Psychological Fiction

Students reading books

Whether you’re all curled up on the sofa during a thunderstorm, or relaxing on a lounge chair at the beach, a good book can take your imagination on endless possibilities. Now when it comes to a good read, some people enjoy a mystery or thriller while others prefer a romance or historical fiction. And, of course, there are those who can’t get enough science fiction or fantasy. But a genre that can be a part of all the previously mentioned forms of fiction is psychological fiction.

Psychological fiction, also commonly known as psychological realism, involves a deep exploration into the character or characters’ mental state to explain who they are and what their motivations and reasons are for how they behave. Featuring stories that emphasize a character’s motives and resulting responses that come from an exterior source, the psychological novel is defined by as a work of fiction in which:

“…the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the characters are of equal or greater interest than is the external action of the narrative. In a psychological novel the emotional reactions and internal states of the characters are influenced by and in turn trigger external events in a meaningful symbiosis.”1

This explanation makes it easy to see how psychological fiction influences other literary genres. It should also be pointed out that psychological fiction has its own subgenres as well. The four main subgenres include:

Psychological Thriller – features a character suffering from an unstable mental or emotional state or other form of an extreme psychological disorder. The disorder causes the character to behave in a way that conflicts with societal norms. A modern example of a psychological thriller is “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson.

Psychological Horror – similar to the psychological thriller subgenre, the character deals with intense and psychological states that disturbing, frightening and horrific. A classic example is Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

Psychological Drama – details the inner life and psychological problems of a character. It involves characters being pitted against each other in a way that involves mental struggles versus physical ones. Examples of the psychological drama include “12 Angry Men” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Psychological Science Fiction – incorporates the other psychological subgenres in a futuristic or fantasy setting. A common aspect is a character’s internal struggle in dealing with some form of technological or political entity or establishment. Examples include “A Clockwork Orange” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

So, if you’re looking for a good read and are a fan of stories exploring the dark or disturbing areas of the human psyche, psychological fiction is the perfect choice for a little literary escapism. The biggest drawback though, is wading through all the great titles to determine what your next read will be.

5 Classic Examples of Psychological Fiction

It goes without saying that countless books can be tied back to the psychological fiction genre. Below are 5 classic examples of psychological fiction to get you started:

  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – “Crime and Punishment focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished St. Petersburg ex-student who formulates and executes a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her money. Raskolnikov argues that with the pawnbroker’s money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the act, while ridding the world of a worthless parasite. The murder is also committed to test Raskolnikov’s hypothesis that some people are naturally able and have the right to murder. Despite his rationale, Raskolnikov struggles with extreme guilt and fear once the act is committed.”2
  2. Cover of the book Of Mice and MenOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – “A controversial tale of friendship and tragedy during the Great Depression. They are an unlikely pair: George is “small and quick and dark of face”; Lennie, a man of tremendous size, has the mind of a young child. Yet they have formed a “family,” clinging together in the face of loneliness and alienation. Laborers in California’s dusty vegetable fields, they hustle work when they can, living a hand-to-mouth existence. For George and Lennie have a plan: to own an acre of land and a shack they can call their own. When they land jobs on a ranch in the Salinas Valley, the fulfillment of their dream seems to be within their grasp. But even George cannot guard Lennie from the provocations of a flirtatious woman, nor predict the consequences of Lennie’s unswerving obedience to the things George taught him.”3
  3. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – “Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the powerful, classic story about a man who receives an operation that turns him into a genius…and introduces him to heartache. Charlie Gordon is about to embark upon an unprecedented journey. Born with an unusually low IQ, he has been chosen as the perfect subject for an experimental surgery that researchers hope will increase his intelligence-a procedure that has already been highly successful when tested on a lab mouse named Algernon. As the treatment takes effect, Charlie’s intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment appears to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance, until Algernon suddenly deteriorates. Will the same happen to Charlie?”4
  4. The Shining by Stephen King – “Jack Torrance’s new job at the Overlook Hotel is the perfect chance for a fresh start. As the off-season caretaker at the atmospheric old hotel, he’ll have plenty of time to spend reconnecting with his family and working on his writing. But as the harsh winter weather sets in, the idyllic location feels ever more remote . . . and more sinister. And the only one to notice the strange and terrible forces gathering around the Overlook is Danny Torrance, a uniquely gifted five-year-old.”5
  5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey – “An international bestseller and the basis for the hugely successful film, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the defining works of the 1960s. In this classic novel, Ken Kesey’s hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy, a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel who swaggers into the world of a mental hospital and takes over. A lusty, life-affirming fighter, McMurphy rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of Nurse Ratched. He promotes gambling in the ward, smuggles in wine and women, and openly defies the rules at every turn. But this defiance, which starts as a sport, soon develops into a grim struggle, an all-out war between two relentless opponents: Nurse Ratched, backed by the full power of authority, and McMurphy, who has only his own indomitable will. What happens when Nurse Ratched uses her ultimate weapon against McMurphy provides the story’s shocking climax.”6