Carol Willis received an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also served as a reader for VCFA’s literary journal, Hunger Mountain. Many of her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in several anthologies, multiple online zines, and print journals, including Inlandia: A Literary Journey, Living Crue Magazine, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and many others. Please visit carolwillisauthor.com for a complete list and links to the stories. She is a member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), The Authors Guild, International Thriller Writers, and Poets and Writers.
How long have you been writing? I came to writing after a long career as a medical doctor (pediatrics and general pathology). It has been quite the journey!
What genres do you write? I write fiction for adults and children across all genres—suspense/thrillers, mystery/crime, science fiction, historical, and romance. And I absolutely love writing ghost stories. You will almost always find a ghost or a dead body (or two) in my stories. Although my focus is on fiction, medicine always has a way of creeping in through character, setting, or situation.
What is your first novel? My first MG novel is about a runaway foster girl. The first novel I completed for adults is a contemporary domestic suspense/psychological thriller. Although it is not a medical thriller, the main character is a pathologist in the prime of her career set in South Chicago at the University of Chicago.
What do you like to read? I have always loved to read. And I read everything. Literary, genre, novel, short stories, poems. You name it. My favorite go-to books are psychological thrillers, especially if I’m looking for an engrossing read for a long plane ride or downtime. I had such a fun time writing mine.
Fun fact: I recently completed an MFA in writing (summer 2023), and for my graduate lecture, I took the opportunity to discuss the genre of psychological thrillers in depth. Instead of discussing the plot of my psychological thriller, I thought I would share a few lessons I learned about what makes a thriller psychological and thrilling.
What is a thriller? Thriller is a genre of literature defined by the primary mood of suspenseful excitement. They aim to make readers unsettled, nervous, and eager to read what happens next. All fiction should elicit some stress in the reader through conflict, but in a thriller novel, the stress is the main feature. They often feel cinematic and involve high stakes and dramatic plot points. In short, if it “thrills,” it is a thriller.
Thrillers are dark, engrossing, and suspenseful plot-driven stories. They very seldom include comedic elements. This genre is a hybrid of mystery and horror, sharing a literary lineage with the epic and myth. Monsters, terror, and peril prevail. There are many elements to thrillers that overlap with other novels of mystery and suspense, typically emphasizing the dangerous world we live in, the vulnerability of the average person, and the inherent threat of the unknown.
Thrillers can occur in exotic settings, but most occur in ordinary suburbs and cities. The main character, the hero, is usually tough and resourceful but essentially an ordinary person who is pitted against a villain determined to destroy them or their family.
The attack on the hero is relentless, with escalating terror and dread. The hero must be vulnerable—not just physically but psychologically. In the best thrillers, the villain targets the hero specifically from the beginning.
What makes a thriller psychological? The biggest questions revolve around the minds and behavior of the main characters. Common elements include plot twists, psychology, obsession, and mind games. They incorporate elements of mystery and include themes of crime, morality, mental illness, substance abuse, multiple realities, and unreliable narrators.
A psychological thriller finds the terror in madness and paranoia. Here, the threat is diabolical but more contained, even intimate—usually targeting the protagonist and his family—and the hero is often a relatively “ordinary” man, woman, or child. The pacing is more deliberate in the beginning as the story unfolds and the tension rises. The third act, however, moves briskly.
Psychological thrillers generally stay away from elements of science fiction, focusing on events that could take place in real life. Most of the focus is on the suspense, dread, and fear of a future crime—instead of one that has already happened. Most mysteries reveal a crime and require their main characters to work backward. In a thriller, the bad guy is often established early, and the main characters must work to stop them from doing evil.
In summary, the common elements of a psychological thriller are the following:
Major plot twists: Psychological thrillers can be ruined by spoilers since so much of their excitement hinges on the unexpected twists and turns that the novel takes.
Atmosphere of menace: Often characterized by setting, weather, and time of day. Think ominous storms and in the dark of night. Usually, something external causes anxiety and uncertainty for the main character (and the reader). Sudden violence, such as crime and murder, characterizes thrillers. The tension usually arises when the main character(s) is placed in a dangerous situation or a trap from which escaping seems impossible.
An unreliable narrator: To be unreliable is another way authors create suspense as the reader tries to figure out who they can trust. Lies, paranoia, and flawed memories are all staples in this genre. Many thrillers are told in first-person POV for this reason.
Familiar elements: Psychological thrillers often take place in the home (aka domestic thrillers) and feature ordinary-seeming characters. This allows thriller writers to get inside the reader’s mind, making them wonder, “What if this happened to me?” Starting with the familiar also allows writers to slowly introduce characters’ backstories, mental health issues, and other elements that create suspense over the course of the novel.
Reader Expectations: Emphasis is on the eerie over the sensational. Twists again are key, with chapters routinely ending in one disturbing revelation after another. Character is more important than pacing, but pacing cannot be neglected. This subgenre demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without explosions or car chases.
Thank you for reading, and happy writing! Carol Willis