Crime writing: Psychological insights


25 November 2022
Leona Deakin describes how her work as a psychologist has informed her crime writing

When people hear that I’m a psychologist who writes crime thrillers they probably think how lucky I am to have such insight into the criminal mind. The problem is, I’m not that kind of psychologist. My specialism is organisational. I advise on leadership, motivation and resilience. It has little to do with psychopaths and serial killers. That said it helps me enormously in a number of ways.

Researching my criminals

When I read a thriller I don’t only want to know what the baddies have done I want to know why. It helps me to assess whether I’m happy with their comeuppance. So when I started to write about psychopaths, cult leaders and serial killers I used my psychological background to navigate my way around the academic research into what makes such people tick. I wanted to be accurate in representing why they are the way they are and why they do the things they do. My ability to understand the psychological terminology helped hugely with this.

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Creating my characters

I learned early on in my writing efforts that I was not a plotter. I can’t map out a whole story and then write it. I have to start with a scenario – a character facing a dilemma - and then ask what would that person do next? My understanding of personality traits is something I draw on heavily in order to do this. For instance, I decided my investigator Dr Augusta Bloom would be an introvert because I know such people typically think carefully about what they see and hear. I liked the idea that she would see things others would not. This meant in every one of her scenes I had to consider what she would be looking at, what she would hear that others might miss and what research would she go and do next. I hope this makes for a more authentic character who feels familiar and trusted by readers.

Increasing credibility

Weaving psychological insights into my stories is something I hope builds credibility; that readers feel they understand other people better as a result. I know I’m writing fiction but my professional pride forces me to balance the desire to entertain with the chance to inform. But it’s a tricky thing to pull off. I don’t know about you, but I hate those novels where half a page looks like a ‘cut and paste’ from some encyclopaedia. My favourite way to do it is in conversation as I enjoy writing dialogue and I find it easier to judge whether there’s too much or not enough detail when I read it back. If I imagine myself in the conversation thinking what are you talking about? or why are you boring me with this nonsense?, I know it needs a re-write.

Write about what you know

This is familiar advice for any aspiring writer, but I knew I didn’t have the skill to write a story about a team of people in a large public sector organisation who had a problem with their manager that people would want to buy. It just wasn’t sexy enough. But over there, my criminal psychology colleagues, well now their world was a whole different thing. So I wrote about ‘what I can understand if I put my mind to it’. It doesn’t trip off the tongue quite so well but it worked for me.

Practice and persist

The final way psychology has helped me has nothing to do with the content of my stories. It is about the fundamentals of skill and success. So much psychological research shows how natural talent is no match for effort and tenacity. I figured if I kept practicing and persisting at some point I’d write something good enough to be published. It might have taken over a decade but believe me, if you’d read my first attempt at a novel you’d know for sure natural talent was not a factor.

The Imposter by Leona Deakin is published by Penguin (Transworld) at £9.99


If you want to write convincing police characters in your crime fiction, read this insider advice from author and former police commander Graham Bartlett.