I am thrilled that one of my favourite authors has made time to visit my blog. Read this fascinating article on point of view by Katharine Johnson, an expert crime novel writer.
So many different types of story fall into the crime fiction genre – cozy, literary, historical, procedural, courtroom drama and psychological all feature a crime, a victim, and a perpetrator. But whereas most of them track the progress of a detective, amateur sleuth or lawyer in their quest to bring the criminal to justice, psychological suspense turns things upside down.
Shown from the point of view of the criminal rather than the detective, it’s not about whodunnit but why they did it.
We might know what they did on the first page (although beware the unreliable narrator) but we want to understand how this can have happened – and where it might lead. So, it’s less about solving a puzzle and more about finding out how it feels to be trapped in that nightmarish situation and how they’ll get out.
I’ve thought a lot about why I find psychological suspense irresistible, as both a reader and writer, and I suppose the main reason is that these criminal POV stories are so relatable. They feature ordinary people who find themselves drawn into an extraordinary situation. I have no experience of being a police officer, lawyer or criminal – but I know what it’s like to be an ordinary person so it’s both easy and deliciously awful to imagine myself in their situation. There but for the grace of God…
The stories take place in familiar settings such as a home, office, or holiday venue, which readers can also relate to very easily. As these are usually considered safe environments it’s deeply disturbing when they come under threat.
Whereas crime stories have traditionally been about good people catching evil ones, the main characters in psychological thrillers tend to be more nuanced. Writers used to be told their characters had to be likeable – now readers, especially psychological crime fan, are accepting of complex people with good and bad elements – as in real life, nobody’s all good or all bad.
Regardless of the crime, however, the reader needs to feel some empathy for the protagonist, so an element of vulnerability helps. Think Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley – although he does terrible things, his choices make sense to the reader because Patricia Highsmith was so skilled at taking us inside his head.
Often, the protagonist is an accidental criminal – at least to begin with. But although they might see themselves as simply victims of circumstance, they’re always to some extent responsible for their situation, because of a fatal flaw, dangerous obsession or bad decision.
It’s probably no surprise that my own books are written from the flawed protagonist’s POV.
The Suspects is about a house share from hell. When five friends discover a body after one of their house parties, it’s obvious they’ll be the first suspects – unless they hide the truth. To stay ahead of the police they have stick together. But can they trust each other?
As Emily, the main character, says, “We weren’t bad people, we just made a bad choice.”
My new novel which is currently with my agent features an even worse dilemma – more news coming soon!
Katharine Johnson is the bestselling author of The Suspects, The Silence, The Secret and Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings. A fan of flawed characters, old houses and all things Italian (except tiramisu), she lives in Berkshire, UK, with her family and spaniel writing buddy who’s always happy to accompany her on plot walks.