The other half—the darker half, mwahaha!—of my genre of heart is psychological thriller. I’d love to talk about that one just as much as about science-fiction, though I’m not quite sure where to start. So I’ll go ahead and describe it the way I see it, and see from there.
According to common definition, a “psychological thriller” is a thriller subgenre that focuses on the unstable emotional or mental states of the characters, often in combination with elements of mystery, suspense or psychological horror (the last one, in my case). As a thriller subgenre, it’s permeated by tension and suspense, often surprising the reader with twists or different angles on the same problem. It can contain elements of terror like dread, anxiety and fear, or elements of horror like revulsion, trauma and shock.
But no matter the flavor, psychological and emotional stress are the engine of this subgenre.
In a psychological thriller characters don’t rely on their physical strength to overcome their enemies, but rather on their mental resources, and often times the enemies are not external (other characters or circumstances) but internal (phobias, insanity, urges, feelings, fears). Even when the enemies are other characters, the conflicts are usually played out through mind games, deception and manipulation, or even sustained attempts to demolish each other’s mental equilibrium, as opposed to the banging physical action in classic thrillers.
Another important aspect that differentiates psychological thriller from a classic action thriller is the nature of the characters. In a classic thriller we have good guys vs. bad guys, with quite clear distinctions and the corresponding actions. And even when the antagonist is obscure or unknown, we never doubt that the protagonist is the good guy. In a psychological thriller, however, the nature of the protagonist it is often questioned, and sometimes good or benign characters become or are revealed to be monstrous.
In this repsect, psychological thrillers don’t only play with the characters’ minds, they also play with the reader’s mind.
There are a few things a writer needs to do to achieve that, and the most important one is to have a good command of tension. It’s crucial to keep the reader guessing about the nature of the characters or their actions, and anticipating dreadful developments at every major point in the story. The instant this tension is dropped, the thrill is over and it’s practically impossible to build the momentum up again.
Character motivation and state of mind are also among the most important things in a psychological thriller, since the plot entirely relies on them, and the writer needs to have a good understanding of human psychology. The emotional and mental developments of characters in a psychological thriller must always be plausible and believable, even when they are outrageous (such as a child becoming a murderer) or come as a surprise (such as the protagonist being revealed to be insane). Surprises in fiction must never take readers aback, their purpose is to stir and stimulate re-evaluation, and they must always seem absolutely logical and inevitable in retrospect.
The most common types of narration chosen to create psychological suspense and maintain tension and emotional stress, are stream of consciousness and deep first person POV. There are exceptions, but they are rare and less powerful. Narrative style is very important, because it must erase the interface between the reader and the story, and plunge the reader directly into the throes and terrors of the protagonist. POV is also essential in the manipulation of atmosphere, which can greatly contribute to the effect of the psychological thriller.
Because the psychological thriller deals first and foremost with the human mind, the most common themes it touches upon are philosophical or psychological in nature, such as identity, honesty, determinism, fatalism, sanity, dualism, and the exploration of the darker sides of the human behavioral motivation. It’s less aimed at direct entertainment, and more at provoking thought and shifts in understanding of the human mind.
It is a very powerful genre, but also very difficult to get right.
I’m a huge fan of psychological thriller and psychological horror movies, even if I haven’t read an equal amount of novels in the genre (I prefer reading science-fiction and science books). I absolutely devour movies like The Machinist, Memento, Jacob’s Ladder, Repulsion, Vertigo, Changeling, American Psycho, May, Silence of the Lambs, Fracture, Fight Club, The Game, Donnie Darko, Black Swan, Martyrs, The Shining, basically any movie by David Lynch, and sooo many more.
I also read a lot about scriptwriting techniques, which is a very refreshing source of writing advice, and try to embed everything I learn into what I know about writing science-fiction. And believe me, it’s a weird combination from a technical point of view. It has been successfully done however, and that’s what I aim at. Remember movies like Event Horizon, Solaris, and Vanilla Sky? How’s that for an intimidating, scary ambition? *shudder* But I want to do things just like that!
All the characteristics of the psychological thriller that I’ve mentioned above are really exciting to me, and I’d love to always have them present in my fiction. I’ve tried to weave them into my novel, of course, and even though I’m certain I haven’t “nailed it” perfectly, it’s still one of my greatest goals as a writer.
What about you? Have you read a good psychological thriller, or a combination of it with another genre — or watched a good movie? What did you like most about it?
And what is your main expectation when you hear “psychological thriller”? What’s the image it creates in your mind?