Friday 21 June 2024

A.A. Chaudhuri on the importance of strong characterisation in the Psychological Thriller genre

There are many reasons why I love the psychological thriller genre. An iconic twist, spine-tingling tension, the classic unreliable narrator, and sinister mind games are just some of its timeless traits that make it such an enthralling, memorable and addictive genre.

But for me, in order for those attributes to flourish and really resonate with readers, it is vital to get the characterisation right. First and foremost, it’s the characters who are driving the plot forward and everything they do and say has an immense bearing on other important aspects like tension and suspense, or even whether a twist is believable. If, as an author, I have not developed my characters enough to make them feel real and believable, then it is unlikely that my readers will be invested in the story. After all, the clue is in the name: ‘psychological’ thriller. Fundamentally, this means that as an author I must step into the shoes of my characters, penetrating their psyches as deeply as possible, and really get to grips with what makes them tick as people. This can either be done through the first- or third-person narrative – I prefer the first person because I find it more effective, but it’s very much the author’s choice. If I have not infiltrated my character’s mindset, then it is unlikely everything else that makes this genre so compelling will fall into place. For example, if my unreliable narrator is bland and one-dimensional, they will not be so intriguing or believable because I have not shown the reader what drives and haunts them, thereby making them unreliable. Likewise, if I have not dropped in subtle clues and insights into my character’s nature or behaviour in the meat of the book, a final twist related to that particular character might not make as much sense, leaving the reader feeling at best deflated, at worst cheated.

Strong characterisation has a knock-on effect on everything we deem essential in a good psychological thriller. Unlike in a straight thriller, where there is often a fair amount of physical conflict, in the psychological thriller we focus on the characters’ inner conflict, their mental mind games with each other, also played out through dialogue. A reader needs to ‘feel’ a character’s tension, to ‘hear’ the fear in their voices, to understand by essentially ‘penetrating’ their brains what is motivating them to behave in the way they do, for all the other core characteristics of the genre to work. It is the characters’ experiences, thoughts, hang-ups, emotions, and actions that are driving the story, rather than physical action, and so the tension we expect from this genre will come from getting inside those characters’ heads and understanding what is at stake for them.

In my new psychological thriller, Under Her Roof, struggling writer – Sebastian - rents a room in the palatial Hampstead mansion of beautiful mysterious widow, Adriana. The rent is ridiculously cheap and despite his misgivings which centre around Adriana’s strange rules and the fact that the previous lodger died under tragic circumstances, Sebastian cannot resist taking her up on her offer. Things soon take an ominous turn for Sebastian when he realises that both he and his landlady are being watched, and that the terrifying situation he finds himself in may be linked to Adriana’s troubled past.

From very early on, the reader is made aware that both landlady and tenant are hiding dark secrets; secrets that haunt and inspire all sorts of negative feelings in them – guilt, fear, shame, to name but a few. We do not know what those secrets are initially, of course, but we know from the negative emotions they feel and from how tormented they are, that they cannot be good. In this way, the tension accelerates and we, the readers, have no idea if we can trust Seb and Adriana who clearly have something to hide and are harbouring such dark emotions. Yet, at the same time, we want to empathise with them because it is clear they have suffered serious injustices in the past and are by no means bad people. In this way, through my characterisation I have hopefully induced both suspicion and empathy on the reader’s part for my characters, making them more intriguing as unreliable narrators. Seb and Adriana do not just share an artistic connection, they are drawn to one another by their mutual loss and grief. Both perfect examples of what we all are as human beings – fallible. Two people with troubled pasts and terrible secrets that haunt and ensnare them in a never-ending cycle of sadness, guilt and fear, but who find themselves at the mercy of another whose intentions remain unclear, but who appears to delight in their inner turmoil, thereby ramping up that sense of dread and tension that makes this genre so addictive!

My books tend to be quite complex, but people are often surprised to hear I am not a meticulous plotter. What I do spend a lot of time on before I start writing, however, is drafting detailed character profiles. For me this is crucial, so that my readers feel able to connect with a character and understand what is driving them. To this end, for me a character’s appearance is the least important consideration. It’s the way they conduct themselves and speak to others, the inner turmoil in their heads, the way something in their childhood impacts them in adulthood, what they might love or fear, excel or perform poorly at, and finally the dark secrets they may be keeping from others and which have a bearing on their behaviour in the present. All these factors have an impact on how a character is perceived in the book, on the reader being able to connect with them, and in driving up that impending sense of dread and nerve-wracking tension we expect from the genre.

In summary, we all love an unreliable narrator, high tension, mind games and a killer twist in our psychological thrillers, but great characterisation is key to these beloved traits falling into place.

Under Her Roof by A A Chaudhuri (Hera/Canelo) Out Now.

It seems too good to be true… When struggling writer Sebastian finds a room to let in a palatial Hampstead residence he cannot believe his luck. The rent is ridiculously cheap, and he immediately feels a connection with his beautiful, widowed landlady, Adriana. It is. Things take a dark turn when he finds out what happened to the last lodger. Could this be why the house is a fortress of security, and why Adriana seems so fragile? Adriana doesn’t want to talk about the death and sadness that seem to follow her wherever she goes, and Sebastian has secrets of his own. Now someone is watching their every move and there is nowhere to hide. This house of light becomes a dark nightmare as the threat ramps up - what does the watcher want? And how far will they go to get it?

More information about A A Chaudhuri can be found on her website.  You can also follow her on “X” @AAChaudhuri and on Facebook and Instagram @aachaudhuri



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