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Psychological Realism and the Art of Knowing

I have saved talking about one of THE DARK SIRE’s favorite genres, Psychological Realism, for last, partly because I consider it one of the most difficult genres in which to write.  The genre focuses on the mental processes of the characters, which includes their inner thoughts, feelings, motives and behavior.  In other words, to write in this genre, you have to know people, really know people – and delve deep into characterization. 

Unlike the genres of Fantasy, Horror, or the Gothic, this genre literally deals with how people react to everyday life.  Now, their reactions are predicated on the psychological make up of who they are, which is why a good Psychological Realism writer has to be a student of human nature.  The writer needs to show not only what the characters do but also explain why they are taking those actions.  When you examine Crime and Punishment by the god-father of the genre, Fydor Dostoevsky, you meet characters who are engaged in distasteful and illegal acts motivated by their desperate financial situations.  Dostoevsky uses their motivations to examine the conditions of poverty. 

American writers took a slightly different tack with this genre.  They began to examine the question of the duality of a man’s nature.  Melville has a superlative chapter in Moby Dick on this topic:  Is Ahab, Ahab?  It was a question that even the Native Americans of the Northwest explored with their masks and totems.  Are we really who we think we are or is our external persona merely the mask for our real inner personality?  Other American authors continued with this theme.  The works of Henry James, Arthur Miller and Edith Warton look at the inner workings of their characters and the duality of their motivations.

Therefore the thing that makes Psychological Realism novels different is that their plot revolves around the emotional aspect of the story. The PR novel is internal. It deals with the perceptions of your characters. Is the character disturbed in some way? How does the character perceive reality? Does their emotions get in the way of their perception or does it dictate their perception?

When writing a PR story, you have to create strong characters who have strong emotional issues. Remember, most of the action is going to take place in your characters’ heads. The emphasis in this kind of story is not so much on action as it is on turmoil. You will have to create your suspense in unpredictable ways. This leads to major plot twists. Is one of your characters an unreliable narrator and if so, why? Why does your villain do what he or she or it does? Why does your protagonist respond in the way he, she, or it does? To write a good PR story, you have to be a student of human nature. You have to understand peoples’ flaws and how those flaws make them react.

Here are some things to consider to create a strong PS story:

Characterization. When writing a PR story, you have to create strong characters who have strong emotional issues. Remember, most of the action is going to take place in your characters’ heads. The emphasis in this kind of story is not so much on action as it is on turmoil. You will have to create your suspense in unpredictable ways. This leads to major plot twists. Is one of your characters an unreliable narrator and if so, why? Why does your villain do what he or she or it does? Why does your protagonist respond in the way he, she, or it does? To write a good PR story, you have to be a student of human nature. You have to understand peoples’ flaws and how those flaws make them react.

To understand your character, think of their family structure, who their parents are, what they and their family do for a living. How old are they? What schooling have they had? What struggles have they braved? What relationships have they experience? Married, divorced, kids? Do they like or hate their daily life? What do they do to relax? Simply put: Get to know what your character’s favorite things are, what they like and dislike, and what their deepest, darkest secrets are. Build a character that could live and breathe in the real world – even if their world is fantasy. Meaning: The character, be they hero or villain, should be 3-dimensional and alive, someone readers can relate to and connect with. To do this, you, as the author, need to know every bit about the characters you create.

Inner dialogue. If the character’s thought are to be revealed, inner dialogue is key. Yes, your character can convey their thoughts aloud, but, more often than not, he or she will express them though inner thought – which is called “inner dialogue.” This type of dialogue is written in italics to differentiate the story (action, description) from dialogue. When a reader reads inner dialogue, they need to understand the character’s thoughts. An example of this is:

Sheila runs and never looks back, tears lining her cheeks. Why am I running? I should be standing my ground! Shoving the backs of her hands into her eyes as if to command the rivers to cease, she plants her feet and halts. Her body lunges forward before it whips back, knees tight, core engaged. Enough! I’m not running anymore. It stops here, right here. If not now, then when? She gulps in a lung-full of crisp air and wipes the remnants of wetness from her cheeks. With a shallow sigh, she pauses for a brief moment, only to turn around and walk back the way she came.

Character focused. As the above states, think of your story as being character focused. The story is the character’s motivations, the character’s emotions, the character’s wants and desires. What drives the character? How is the story going to advance on the character’s goals? What will they encounter based on their drive, emotional pull, and flaws? Instead of being story-driven, with a lot of action, your PR story will be character-driven, which is why PR is classed as literary fiction rather than genre fiction. Keep in mind what your character wants, what they’re going through, what they are struggling with emotionally and psychologically. And make the story wrapped securely around the complexity of their human nature.

Explanation and motivation. Your character has to have motivation and a reason for why they are doing what they are… and your reader needs to understand that reasoning. That means you have to explain the reason, answering the magical question of “why.” Though you can explain the reason through other storytelling devices, the most natural way of doing so is through inner dialogue. For example:

“Why are you being so difficult, Sarah?!”

Rubbing her fingers together, Sarah gazed out over her glasses with half-open eyes. Like you don’t know. Last time we met, you demanded I give in to your whim, do what you say or else. And now that you’re not in charge, you expect me to be kind, benevolent, caring. Well, today’s the day you learn humility, Madeleine.

“Company policy is all. You understand. Surely you’d follow protocol if you were in my position.”

Just remember: You should not explain everything all at once. Instead, sprinkle in the explanation throughout the story so that your characterization builds from beginning to end. The reader will continue to learn about your characters and their complexities, making the read all the more sweeter.

Complexity. And speaking of complexities, because the PR story is built on characterization, not action, you should be thinking of your story in layers, like an onion. Once you peel back the surface or superficial aspects of the story – what starts the story, the inciting action, you need to slowly peel back the other layers of the story through exploration of the deeper character traits, motivations, and setbacks. Once the reader knows about the desires of a character, they need to slowly get to know the reasons behind those desires; this is where and why complexities are born, a must in PR. Nothing should be “as is seems” or predictable, and your character can’t be one-dimensional in that they have no depth of character. Thus, the story must then weave together to create complex situations, struggles, near misses, and triumphs. In this way, story then takes center stage to put your characterization to work.

Planning. Psychological Realism requires planning. Though some may be successful at writing a PS story in pantser or planter style, many writers will find planning more suitable for this subgenre due to its required complexities. Creating outlines of chapters, linking plots through notecards, and completing character charts are all ways to help design a complex story that interweaves story, character, and plot beautifully. Use the tools that best help you create the necessary planning you need for your story. You can manually create the tools (documents, notecards, outlines) or use storytelling apps and software (Google: storytelling tools for creative writing).


Since PR is more difficult than other subgenres, I’ve put together some prompts to help you build your skills – and confidence!

Prompt 1: Pick a character flaw and give it to a character (be sure to name the character!). Then create an every day scene; maybe a first date, a conversation with a boss, or a fight with a neighbor. Think of the location, too, say at the library, at the office, or in the park. Now, write the scene focusing on the flaw in two different ways: predictable and unpredictable. What’s the difference between the two scenes? What made the character act unpredictably? How did the flaw help create depth? How much did you need to know the character in order to create the scene? How much deeper do you need to go in order to bring in more complexity?

Prompt 2: Outline the above scene. What are the main points of plot, subpoints? How does plot inform the story? What connections do you see within the scene, between character? Now, create a whole new scene, outlining it first – before writing it. Find ways to connect the scene, story, and characters to create a compelling scene. Once you have an outline you’re happy with, dripping with complexity, write the scene using the outline as your guide.

Prompt 3: Create a character profile by using either the Gotham or Marcel Proust Character Questionnaire. Type your answers in a document or write your answers in a notebook. Ponder the questions before you decide on the final answer. Then, when finished, write a paragraph describing your character. What is the person like?

Prompt 4: Using the character profile, write the plot of a scene that would use the character’s motivations and emotions to progress the story. What does your character want/need? How will they get it? What will stop them? Then, write notes on how you will explain the reasons behind the character’s choices. Now, write the scene, using your notes and planned storytelling devices.


It may be difficult, be I know you can write psychological realism stories! If you’d like some feedback or help in practicing the above, leave a comment for me. I’d be glad to help.

And, if you have a story, poem, or screenplay in this genre, please consider submitting it to THE DARK SIRE.   We would love to read your work, which includes artwork that holds the essence of the psychological and emotional. To submit, visit darksiremag.com/submissions.html.

World Building and the Art of Fantasy

All of us have our favorite fantasy novels, both High Fantasy and Low Fantasy.  Here at THE DARK SIRE, our favorite, go-to High Fantasy author is J.R.R. Tolkien for his body of work which includes The Lord of the Ring series, the Simarillion, and the Hobbit (just to name a few).  Low Fantasy would definitely include the Harry Potter series, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern series.  As diverse as all these books are, they have two things in common: 1. Great characterization and 2. Unique worlds in which those characters live.

Characterization deserves a blog all its own and it will get one in the near future.  But, today, I want to delve into the concept of World Building, the chief cornerstone of both High and Low Fantasy.  It’s what makes the genre work.  Without it, your story will crash on the rocks of the readers’ disbelief. 

Simply put, World Building is creating a locale where your story takes place.  A locale that your readers MUST believe in if they are going to believe in your characters. The challenge with World Building is recognizing that your world must function by a specific set of rules.  It is your task, as the author, to establish those rules and map out how your characters will follow them.  The secret is in the details.  Everything – person, animal, or creature – you write about must follow those rules down to the last letter.  This is key in giving your characters a landscape in which to develop. 

Your characters cannot exist in a vacuum.  They have to move, eat, sleep, and perform all the functions that their kind of character must perform to live.  They must have some place real to live.  Not real in our every day existence, but real to them.  And since your story’s world may be different than your readers’ world, it is your job to make the reader understand how your characters can function in a realm that the reader could not.

Think about questions that could guide your world building:

What are the conflicts in your created world?  Does it only rain once every six months?  Are there other species of humanoids and do they require a special environment to survive and if so, can different kinds of humanoids survive in each other’s environments? How do your characters communicate?  Are there different languages?  What do your characters need to do to understand one another?  What is the landscape in which your characters live?  Do different characters need different landscapes? 

Then, set up the boundaries.  Who is in charge?  Do they use magic like in Harry Potter?  And if so, who gets to use the magic, and can others see it?  What is the tone of the atmosphere?  Is this a dark and stormy place or bright and sunny; or is it a landscape covered in ice? 

Define the culture.  What do your characters believe in?  Is there a religion?  Are there several religions? What are the sacred customs?  What is the history of your characters’ interactions? Is there war, peace, tension between peoples? What is the culture’s folklore and mythology?

Don’t forget to use all five of your senses when creating your world.  You need to make your reader feel as if they are right there standing next to your characters – experiencing everything, feeling what they feel, smelling what they smell.  They need to viscerally inhabit your world no matter how fantastical it is.  Your world needs to feel real and functional to someone who could literally not function in it.

Remember, this is a fantasy world created by you, the author.  You need to know how it all functions and be able to pass that knowledge on to the reader without being didactic. Most importantly, you will have to guide the reader seamlessly through your world without breaking the tone or pace of the story. Any note of straying from the story, just to explain an aspect of your world (exposition) will distract the reader – and that’s game over for your story.


Here are a couple of exercises to help you along the creative way:

  1.  Interview your main character.  Ask them questions.  Get to know how they will react to the environment/problem that you have created for them.
  2. Map out your world. What does everything look like? What is where in this new world?
  3. Write a paragraph on each type of being used in your story. List the attributes of the peoples in each group: appearance, language, fighting abilities, magical abilities, spiritual abilities, clothing, food, shelters/lodgings.
  4. Describe the places in your world either to a friend or in a journal. What’s the scenery, weather, animals like? Be detailed in your descriptions so that a person can imagine it in their own thoughts.
  5. How will your story end?  Write the final page.  What are you going to have to do in this created universe of yours to get your main character to that point? Who or what will your character have to face? Are these obstacles part of the world building? Describe them in detail.
  6. Now that you know how your story will end, how will it begin?  What incident starts your main character on his/her/its path of self-discovery? What will your main character reveal on page one that will make your reader want to turn to page two? And most importantly, how will you convey your world building without heavy-loading exposition? For help on this one, read the first few pages of Tolkien’s The Hobit.

We would love to see what you can do.
Show us your world building in the comments!


We’re always looking for good, high-quality fantasy short stories, novellas, poems, art, and screenplays. If you have a piece ready for publication, please submit it.