As a writer of psychological thrillers, I am often asked what it’s like to confront the darker aspects of the human psyche and how difficult it is to live with disturbing characters on a day to day basis while I write. So here is a short guide for writing psychological thrillers.
1. Develop a morbid fascination with your characters. The characters in psychological thrillers are not always likable and they are often deeply flawed. In real life, I would probably go out of my way to avoid them. But if I want to write about them, I need to overcome my aversion and become a little obsessed with them. I tend to focus, not so much on what they do, as why they do it. I am constantly wondering why they think the way they think, why they say the things they say, why they do the things they do. Why do they chose to react with anger, rage or cruelty, rather than compassion, patience or care? What happened to them to make them this way? One of the strange things that happens when you dig deeper is you develop an unexpected compassion for your characters. I won’t say that this translates into justifying the things they do, but it certainly makes it easier to have them living in my head, while I’m writing.
2. Try not to turn away. As much as we may wish to, we can’t really escape the violence that exists in the world. It is there, and the trick is to acknowledge its existence and figure out how best to react to it. Confronted with horror, our instinct is often to turn away, a flight response aimed at protecting our well-being. But in order to understand violence it is sometimes necessary to face it head on and let yourself be overwhelmed by it, because it is precisely this emotional response you need to access when you write. All those feelings of horror and fear and repulsion can be recalled and put to use to provide depth and complexity to your characters— both the victims and the perpetrators. So keep watching the news and reading the papers. Don’t flinch.
3. Dare to remember. As children, we learn about the world by watching and listening and absorbing. We take the world as we find it, the good and the bad and, in this way, we build up the knowledge and resilience we need to navigate life. But over time we prefer to forget the experiences which made us fearful or caused us emotional pain. We bury the bad. As a writer, I have found it useful to go back to those initial experiences when developing my characters. While writing my latest book I was surprised to remember a frightening incident that must have occurred when I was around five years old. It was something I had forgotten but my subconscious pulled it up because it allowed me to understand and write about the fear the child in my story is experiencing. So don’t be scared to tap into your subconscious and revisit those long suppressed fears. Which leads me neatly to…
4. Try to compartmentalise yourself. I am a writer. But I am also a wife and a mother, a sister and a daughter, a friend. The things I write about are typically not subjects for light-hearted conversation and it’s important to take a break from this world for the sake of your own well-being. One thing I do is to, quite literally, section off my writing world. I have one a corner of the house where I always write. When I sit there, I go into writing mode. But, when I leave, I can get on with other (less disturbing) things. It is only very occasionally that my characters dare to venture out of their corner and trouble me with that pesky ‘why did you make me do that?’ question.
5. Read true crime. I read a lot of psychological thrillers but I often find that true crime offers an even more compelling glimpse into the darker aspects of the human psyche. While writing my latest book I read about the murderers like Myra Hindley, Fred West, and watched documentaries such as The ‘Night Stalker’. The unfathomable cruelty I encountered in these stories was striking because it was often offset against a very familiar banality. People go to work or to the store, they go to parties and have friends and children. Their lives are so terribly recognisable. But scratch the surface and who knows what you will find underneath. I find that a compelling idea for psychological thrillers, to take the familiar and subvert it. What true crime shows us is that it is possible for an undercurrent of violence to exist in the midst of normality. Hiding in plain sight. Is there a more frightening idea than that?
6. Never forget there are good people too. Although psychological thrillers tend to deal with extreme forms of behaviour, it’s important to balance this darkness with light. One of the striking things I noticed when reading and watching true crime was how many good people there were, helping the victims. It’s as if such violence triggers an almost radical compassion within us. A need to counter the bad with twice as much good. I think it’s important to provide this balance in fiction, because it reflects the real-life response most of us have to violent crime and shows us that the extremes of human behaviour are not, in general, who we are. In fiction, I think this can also be a source of conflict for your characters. It’s fun to throw them into disarray by having other characters respond to their actions with something good.
7. Redemption… or not. One of the questions I face when writing psychological thrillers is how to punish my characters. In the end, there has to be some sort of reckoning. Either the characters respond positively to the good around them and can then be forgiven or they kick against it and must be punished. I try to approach the redemption or not dilemma by answering the ‘why?’ question. Having a bad character discover the light and shade within themselves offers them the opportunity, when it is presented, to accept responsibility for their actions and to ask for forgiveness. In this way I also try to put the question to the reader: are you prepared to forgive them, or not? I think psychological thrillers offer us a glimpse into the darker side of humanity, but I like to think they also provide a glimmer of light— a chance to think of the ways we can counter violence with the best we have to offer: compassion, kindness and understanding.
Jennifer Harvey's new book The Vanishing Child is out now.
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