How popular the psychological thriller is currently! Writing psychologically involves one character messing with another’s mind, or suggesting the mind of another is seriously in question. The pull for the reader is trying to work out the real from the imagined or the subtly misrepresented. Three high-selling books became prominent and myriads of attempted read-alikes followed. The three were Gone Girl, then more psychologically successful, The Girl on a Train; and best of all, Before I Go to Sleep. All three had tremendous success and films were soon made of them. Many authors have attempted to emulate this kind of novel, choosing titles very near to these three biggies.
The ‘psychological’ comes in because mind furnishes the plot. In some novels this use is more convincing than in others. Why? Simply that the actions of the characters stay true to their nature to the end. S.J. Watson fully understood the task of making his characters remain coherently believable. The first two books drop off in credibility around three-quarters of the way through.
If the action does not stay possible within the character arc, the novel is unsatisfying. Too many twists of intent and the reader’s credulity is stretched to breaking point. A heartless murderer is not likely to sit down and freely give his whole history to other characters, explaining how he came to kill. All this does is provide an explanation to the reader so that the plot can be said to end.
If you have no knowledge of guns, don’t embarrass yourself by describing one.
If your knowledge of serial killers is restricted to reading novels about serial killers, your character is unlikely to be convincing.
Novels that try to follow the pattern of unreliable narrator often fail because the voice does not convince. If you can’t hear your character’s voice in your head, don’t write his dialogue. Solution? There’s direct contact and there’s serious research. If neither are available to you, best to write about a character who is more accessible to you. You can always stretch his or her natural behaviour a step or two further to make it sinister.
Four years before this genre blossomed, Sebastian Faulks in Engleby took a character whose experiences Faulks himself shared or witnessed at close quarters. He used a setting he knew well: Eton, for describing gross bullying, just touching upon the earlier adversity enough to spark the reader’s imagination. By the time Engleby reaches Cambridge, the reader fears the damage the lack of love and relentless bullying has caused. When awful things are gradually revealed, then, they are wholly convincing within the arc of what the reader has taken in, bit by bit, as the plot progresses. Further, the character does not stay in one murderous state of mind, but develops over time. Events, situations, do have an effect, as does age. Perhaps predictably, Faulks being one of their own, journalist mainstream reviewers were caustic about this thought-provoking, well-written book but wrote glowingly of newcomers with more sensational but less psychologically accurate novels.
As a psychologist, I sometimes interviewed/assessed youngsters who had been referred for school avoidance. I can’t write about them, of course, but the experiences helped me imagine a new character in another geographical and social setting. That led to my story A Boy with Potential. In my next post, I’ll write more about this and offer a sample.