Tuesday 20 December 2016

Why I Write Psychological Fiction by Tam May

Last Updated: 17 May 2024

Authors get asked all the time what genre they write in. It’s sort of the be-all and end-all of questions, along with “Where do you get your ideas?” and “Do you write about what you know?”

I tell people that I write psychological fiction.

But what is psychological fiction?

Right off the bat:
  • Psychological fiction does exist as a category on Amazon (when your genre is a category on Amazon, you know you’ve arrived)
  • Psychological fiction does not have to be “navel-gazing” fiction (I.e., plotless fiction that delights in itself but goes nowhere for a reader)
  • Psychological fiction does not have to involve someone with a mental illness (though many works do)
I usually hate to reference Wikipedia (a leftover from my college teaching days) but occasionally Wikipedia gets it right. Wikipedia’s definition of the psychological novel is “a work of prose fiction which places more than the usual amount of emphasis on interior characterisation, and on the motives, circumstances, and internal action which springs from, and develops, external action.”

In other words, psychological fiction starts with character and works its way outward, building story around character rather than the other way around. Many non-psychological works contain psychological elements but they may not focus primarily on them and/or the story may not be built around them.

Psychological fiction is best known in its subgenres, like psychological horror (Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), psychological suspense (Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl) and psychological thriller (think: Hitchcock). But there are also psychological works that are more straight dramas, such as Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and the plays of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams.

My fascination with psychological fiction as a reader and writer came from my own personal life. I was raised in a well-meaning but emotionally abusive family. Emotional abuse leaves hidden wounds on the psyche. So it was no surprise that it wasn’t until I reached my 30s and went back to school, first to study feminist psychology and then to get my master’s degree in English, that I finally started to face the psychological demons I had been afraid of for most of my life.

For many of my characters, something happens in their lives that clears their vision so they see the psychological demons they have feared or ignored. It could be a sudden “a-ha” moment, as with my short story, A First Saturday Outing, or a gradual climb that takes years to reach, as in my work-in-progress, The Waxwood Novella Series. But however they come by it, the crux of the story is about this psychological awakening. I write about characters from the inside out rather than from the outside in.

About Tam May

Tam May author photo

Tam May was born in Israel but grew up in the United States. She earned her college degree in English before returning to the States. She has a Master's degree in English and worked as an English college instructor and EFL teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes dark psychological fiction that explores psychological realities informed by past experiences, dreams, emotions, fantasies, nightmares, imagination, and self-analysis. She currently lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

For more about Tam May and her works, please visit her website or join her on Facebook.

Gnarled Bones and Other Stories by Tam May book cover

In this collection of five short stories, strange and sometimes spooky events have a profound effect on characters’ lives. A newly divorced woman goes back to school to begin a new chapter of her life only to find herself circling back to where she started. A woman and her friends spend a day at the circus but the innocent fun mingles childhood nostalgia with brutal fear. A woman ventures out of her isolated apartment one quiet Saturday afternoon to an art exhibit that leaves an eerie imprint on her psyche. A middle-aged violinist reveals the mystery behind his declining artistic powers to a stranger on a train. And the title story weaves journal entries and first-person narrative to paint a picture of the complicated bond between an orphaned brother and sister. These stories leave an impression of the present and future in the shadow of the past.

Gnarled Bones and Other Stories is available to buy now (paid link; commission earned).

Are you a fan of psychological fiction? Let me know in the comments below! 


  1. I loved the explanation of a psychological thriller being from the inside out. Very perceptive and correct! :)