of two children. StudySmarterFig. 2 - Illustration for the serialised printing of Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw

    Did you know that Netflix released a show called The Haunting of Bly Manor in 2020 that is based on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (1898)?

    Flowers for Algernon (1966)

    This psychological science fiction novel by Daniel Keyes is about a janitor, Charlie, with an incredibly low IQ who undergoes experimental surgery to triple his intellect. This experiment had formerly only been successful on Algernon, a laboratory mouse.

    However, as Charlie's intellect increases, his relationships deteriorate. Charlie begins to have memories of being abused as a child. His coworkers and love interest despise him due to his increasing intellect.

    Soon, Charlie begins to notice that Algernon was beginning to decline in mental age and realised that he, too, would soon reach his primitive state. As Algernon dies, Charlie's intelligence begins to regress to his former state. However, by this time, knowing what he had seen when he was intelligent, he is unable to reconnect with his former life.

    Psychological Realism - Key takeaways

    • Psychological realism or psychological fiction is a genre that places emphasis on the character's mental state.
    • The plotline is driven by a character's inner motivations rather than external forces.
    • Narrative devices such as inner monologues, flashbacks and streams of consciousness are used in this genre.
    • Some of the characteristics of this genre are:
      • Flawed characters
      • Narrative Style (unreliable narrators)
      • Internal Conflict
      • Tension and Suspense
    • Subgenres of psychological realism

    1. Fig. 2 - Public Domain:
    Frequently Asked Questions about Psychological Fiction

    What are some examples of psychological fiction?

    Some notable examples of psychological realism include Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey, and Flowers for Algernon (1966) by Daniel Keyes.

    What are some characteristics of psychological fiction?

    Some characteristics of psychological fiction are unreliable narrators, flawed characters, interior conflict, focus on inner mental state and motivations, tension and suspense. 

    What is psychological fiction?

    Psychological fiction is a genre that places a large amount of emphasis on the character’s mental state and motivations to drive the plotline of the story. All the action taking place in the story is a result of a character’s interior thoughts and feelings, or their inner 'person', rather than any external forces. 

    What are the types of psychological fiction?

    The different types of psychological fiction include:

    How do you write psychological fiction?

    In order to write psychological fiction, you must begin by creating complex characters with strong backstories, and an  internal conflict within these characters which can be explored using narrative devices such as an unreliable narrator, flashbacks, fragmented scenes, inner monologues and streams of consciousness. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is NOT a subgenre of psychological fiction?

    Which of the following novels feature a protagonist experiencing guilt?

    Who wrote Flowers for Algernon (1966)

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