Psychological fiction

In literature, psychological fiction (also psychological realism) is a narrative genre that emphasizes interior characterization and motivation to explore the spiritual, emotional, and mental lives of the characters. The mode of narration examines the reasons for the behaviors of the character, which propel the plot and explain the story.[1] Psychological realism is achieved with deep explorations and explanations of the mental states of the character's inner-person, usually through narrative modes such as stream of consciousness and flash back.[2]

Early examples

The Tale of Genji, written in 11th-century Japan, was considered a psychological novel by Jorge Luis Borges.[3] In the west, the origins of the psychological novel can be traced as far back as Giovanni Boccaccio's 1344 Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta; that is before the term psychology was coined.

The first rise of the psychological novel as a genre is said to have started with the sentimental novel of which Samuel Richardson's Pamela is a prime example.

In French literature, Stendhal's The Red and the Black and Madame de La Fayette's The Princess of Cleves are considered early precursors of the psychological novel.[4] The modern psychological novel originated, according to The Encyclopedia of the Novel, primarily in the works of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun – in particular, Hunger (1890), Mysteries (1892), Pan (1894) and Victoria (1898).[5]

Notable examples

The psychological novel has a rich past in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works of Mme de Lafayette, the Abbé Prévost, Samuel Richardson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and many others, but it goes on being disinvented by ideologues and reinvented by their opponents, because the subtleties of psychology defy most ideologies.[6]

One of the greatest writers of the genre was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. His novels deal strongly with ideas, and characters who embody these ideas, how they play out in real world circumstances, and the value of them, most notably The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment.

In the literature of the United States, Henry James, Patrick McGrath, Arthur Miller, and Edith Wharton are considered "major contributor[s] to the practice of psychological realism."[7]


  • Psychological thriller - Psychological thriller is a subgenre of the thriller and psychological novel genres, emphasizing the inner mind and mentality of characters in a creative work. Because of its complexity, the genre often overlaps and/or incorporates elements of mystery, drama, action, slasher, and horror — often psychological horror. It bears similarities to the Gothic and detective fiction genres.[8]
  • Psychological horror - Psychological horror is a subgenre of the horror and psychological novel genres, which psychological, emotionally and mentally relies on the state of characters to generate horror. On occasions, it overlaps with the psychological thriller subgenre to enhance the story suspensefully.
  • Psychological drama - Psychological drama is a subgenre of the drama and psychological novel genres, which focuses upon the emotional, mental and psychological development of characters in a dramatic work.


  1. A Handbook to Literature Fourth Edition (1980), C. Hugh Holma, Ed., pp. 357–358.
  2. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory Third Edition (1991) J.A. Cuddon, Ed. p. 756.
  3. Jorge Luis Borges, The Total Library:
    [The Tale of Genji, as translated by Arthur Waley,] is written with an almost miraculous naturalness, and what interests us is not the exoticism the horrible word but rather the human passions of the novel. Such interest is just: Murasaki's work is what one would quite precisely call a psychological novel. ... I dare to recommend this book to those who read me. The English translation that has inspired this brief insufficient note is called The Tale of Genji.
  4. Paul Schellinger, ed. (2014). "Psychological Novel and Roman d'analyse". Encyclopedia of the Novel. Routledge. p. 1057. ISBN 9781135918262.
  5. Logan, Peter Melville; George, Olakunle; Hegeman, Susan; et al., eds. (2011). "Northern Europe". The Encyclopedia of the Novel, A–Li. Blackwell Publishing. p. 583. ISBN 978-1-4051-6184-8. Retrieved 6 February 2012. The most significant novelist of the Scandinavian countries is Knut Hamsun, who almost singlehandedly created the modern psychological novel through the publication of four works that probe the human subconscious, Sult (1890, Hunger), Mysterier (1892, Mysteries), Pan (1894), and Victoria (1898).
  6. W. J. Leatherbarrow (18 July 2002). The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii. Cambridge University Press. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-521-65473-9.
  7. N. Baym, et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Shorter Seventh Edition, New York: W.W. Norton Co. 2008, p. 1697
  8. Christopher Pittard, Blackwell Reference, Psychological Thrillers, Accessed November 3, 2013, "...characteristics of the genre as “a dissolving sense of reality; reticence in moral pronouncements; obsessive, pathological characters; the narrative privileging of complex, tortured relationships” ( Munt 1994)..."
  • George M. Johnson. Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, U.K., 2006.
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