How Studying Psychology Has Influenced My Writing

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

This is a ‘what came first – the chicken or the egg’ kind of question for me, or as my daughter asked me last week – the seed or the tree? Did my study of psychology influence my writing, or did my love of stories and characters develop into a love of psychology? 

Even as a child I was fascinated by both. When I was around seven or eight years old I designed a quiz that I gave to everyone who came to the house. It was only basic questions like favourite colour, best friend, dream job, but I loved reading the answers. I found it interesting that people in the same family, who lived in the same house, were so different. And when I wasn’t designing quizzes, I was either devouring every book I could get my hands on, or I was filling notebooks with my own stories about children who could fly, orphans starting new schools, and evil witches. 

. . . .

A few years (OK a decade) after I’d finished my degree, I had an idea for a novel about a distraught widow (Tess) and her young son, and what happens to them when a charismatic grief counsellor comes into their lives. I knew immediately that this was a novel that would need me to draw on my psychology degree. I dug out my old text books from the loft and poured through them for days on end, reminding myself why I loved the complexities of the human mind so much. This idea became my debut, The Perfect Betrayal

I wanted to pull the reader into Tess’s daily struggles with her grief and depression and I wanted them to feel the full range of emotions that we can feel for those around us experiencing mental illness. Feelings like sympathy, pity, desperation, exasperation, and frustration.  There were times when I was writing the book when all I wanted to do was tell Tess to snap out of it. Unfortunately it’s never that simple with mental illness. 

With my second novel, One Step Behind, I once again pulled out my psychology books and delved into the murky waters of what drives obsession, and how even the most moral person can be driven to cross the line if pushed far enough. The main character, Jenna, is a doctor who has dedicated her life to saving others, but when she is asked to save the life of the man responsible for destroying hers, will she do it?

I write these stories because the themes fascinate me, but one thing that studying psychology has instilled in me is the need to do the behaviours of my character’s justice. Readers are a savvy bunch, and won’t buy into an anxious character suddenly not caring anymore. While we are complex individuals, we all have certain traits that guide our behaviour. Equally, if I’m going to write about a character struggling with a mental illness then it’s important to me and the readers that I portray that illness as realistically as I can. With Tess and her depression in The Perfect Betrayal it was important to me that she didn’t get a little bit better every day. She had some good days but they were often followed by bad ones. 

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books