I was fifty-two when I started my first manuscript and fifty-six when I signed my first publishing contract. My first two novels, In Her Keeping and Shadow of a Smile, are both categorized as women’s fiction. But I didn’t set out to write “women’s fiction,” I just wrote the stories and let the label come from the publishing professionals. My third novel is classified as historical fiction. Again, I didn’t set out to write historical fiction, but my story begins in 1949. The story I wanted to tell just happens to have taken place the past. But with my fourth novel, A Better Truth, I set out with purpose and determination to write a psychological thriller.
Since I was new to writing this sort of novel, I had to do some research to find out what readers expect from a psychological thriller. This is what I learned:
Physical Strength vs. Mental Resources: In a psychological thriller, the characters don’t rely on their own physical strength to overcome the villains. Instead, they use their mental resources. Often the villains are not external, but internal, like phobias, fears, unhealthy urges, or mental illness. The conflicts unfold through deception, mind games, and manipulation. The villain may try to push our hero to the brink of insanity, or make them question their own reality. Sounds like fun, right?
Dissolving Sense of Reality: Stephen King’s books are a great example of what readers love about the psychological thriller. He begins with a story that seems firmly grounded in the real world. This sense of reality dissolves so gradually that we stay with him as he moves us into the supernatural.
Complex, Tortured Characters: Whether obsessive, pathological, or mentally deranged, the characters in a psychological thriller usually experience life differently than those of us who are, to a greater or lesser degree, normal. But at least on the surface, they have to appear to be just like the rest of us. Like our friends and neighbors.
Unreliable Narrator: The unreliable narrator is a first-person account given by a character whose credibility is compromised. In other words, he or she is not trustworthy. This character may be unintentionally unreliable because they are naive, like a child. Or, their unreliability could be intentional because they have something to hide, or sinister ulterior motives. This unreliability may be revealed gradually, or it may come in the form of a single revelation or major plot twist.
Setting: Psychological thrillers are often set in dark, isolated places like Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley in her novel Rebecca, or in claustrophobic domestic settings like in V.C. Andrews’ novel, Flowers in the Attic. These novels are often set in familiar places, with familiar subjects and relationships. The thrill in the psychological thriller comes from the idea that what is happening to your main character could happen to you.
Common Themes: Characters may be unstable because of guilt or obsession. They may struggle with perception, reality, identity, delusions, and paranoia. Questions about the true nature of humanity will be raised, though probably not answered.
As with any mystery, don’t forget the red herrings, keep those main characters as unstable as possible, and sprinkle everything with a generous dose of dread. And finally, make sure the reader doesn’t learn the truth until our hero does.
These elements of the psychological thriller opened the door to all sorts of new possibilities for my novel, A Better Truth. My protagonist, Willow, was already quirky, but I was able to magnify her quirkiness as she begins to fall apart. Willow has a difficult time coping with the “busy-ness” of her life. As she becomes more stressed out, she struggles to recognize the difference between reality and hallucination, nightmare and memory. There’s a traumatic event from her childhood that she’s trying very hard to forget. And the harder she tries to suppress it, the more these symptoms manifest. What fun!
Since I enjoy reading psychological thrillers, I don’t know why I was so surprised to discover that I would enjoy writing them. I think I had more fun with this book than with any of the other three. I’m not sure whether my genre hopping is something a publishing professional would recommend, but that’s what I’m doing. Currently, I’m working on a detective thriller series, a dystopian adventure, and a literary adventure story about African lions. I used to force myself to work on one project at a time, and I think there was a good reason for that. This is what happens when you break your own rules. Alas, it’s a journey that never fails to surprise me.
Valerie Joan Connors is the author of four novels, A Better Truth (Deeds Publishing, 2016), A Promise Made (Deeds Publishing, 2015), Shadow of a Smile (Deeds Publishing, 2014) and In Her Keeping (Bell Bridge Books, 2013). The child of an artist and a musician, Valerie was born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a long time ago. Her family moved her out west, where she spent her formative years in Eugene, Oregon. Then she bounced up and down the west coast, spending time in San Diego, Seattle, and Portland, before her job as a software consultant brought her to Atlanta in 1996, the same day as the Olympic torch. Valerie credits her association with the Atlanta Writers Club for the fact that her four novels were both written and published. She has served on the AWC Board since 2011 in nearly every capacity, including as AWC President from 2013 to 2015. She continues to serve as the VP of Programming and Officer Emerita. During business hours, Valerie is the CFO of an engineering firm. She is a dog person, and supports lion, tiger, and elephant conservation efforts, and hopes to raise awareness through her writing. Valerie lives in Norcross with her husband and two rescue dogs, and is working on her next novel. Find out more about Valerie and her books on her website: valeriejoanconnors.com
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