Genre Breakdown: Psychological Fiction

Melissa Lee & Ciara Seccombe
August 27, 2022

Human Experiences: The Narrative

From speculation to paranoia, indecision to overthinking, self-perception to existentialism. Sometimes psychological fiction feels like a punch to the gut. What’s permissible in these stories is only limited by the subjective nature of human experience. With its most well-known and popular subgenres being psychological thriller, psychological horror, psychological sci-fi/dystopia and psychological drama, psychological fiction is an extremely diverse . . . and interesting dissection of our darkest depths.

As the name suggests, psychological fiction digs deep into mental, emotional and spiritual issues. Intimate narration, often employing stream-of-consciousness or epistolary styles, propels the plot through the examination (and subsequent validation, though not always justification) of the motivations behind the characters’ actions. It’s distinguishable from other literary fiction genres by its focus of casting doubt on personal experience, a focus on characterisation with a deep-seated absence of a strong sense of self. Psychological elements mix well with the sci-fi and dystopian genres as they already commentate on socio-cultural, economic and political issues through speculative allegory.

Perhaps it is because the genre does not shy away from our innermost insecurities and messy emotions that it has produced many acclaimed (and controversial) titles. Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a classic, received much criticism for its commentary on ethics, politics, desperation and self-preservation by playing on the human anxiety that savagery is innate, civilisation is an illusion and our nature does not belong entirely to our minds. More recently, Normal People by Sally Rooney has divided people with its bleak take on romance, social class and social status.

Common Character Archetypes

Since ‘psychological fiction’ is an umbrella term for literature that explores the depths of the human psyche, it thrives on exploring a wide range of characters that challenge or reinforce the ideals of the protagonist. Naturally, the human experience is so diverse that it is difficult to reduce them to simple archetypes. Not to mention, these archetypes all function in different ways depending on the subgenre. However, an antagonistic party or entity that remains elusive to the protagonist is typical of the genre. Tangible antagonists are commonly used as vehicles for larger social commentary. They help guide the narrative and point your finger in the right direction. They’re purposely set up to make you understand that there’s always a bigger power at play, be it a system, construct, authority or a figment of imagination. So on, so forth. Antagonists in psychological fiction often represent a philosophical idea or hold up a dark mirror to the protagonist.

Mentors and guides are symbolic of philosophical ideas. Dusik from Sweet Home is a typical case of an older, wiser being giving critical advice to the protagonist. Though mentors are often higher on the social hierarchy due to age or occupation, psychological fiction that deals with existentialism may present the guide archetype as a close friend in a similar circumstance but with a more philosophical or objective take on the situation. These may double up as a moral compass or mediator. While the gist of all psychological fiction is that humans are inherently flawed, the moral compass is there to bring the protagonist out of their head, or an echo chamber, and help ground the narrative and themes. In summary, the mentor and moral compass archetypes are not mutually exclusive, but they can exist as separate characters in the story. 

A love interest is usually included when exploring romance and sexual impulses as motivations for a character. However, the active presence of a love interest in the grand scheme of the story can vary depending on the subgenre. In some cases, attraction can be a healthy motivator, though the protagonist’s happy ending is not guaranteed. Broken romance is often used to explore things like the stages of grief, toxic relationship cycles, victim mindset, attachment styles and trauma responses through a psychological lens. The love interest is often as much a plot device as a character.

Genre Conventions

Unreliable Narrators

Being stuck in your own mind can jumble up your thoughts into an incoherent knot. Similarly, psychological genre protagonists tend to be unreliable narrators, as they get tunnel vision from their experiences. Big shocker: this ensures the plot is rife with miscommunication and intrusive thoughts that only get closure when protagonists gain new perspectives from a story they didn’t consider. When paced correctly, unreliable narrators’ helplessness can make the reader sympathetic towards them. When it is rushed, they can feel a little insufferable. 

Feeling Watched

The unsettling feeling of being stalked or watched from afar is the bread and butter of psychological horror. In the drama subgenre, a sense of being judged or hearing whispers in the hallways may give the protagonist nervous chills. This takes the experience of self-consciousness to the point where you are unsure if the characters have reason to be paranoid or their gut instinct is going to save them in the next 100 pages.


Tragedy often takes place prior to the events of the story, which then deals with the mental and emotional fallout following the event. A death, accident or severe case of social isolation, shunning or bullying shapes the protagonist and/or their posse to give the reader foundation upon which to build their understanding. Contextual circumstances set the characters up to make decisions that incite the main plot, sometimes with a sense of needing to risk it all to mentally, emotionally or physically overcome it.

Moral Dilemmas

Devices that unleash Pandora's Box of doubt, inner conflict and suppressed emotions. A psychological genre dilemma may not require a literal life or death sacrifice (socially or literally), but it may play on the hesitance to reveal a heavy secret. To weigh personal interests against the interests of others, or even against ‘the greater good’. The stakes of a moral dilemma rely on mortal danger to the sense of self. Psychological literature loves to wade in these grey areas of morality and ethics.

The Spiral

Psychological fiction hones in on the darker emotions that plague the human psyche. These may be worsened by substance abuse, mental illness or other exacerbating circumstances. Psychological plots are interior and follow the unravelling or reshaping of a character, or at least their perception of themselves. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is at the climax of the plot. 

The Epiphany

As you near the conclusion of the story, things suddenly click into place. Understanding ‘the way out’, uncovering the identity of the true enemy, having one’s outlook on life changed. I consider this a genre convention because cleverly written psychological fiction brings the reader to the realisation at the same time as the protagonist. Though both may have figured out where some of the puzzle pieces fit, it’s at this point that the full picture comes into view, providing clarity that leads to their actions to resolve the conflict. It can begin to feel a bit formulaic after a while, especially in the thriller, horror and mystery subgenres. In the age of information, it’s a tall order to offer new societal critique. I’d argue that the value of the psychological epiphany lies in its function as a gateway to critical discussion and its ability to expand readers’ capacity to empathise with the journey the characters have endured.

Iconic Literature

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies is notorious for its brutal outlook on human nature, portrayed through the cast of young schoolboys. Human impulses, anarchy and mass hysteria are some of the main themes being unpacked the longer the boys are away from civilisation. The book explores humanity’s deepest anxieties regarding the line between humans and animals, and it provides commentary on the extent to which we are shaped by our fallible circumstances.

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

Considered Osamu Dazai’s masterpiece, No Longer Human (人間失格) chronicles the life of Oba Yozo and examines sexual abuse and trauma, social alienation, self-destructive behaviour, addiction and attempted suicide. The literal translation, Disqualified From Being Human, begs the question of what we define humanity to be and whether expectations of psychological function can be overcome. It showcases how deeply-scarring events breed insecurities and unhealthy coping mechanisms, and how they impact the way humans build relationships with others.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Plath’s work is known for its expression of feeling stifled and helpless. The Bell Jar functions as a semi-autobiographical text – as a reflection of Plath’s experience with depression portrayed through the main character, Esther Greenwood. Exploration of the psychological toll of institutional misogyny, sexuality, violence, psychotic depression, attempted suicide and what it means to come out the other side makes this book an intense read.

Sweet Home by Kim Carnby and Hwang Youngchan

Set during an apocalypse in Korea, Sweet Home combines Kim Carnby's chilling writing and Hwang Youngchan's monochromatic illustration to explore the intensity of human desire, compassion, fear, resentment and willpower. Cha Hyun-soo is a recently orphaned, suicidal high-schooler, who gets caught in a nationwide phenomena of people turning into human-eating monsters after hearing a voice promising to give them their greatest desire. Over the course of the horror/thriller webtoon, readers gain insight into the shallow, selfless and underlying motivations of the residents of the building they are trapped in – all whilst Hyun-soo starts showing signs of monsterising himself.

The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter

The Cold War era saw a boom in psychological fiction. The new anxieties that came with the espionage war between the United States and Soviet Union, the invention of the atomic bomb and the threat of mutually assured destruction cultivated a paranoid population and fertile new ground for psychological literature. The Dumb Waiter explores the fear of powerlessness in the face of a higher authority with a claustrophobic set, menacing atmosphere and a masterful showcase of the psychological power of the emerging absurdist movement. Over the course of the show, Pinter explores power, politics and individuality. The Dumb Waiter contrasts small talk and workplace relations with mystery and deadly intrigue, defamilairising the banal and humanising the horrible. The play is considered one of Pinter’s greatest works and a hallmark of Cold War era psychological absurdism.

Other Notable Works

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare