Psychological thriller novels – the best books in the psychological thriller genre
The psychological thriller is one of the subgenres of action-rich literature. Its main distinctive difference is the concentration on the emotional state and psyche of the characters. Psychological thriller novels are often characterized by a tense storyline built around mystery. They have, unsurprisingly, a psychological effect on the reader, creating a tense, suspenseful atmosphere, and tend to surprise with unexpected plot twists. Other components of the psychological thriller are fear, anxiety, foreboding and mental trauma.
Psychological thrillers should not be confused with works of magical realism!
In a typical psychological thriller, the characters rely not on physical strength or prowess, but on the mind and thinking. In many cases, the enemies they confront are not external but internal, such as madness, phobias, emotional outbursts, fear. But even when the adversary is another character, conflicts mainly develop through mind games, deception, manipulation and tricks whose purpose is to upset the hero’s mental balance.
10 Best Psychological Thriller Novels and their Key Components
Regardless of the plot, location and number of actors, the following key components are inherent in a psychological thriller:
- In a psychological thriller novel, the hero often cannot be classified as a positive or negative character. Such heroes often make readers doubt themselves and wonder about the concept of the good, the evil, and the massive grey area in between. The boundaries between the positive and the negative are erased to cause more confusion and concern for both the character and the reader.
What to read: a Psychological Thriller Novel “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn
- Psychological thriller novels have to elicit a sharp emotional response from the reader, often affecting the most disturbing emotions. On a more superficial level, danger and cruelty arise, whose job is to cause fright in the reader. Psychological instability and confusion enhance the emotional effect further. Characters of psychological novels are at risk of mental rather than physical danger, and are fighting internal demons to the point where no external influence can produce a greater danger.
What to read: Frank Tillier’s “Dream”
- The psychological thriller seeks to arouse anxiety in the reader. This type of novels uses a tense atmosphere not only to create a plot, but also as a means of psychological influence, whose task is to escalate an alarming atmosphere as the plot develops. The emphasis is on the personal qualities of one of the characters, usually the main character. Convicts, serial killers, psychopaths, obsessed and mentally ill often act as heroes, and it is often not until the very end that the reader finds out about their tendencies.
What to read: “Therapy” by Sebastian Fitzeck
- The psychological thriller explores processes related to consciousness and the subconscious: hallucinations, dreams, visions and illusions. Subjective realities that arise during the “mind games” mix with reality, creating a feeling of confusion and insecurity. In such books it is impossible to know for sure what is real and what is but a figment of the hero’s imagination.
What to read: “The Shining” by Stephen King
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- Psychological thriller refers to flashbacks. This is not a mandatory, but a common element of the genre. Flashbacks allow you to see the events that happened in the past of the hero, and give the reader the opportunity to better understand the motives of his actions.
What to read: “My Alien Daughter” by Sam Hayes
- A characteristic feature of psychological thriller novels are unexpected plot twists. As a rule, they happen shortly before the finale, turning the story upside down, although some of the most gripping thrillers can have them literally at any point. In such cases, no matter how diligently the reader searches for clues in the course of the plot, she still finds herself unable to predict the ending.
What to read: Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island”
- Most psychological thriller novels take place in cities. The countryside or natural landscapes are less commonly used in this subgenre. Closed spaces causing claustrophobia are also often used. This enhances the feeling of physical limitation and impossibility of flight. In addition, they serve as an allegory of the unstable mental state of the hero, whose consciousness is locked in the body, as if in prison, causing further anxiety and despair.
What to read: A Psychological Thriller Novel “Room” by Emma Donoghue
- In psychological thrillers, the main conflict unfolds in the mind, or the hero’s struggle is waged through it. The intellectual abilities and savvy characters play a paramount role in both the emergence of problems and in the search for possible solutions. Heroes achieve their goals not with the help of physical strength, but using the power of the mind, imagination and intelligence.
What to read: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
- Psychological thrillers often use such a literary device as stream of consciousness – a technique that allows you to see events from the point of view of a specific character, which illustrates how he or she thinks from the inside. The narrative seeks to reflect the psychological portrait of the hero through his speech, assessment and judgment. Such a character is not always, however, a reliable storyteller who can be trusted.
What to read: “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk
- Topics that are raised in psychological thriller novels affect the relationship of the main character and the people around him, his perception of reality, his fears, attempts to find the meaning of life and the fear of death. Quite often, the heroes are driven by guilty feelings for a past deed, and fear of subsequent exposure. Another “trigger” that gives rise to fear may be an obsession with the character, the desire to achieve something unattainable.
What to read: “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith
We hope that, after having read this brief overview of 10 best psychological thriller novels (each of which illustrates one of the 10 key components of a successful psychological thriller) you will feel inspired to try writing one on your own. For those looking to become the next New York Times bestselling author, check out our 10 tips for writing a novel!