Safely living the darker side of life
Julia Stone, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, hears from other authors about the psychology behind crime and suspense writing.
19 May 2023
June is National Crime Reading Month, an annual initiative developed and run by the Crime Writers’ Association, in collaboration with The Reading Agency for 2023. Its aim is ‘to bring new books to existing readers and new readers to the world’s most popular and best-selling genre.’
There has been a huge rise in the sale of crime novels over the last few years. Encompassing psychological suspense to spy thrillers, police procedurals to amateur detectives, and cosy to noir, crime is a wide-ranging category. The main element these subgenres have in common is not the body count, but the ability of the authors to create suspense and mystery. This produces an element of tension in the reader – Lothar Mikos, in his chapter in the 1996 book Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Exploration, refers to it as an experience between fear and pleasure. Comfortable in their armchair, the reader can safely live the darker side of life.
Researchers Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch suggest that tension arises when something we experience leads to uncertainty or dissonance. Depending on our personalities, our background and the context, this triggers expectations which in turn lead us to predict what might happen as a consequence. And each of these possible outcomes sit on a spectrum from positive (desired) to negative (feared). It is the uncertainty about what is to come that generates tension in the reader. Will the protagonist achieve their desired result, or will they be frustrated (or worse) in the process?
At their best, crime novels are truly interactive, like solving a cryptic crossword clue. Readers love being able to spot the red herrings, predict twists and work out ‘who dunnit’. We’re thrilled with the dopamine hit we have when we get it right and impressed when the author surprises us with something unpredictable – our brains responding more strongly to the shock of the unexpected.
The characters who stalk the pages of these novels are usually complex, sometimes dark and dangerous. And the most memorable and engaging are often those written by psychologists. I asked five other psychologists who are also authors of psychological suspense and crime, how does our professional expertise inform what we write?
Philippa East is a novelist with HQ/HarperCollins and a practising Clinical Psychologist, working with adult clients in private practice:
In my day job as a therapist, I hear many, many narratives about people’s lives and struggles, and I think this has given me insight into some of the universal themes of the human condition: love, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem and truth. I’m also struck by how much a client’s journey in therapy mirrors that of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ in fiction. For me, writing is a way to try and understand the world, other people, and myself. I think this drive originally led me into the field of psychology – and now storytelling has become my means to ask and explore those questions.
Chris Merritt is a Clinical Psychologist and an author of thrillers:
I worked mainly with PTSD in London NHS services. In the clinic, I heard a lot of stories about crime, and treated victims, witnesses, and even perpetrators. Many therapies for trauma involve storytelling to reach a resolution, and crime fiction is the same: telling a character’s story from beginning to end, through their eyes. So, there’s a natural overlap between therapy and writing.
I try to use a formulation approach when developing a character, the same as when I used to work clinically. The ‘Five Ps’ model is really helpful, for example: thinking about what’s going on for a character now, what’s keeping their issues going, and what protective factors they can draw on. I often write therapy scenes, as I think they are great for discovering a character’s struggles in depth. And for villains, I always think about dark personality traits!
Stephanie Carty is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Head of Psychology in a physical health setting with a background in working with children in care:
My debut novel Shattered is set in a private sleep clinic and includes elements of sleep disorders and trauma with small insights into their treatment from a psychological perspective. Alongside therapy sessions, I included the main character’s supervision as a way to show her own reflections and defences in action. Through her arc, I shared some ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion Focused Therapy that I hoped would resonate with readers. Underlying the plot twist (which I won’t reveal!) is a Jungian idea. For the last few years, I’ve been teaching writers how to apply psychological frameworks such as attachment theory to their character development, which has helped me to make more salient the psychological ideas that inform my own writing.
Bev Thomas worked as a clinical psychologist in primary care. After further training, she moved into organisational consultancy and now works with staff in mental health services. See more details and find the novels reviewed on The Psychologist website:
My work is informed by psychoanalytic ideas, and this has very clearly found its way into my novels. For me to embark on the long journey of writing a book, the theme needs to pose a question I want to understand or answer. My debut, A Good Enough Mother, focused on a trauma psychotherapist who is referred a patient who bears a striking resemblance to her adult missing son. It draws heavily on Winnicottian theory in its exploration of attachment, motherhood and loss. My current novel, The Family Retreat, captures an intense holiday encounter, where a GP is galvanised into offering to help a stranger. It’s a book that covers male rage and coercive control as well as cross generational trauma and the concept of the ‘wounded healer;’ when we feel compelled to help who is it really for? I endeavour to write books that cover sensitive and sometimes shocking psychological themes and by weaving them into compelling fiction, my hope is that they will reach a wider audience in a thought provoking and informative way.
Mick Finlay is the author of the Arrowood series of crime novels set in the 1890s (published by HQ Harper Collins), and Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University:
I’m a social psychologist. My research is in areas such as intergroup conflict and communication/interaction in health and social care services. The protagonist in my books, private detective William Arrowood, tries to use Victorian notions of psychology in order to help him solve cases. I rely on early psychologists, ‘alienists’ and others to help supply him with theories about the human mind – people such as William James, Henry Maudsley, Charles Darwin, Gustav Le Bon, William Carpenter and Alfred Binet. While some of their theories lead Arrowood down the wrong path, others really do help him, and reading these authors has given me a deep appreciation of the roots of modern psychology. I also draw on my understandings of interaction, violence and stigma to create scenes and characters. There are many social psychological issues to explore in Victorian Britain: huge inequalities in wealth, empire and the so-called racial sciences, stigmatisation of people with disabilities and mental health problems, class, crime and violence.
Visiting old friends
And what about me? Without a background in psychology I don’t think I could write psychological suspense. Developing rounded characters requires an understanding of personality and human behaviour and part of the process of getting to know my characters is to profile them using the Big Five/Dark Triad. The protagonist in my debut, Her Little Secret, was a psychotherapist (‘write what you know’) – although I must reassure readers that my practice is nothing like hers. As part of that novel, I drew on psychological research and theories including imposter syndrome, attachment theory, grief and endings, coercive control and the characteristics of sociopaths. My writing notebook is plastered with a collage of articles from The Psychologist and I reference some of this background research on my website, where I write a monthly blog on psychology and writing.
For me, half the fun of writing is in the research. I love refreshing and updating my knowledge of psychological theories that I originally met decades ago – it feels like visiting old friends!
Julia Stone is an author of psychological suspense and a business psychologist, coaching psychologist and psychotherapist. Visit the website to learn more.
Hear more about how these six authors bring their psychological background into their writing in a series of panel discussions.