As a psychological thriller writer, I love delving into the mindsets and motivations of my characters - what makes them tick and do the things they do - while setting this against everyday set-ups we can all relate to, as readers. Whether that be the workplace, on holiday, a marriage, or indeed in the context of a family or friendship scenario. It’s this close to the bone feeling that makes the genre so compelling for me, because we can all picture ourselves in a given situation, while the darker traits of human nature psychological thrillers tend to explore are all ones that we have the potential to fall foul of, as fallible human beings. Secrets and lies are a good example of this. At some point in our lives, all of us will have held a secret or told a lie, however big or small. It’s human nature. Secrets and lies permeate every level of society and in thrillers they tend to relate to something bad or unsavoury because of course this is what thriller fiction is about. It would be very bland and dull otherwise! Readers want to be intrigued, to feel on edge, to feel the tension, conflict and sense of dread and unease between characters as they turn the pages, so what better than a juicy secret to achieve this and keep them gripped? And when such secrets and lies exist between family and friends it can ramp up that intrigue and suspense we want from our thrillers that much more because we, as readers, know the ultimate reveal and impact is going to be huge and potentially very destructive.
In my latest psychological thriller, The Final Party, three couples gather in a luxury villa high in the hills above the glamorous town of Sorrento for the seemingly perfect fortieth birthday celebration. But their idyllic week in paradise rapidly descends into the holiday from hell when one of the group starts receiving anonymous text messages threatening to expose a dark secret from their university days, and before long one of them is dead.
But it is not just the fear of one secret from nearly two decades ago being exposed that is haunting my characters. Each of them is plagued by their own individual secrets which is driving a wedge between them, leading to the mind games and sense of mutual mistrust and unease which typifies the psychological thriller genre. As the plot unfolds the reader is gradually let into such secrets while the characters continue to keep them from each other. The continuing suspense for the reader lies in wondering when such secrets will be found out and what the fall-out will be when that happens.
But what makes secrets and lies between friends and family so compelling for readers? For me, the answer to that questions lies in the fact that families and friends are our support systems, the people who we trust completely, and who we rely on to be honest with us and have our backs. That being said, when they lie to us and keep potentially harmful secrets from us, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, while the guilt and shame of the person at fault can take its toll and lead to the gradual erosion of such relationships along with escalating feelings of suspicion between them. There is a famous William Blake saying which I feel encapsulates this perfectly: ‘It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.’ What he of course meant by this is that we all expect our enemies to lie to us, but it’s the last thing we expect from our nearest and dearest, and so the potential for us to react in a rash or explosive way is that much greater.
Guilt and fear are feelings that tend to feature heavily in psychological thrillers, and often stem from a character holding a dark secret they are at pains to keep buried because they fear the consequences of it being exposed, and yet at the same time the guilt and shame they feel for deceiving their loved ones almost destroys them. I think most people can empathise with this. It’s very rare for a person not to feel conflicting emotions of fear and guilt, unless they are a sociopath of course! Again, this is what makes the psychological thriller so relatable and therefore compelling.
Of course, just because a given character has a secret they are tormented by this doesn’t necessarily make them the ultimate culprit in the overall story, but what it does do is give them more complexity and depth as a human being, which I think readers appreciate because we all have light and shade to us, and it’s important to show a character’s redeeming side. It also serves as an effective red herring, particularly in multiple person narratives where the reader is privy to various characters’ secrets and lies, all of them with the potential to be the ultimate culprit in the overall story, and so keeps them guessing until the hopefully explosive denouement.
It's human nature to be intrigued by secrets and lies when they aren’t your own, especially when they exist between friends and family because the potential outcome is that much more destructive. It’s a theme I’m sure will continue to hold infinite appeal for psychological thriller lovers far and wide until the end of time.
The Final Party by AA Chaudhuri. (Hera Books) Out Now
Six friends. In a luxury villa set high in the hills above the glamorous town of Sorrento, southern Italy, three couples gather for the perfect 40th birthday celebration. One body. Before the week is out, one of them is dead. Countless lies. Their perfect reunion quickly becomes the holiday from hell when one of the group starts receiving anonymous messages, threatening to expose a dark secret from their university days. As old friendships are tested to the limit, it's clear that what happens in the dark past won't stay buried...