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Psychological Fiction

Psychological Fiction

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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 collapsing 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.

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 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.

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. Let's look at each of these in detail.

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

Books that fall under the genre of psychological fiction can be traced back to before the term psychology was even coined. As such, there are many notable examples of psychological fiction books.

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 psychological realism books StudySmarterFig. 1 - 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. 1 - Public Domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The-Turn-of-the-Screw-Collier%27s-4.jpg

Frequently Asked Questions about 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.

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

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. 

The different types of psychological fiction include:

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. 

Final Psychological Fiction Quiz

Psychological Fiction Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What is psychological realism? 

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Psychological realism 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.

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What is another word for the genre of psychological realism?

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Psychological realism can also be called psychological fiction.

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What drives the plotline of psychological fiction stories?

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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. 

Show question


What are the characters like in psychological realism?

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The characters of this psychological realism are complex- built with both strengths and flaws. There is no clear-cut hero or villain in the story. 

Show question


What narrative modes are popularly used in psychological realism?

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Psychological realism uses narrative modes like flashbacks, inner monologues and streams of consciousness.

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

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Psychological Tragedies

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How do writers of psychological fiction add tension to the plotline?

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Writers of psychological fiction add tension to the plotline by adding plot twists, cliffhangers and suspenseful storylines. 

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Which of the following novels feature a protagonist experiencing guilt?

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Crime and Punishment (1866)

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Who wrote Flowers for Algernon (1966)

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Daniel Keyes

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Which novel has been adapted into a Netflix series called The Haunting of By Manor

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The Turn of the Screw (1898)

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Which subgenre of psychological fiction is the most popular?

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Psychological thrillers

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