I’m considering writing a psychological crime thriller.
Psychological thrillers are white hot. So far, in 2023 eleven of the top fifty Amazon Kindle books are in this category. That’s a huge 22% share. Searches on Google for psychological thrillers have doubled over the last five years. And they’re the top-selling Kindle sub-category in Mystery, Thrillers & Suspense. So, pay dirt, maybe? You think? Right now, I’m researching the genre, prior to plunging in. What immediately strikes me is that psychology (which is, or should be, involved in every genre, albeit sometimes peripherally) must be the very visible beating heart of a psychological crime thriller.
But how much do writers in this genre, or any other genre for that matter, really know about psychology? Or care? Most, I suspect, simply generalise for dramatic effect from their own observations. And is that bad? Maybe gaining an exhaustive knowledge of the subject simply inhibits creativity? Slows the pace?
Psychopathy and schizophrenia have been the go-to psychological tropes for as long as I can remember. Silence of the Lambs, Psycho (pretty much everything by Hitchcock). Easy to paint a crazed killer with such broad brush cliches. So, in my hubris, I’m determined to write something different. Or at least approach the subject differently. But is there something different? Really?
First stop. I begin research into extreme and exotic mental aberrations: hybristophilia, erotomania, Cotard’s syndrome, Capgras delusion, apotemnophilia. The list seems endless. People do the strangest things. But then it comes to me, such exotic conditions/behaviours might well overwhelm the story. Embarrassingly implausible, though fact based. But I’m still obsessed with uniqueness. Gaining some intellectual advantage, to give me the edge. My research takes me ever closer to home. And I find myself examining the quirky and mundane psychology of day-to-day existence.
A word here about psychology.
Think of psychology, and Freud comes immediately to mind. The psychological pioneer who provided the intellectual framework for the study. (Although, William James, brother of writer Henry James - ‘Turn of the Screw’ – some say, deserves this accolade.) Freud visualised the human mind as a trinity.
Consciousness a ruled (by what he termed) the Ego.
Pre-consciousness ruled by the Super-ego.
Unconsciousness ruled by the Id.
The Id and the Super-ego, Freud posited, are paired, but conflicting components. Each with its own powerful drives and priorities. In the crudest of terms, the Id represents our basic animal drives. The super-ego represents our highest instincts, our unrealistic desire for perfection. It is the Ego’s unenviable task to reconcile the Id and Super-ego to produce practical socially and personally beneficial behaviours. Picture Egos as charioteers. Their powerful horses (Id and Super-ego) need firm handling to move them in the optimum direction. So, here’s where this analogy takes off for writers. There are strong charioteers; there are weak charioteers. And, whether strong or weak, sooner or later a charioteer’s arms get tired, and his concentration fails.
Fast forward to 1998.
Psychologist Roy J Baumeister enacted his famous (in psychological circles, at least) ‘cookies and radishes’ experiment. Experimental details are not important, the findings are. The Ego (charioteer) he noted, gets tired and his grip on the reins becomes less certain. The Ego’s control over the Id and the Super-ego lessens throughout the day. Self-regulation, what us civilians call willpower, becomes more-and-more difficult to exert. Baumeister’s findings are controversial. But they will certainly resonate with everyone who has ever attempted to diet. Easy enough to be sensible at breakfast. Moderately easy to eat sensibly at lunch. All but impossible to moderate the evening meal. He coined the term ‘Ego depletion.’ And, of course, this effect doesn’t just apply to food. All our appetites become more difficult to control when the Ego becomes depleted (whether by fatigue, drugs, alcohol, or illness).
R L Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is deeply flawed in Freudian terms. Mr Hyde representative of the Id, Dr Jekyll the Super-ego. But where was the Ego to reconcile them. To be charitable, the good doctor's potion may have been an ego suppressant. Who knows? J R R Tolkien had no such excuse. His character Gollum/Sméagol has a divided personality, but where’s the element of Ego?
Note to self:
When creating characters for my (soon to be Booker Prize winning) psycho thriller, be ever aware of the triune nature of personality and the fluctuating balance of power between the components.
Look past the big glamorous names like Freud and Jung, to the seminal psychological experimenters of the 20th century who cast light, not on extraordinary mental aberrations, but on our everyday lives. Roy J Baumeister, BF Skinner, Edward Bearnaise, Erik Erikson, Carl Rogers, Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, Martin Zeligman, Wilhelm Reich, Harry Harlow, Mary Ainsworth, Jane Elliot, Solomon Asch, Elizabeth Loftus, Leon Festinger, John B. Watson, Walter Mischel and others (in no particular order).
When attempting a psychological crime thriller, remember, there’s a clue in the title.