To be honest, I didn’t know that my very first novel belonged to the psychological thriller genre when I wrote it.
I first discovered this from the rejection letters I was getting from the publishers whom I sent the first draft of my novel Die Therapie (Therapy) back in 2002. Out of 15 publishing houses I wrote to, 12 politely declined, three still haven’t replied to this day. The ones who did wrote things like: “Unfortunately, we don’t see a market at the moment for psychological thrillers in Germany.”
I thought: “Oh, interesting. So that’s what they see my work as.” I hadn’t given any thought to genre and simply wrote down the kind of thriller tale that I myself liked to read.
I always keep the following checklist in mind when writing. It first originated after I’d started my career, mainly due to my constantly interacting with journalists who keep asking what differentiates my psychological thrillers from other thrillers.
1. Everyday life, everyday life, everyday life
One definition that makes sense to me, and it’s not a new one, explains a psychological thriller as when evil creeps into a seemingly routine everyday life situation.
In The Package, for instance, the main protagonist is confronted with a situation that could hardly be any more routine. Emma Stein is supposed to accept a package for a neighbor. Something that every one of us with the slightest measure of social skills has probably done at one time or another. Emma’s only problem? She doesn’t know the recipient. And this is despite the fact that she lives on a very small street where she thought she really did know everyone personally.
By receiving the package, by doing a very everyday thing, that is, she’s letting evil into the one place where she feels the safest—inside her own four walls.
The Package stayed at the top of the bestseller lists the longest of all my works, and I’m firmly convinced that it’s because this book includes a What-if question that nearly every reader could ask themselves. Few of us work as investigators or are experts in forensics or know how to hunt down a psychopath. But every one of us has received a package before.
Another important thing: The more a psychological thriller has its origins in a comprehensible everyday situation, the more unfamiliar you can make the world that draws the reader in via the storyline.
2. Family, family, family
It’s a widely held view that every great novel is a story about family. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, whether classic literature or a popcorn movie. If that’s true, then it applies even more so for psychological thrillers.
Evil, like Good, nearly always has its origins in childhood. And this is deeply intertwined with family. Everyone has one. A harmonious one, a lost one, a neglected one, one cruel or beloved. Everyone associates some longing with family, for finding or maintaining one in a positive sense, for breaking free from one in a negative one.
One reason why psychological thrillers are so popular with a large readership is the fact that they show us the motivations of people who perform unimaginable deeds, whether the heroes or their adversaries. In the case of domestic violence, for instance, we come to understand why a perpetrator would want to physically and psychologically torture his partner. But we also hope to gain insight into why the victim stays with their partner and often won’t get free of them for years despite the cruelty.
We find the psychological causes in childhood. And in the family along with it. That’s not a cliché, but a fact. After living a fulfilling life as an administrator, no such person just decides to forego golfing today, on their 65th birthday, in favor of going down in the basement to torture the female neighbor.
Those kinds of storylines require a damaged psyche, and this damage has its origins in childhood. For a psychological thriller, it’s therefore essential to focus heavily on the familial network of the character taking action.
3. Don’t research too early
Psychological thrillers spirit us away into worlds that partly seem fantastical. They deal with exceptional psychological phenomena that partially seem supernatural to us. For example, there are the oft-discussed clinical characteristics of multiple personalities. Some time ago during my research, I came across a patient in France who was found to have a multitude of personalities “residing” in her. The amazing part: While the woman was being treated for her blindness, another self revealed itself during treatment, and I was able to see this other self!
We authors of psychological thrillers especially shouldn’t ever forget that we’re not writing specialized nonfiction but a novel for entertainment. This is all the more important when you’re confronted with so many astonishing phenomena and facts while researching that you’re tempted to find a home for all of them in your psychological thriller.
Even worse is when you have an expert check your story too early on. Let’s be clear about one thing: Every novel is a lie, and every good lie has a kernel of truth that in our case has a well-researched basis of fact. Research is absolutely necessary. It just shouldn’t come too early and never before you have a good grasp of the story you’re actually dealing with.
When I once asked a psychiatrist as to whether a mental disorder I’d supposedly invented was conceivable, he waved away the notion and said, “Oh, you wouldn’t believe all the things we’ve seen.” And then he started telling me about mental conditions I found a thousand times more interesting than the one I was basing my book on. The only problem: None of it fit my storyline. And that storyline is why a reader opens the book. Otherwise, they might as well buy a nonfiction one.
4. Never hurt a dog
Dexter and all those before him were telling us about the three childhood signs of evil: Playing with fire, wetting the bed, torturing animals. Above I pointed out the importance of family bonds. So when analyzing the perpetrator, at least, there would have to be fairly frequent accounts of animal cruelty. I’d also advise some caution here.
When asked about what was taboo, Hitchcock once said: “Never hurt a child.” Today’s version of that: “Never hurt a dog.” And as an animal lover and dog owner, I can definitely relate. Explicit animal torture really gets people down. A work does have to retain authenticity of course and the author shouldn’t bend to readers’ preferences alone. It might even be necessary for you to, as I did in my first novel, describe a woman killing her dog when she was a child—precisely for her to discover, after years of therapy in which she considers herself a cruel animal torturer not worthy of living, that she never even had a dog. A true case, taken from the diary of an actual living schizophrenic.
If you however do decide to write about that, then just be aware that you’ll be getting tons of mail from readers, a few of which include praise.
5. What flaws do you have?
The more unusual the crimes, thoughts, and underlying psychological phenomena, afflictions, and disorders we’re writing about, the more comprehensible they’ll need to be. So here’s a tip that I hope won’t offend: Analyze your own flaws.
One day a psychiatrist friend opened my eyes with an example from everyday life. “Sebastian,” he said, “you must be looking at your phone fifty times a day to check emails. If you ran outside to your mailbox fifty times a day, your neighbors would recommend you be committed to an institution after one week. No one has any problem though if you do that with your electronic mailbox.”
That was when I first knew I’m suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. And second, that I’d found the starting point for when I’m trying to describe how a character feels who needs to wash their hands a hundred times a day.
I don’t know you personally, I don’t know what behavioral issues you might discover in yourself, but maybe they could be used for the next psychological thriller instead of being so repressed.