Psychology in Fiction


Over the last few years, I've been writing fiction. For decades, I've been a psychiatrist. As a novelist, I now write with a reader's sensibility, and read with a writer's eye. I'm struck by the degree to which fiction and psychology share certain crucial elements.

Human functioning can be conceptualized as involving thinking, feeling and behavior. These three elements are the very pillars of being.

Fiction taps into these foundations of existence by using the written word to evoke mental images, which in turn, beget thoughts and feelings. A novelist creates a world for the reader to enter, and to which the reader relates. This is the essence of storytelling.

If the connection is a positive one, the reader is drawn into the tale. The reader must relate to the story's protagonist for the read to be enjoyable. It's somewhat akin to meeting a person for the first time. If there's chemistry, a relationship begins.

To fall under the novelist's "spell", the reader must experience and relate to how the protagonist thinks, feels, and behaves. Without that connection, there's little motivation to continue the relationship. The book is cast aside.

The element of plot is important. But, if the character's thoughts, feelings or behaviors are vapid, the plot is nothing more than a linear series of events with little meaning.

So, the first questions a writer must answer are: who is this character, and why should a reader care about what befalls the person? To put it bluntly, character counts. It's nearly everything. Essentially, the psychology of fiction is the psychology of life. The reader must care about the character for the novel to strike a responsive chord. The goal is to immerse the reader into the commonality of life experience, establishing oneness with the protagonist's thoughts, feelings, and situation.

Think about the tsunami of some years ago. In that disaster, 250,000 people lost their lives within the span of a few hours. While we were horrified by the magnitude of the event, most of us went about our day, as usual. But, if one person who died had been a loved one, our reactions would have been profoundly different.

Caring about someone counts. Very deeply.

While all people are different, in some respects, we share the same cognitive and emotional repertoires. We all can feel horror, fear, lust, humor, anger, guilt, love, hate and every other emotional variant. And when we pick up a novel, we want to experience the mental and emotional lives of the characters, living vicariously through them.

Think of today's bestsellers, those that remain at the top of the charts for many weeks or months. They all have thought-provoking characters who rivet us. In Gone Girl, Nick and Amy Dunne capture us with their marital difficulties and myopically self-serving distortions. The Goldfinch focuses on Theo Decker, a troubled youngster struggling with the loss of his mother, dealing with a remote father, and trying to find his way through a duplicitous world. Whether it's All the Light We Cannot See, or The Nightingale, each story plumbs the pillars of existence: how and why the characters think, feel, and behave as they do.

This is true for all fiction, whether it's literary, romance, sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries, or any other genre. Whether you're reading Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes and rooting for Bill Hodges; Don Winslow's The Cartel, worrying about Art Keller; a Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly; David Morrell's stunning Victorian novel, Inspector of the Dead, where Thomas De Quincey works Sherlockian magic; Jon Land's Strong Darkness, featuring Caitlin Strong; or any Linda Fairstein novel with Alex Cooper -- the protagonist's character is crucial. It marries the reader to the novel. And, that connection can linger long after the book has been read.

Psychology is everything in life, and in fiction.

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel is The Lovers' Tango