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Law and Crime

Psychological Research for Writers

Creating deviant or mentally ill characters can be challenging for novelists.

Key points

  • Crime fiction author Joyce Woollcott argues that good stories sync with our neural circuitry when they seamlessly incorporate information.
  • Crime fiction adds the dimension of darker issues and conditions.
  • The psychology of character blends a sense of place with what’s at stake.
With permission from J. Woollcott
Source: With permission from J. Woollcott

As I explore a new aspect of my career in forensic psychology—writing fiction—I’m asking other crime novelists about their approach to creating characters that demand knowledge about psychiatric states or criminal minds.

I’ve offered many writing tips and experiences in this blog. Now, I’m exploring what others have to say, especially if their settings or characters are unique.

Canadian crime fiction author Joyce Woollcott was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She knows the area well, giving her advantages in setting up her crime fiction series. Her first mystery, Abducted, was long-listed in the Canadian Arthur Ellis Awards. The one we’re discussing, A Nice Place to Die, won the RWA Unpublished Mystery/Suspense Daphne du Maurier Award.

With permission from J. Woollcott
Source: With permission from J. Woollcott

The novel opens with the discovery of the body of a young woman near a river. Detective Sergeant Ryan McBride responds and quickly finds himself in an ethical dilemma. He knows something about this woman; hiding it risks his career. Things only worsen as he becomes entangled in family secrets that make him a target.

Creating gripping protagonists means making readers care while putting them at risk. “The things that happen to protagonists,” says Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, “matter less than what is at stake for them and how they are affected psychologically.” Good stories, she discovered, synch with our neural circuitry. Thus, they must seamlessly incorporate information, so nothing interrupts the flow. I spoke to Woollcott about her process.

Are you a writer who plans ahead (a plotter) or do you feel more at home with finding out what happens along the way (a pantser)?

I usually start with an idea, "what if?" Then I expand that. "If that happened, how did it happen and why?" I think about different scenarios and different outcomes. I usually know the beginning, middle, and end, so I expect I’m a hybrid. I have a rough outline in my head, and when I start writing, I use that as a map, but unexpected things tend to happen.

What do you find to be especially challenging about writing crime fiction?

Making the plot clear and exciting from beginning to end. Crafting a compelling protagonist–not necessarily likable, just someone the reader cares about. Of course, it’s important to create an interesting antagonist too. The villain can’t be all bad. They need to have some redeeming qualities. And the mystery or the crime needs to be interesting, or at least the reason behind it needs to be different.

In your novel, DS McBride must abide by police protocols. How did you research the police culture and protocols of Belfast?

I had a relative in the force, and he answered many of my fundamental questions, but I was fortunate to find a former Detective Chief Inspector who not only had extensive knowledge of UK police procedure but had experience of N. Ireland policing too.

He offered to read the manuscript, make suggestions and give me advice. Having someone like that is so important if you want a level of authenticity in your novel. I discussed my detective’s conflict with him, and he told me it did indeed happen on the force. That’s all I needed to know. For another book, I needed my detective to re-examine a piece of evidence. I wasn’t sure about the property storage situation at police stations.

He sent me a detailed explanation about where they’re usually located and how individual pieces of evidence are stored. How the material is signed out and how it is handled. Fantastic information. I found him through the British Crime Writers Association.

You had to learn about criminal behavior and find good sources. How did you decide which ones are best for crafting a believable villain?

First and foremost, I tried not to fall into stereotypes. In many ways, my antagonist fits the definition of a psychopath or even a sociopath, but I’m aware that many villains are labeled that way. I did, however, want to give the reader a reason for the antagonist’s behavior, something to explain the paranoia, the violence and depression, and the use of alcohol.

I didn’t want to point a finger at any one psychosis, but I wanted to suggest an instability that might be inherited, so I could tie it to a parent. Schizophrenia can be inherited, but it can also be triggered by a traumatic upbringing and other social influences. Schizophrenia can be managed, and lots of people with the condition live fairly normal lives, especially with early intervention and treatment.

How did you learn about this condition in a way that could be applied for building your character and perhaps adding a plot twist?

I do indicate that my character has mild schizophrenia; however, this is given to the reader by an unreliable source and is challenged by his mother, who warns the reader, "If only that was all it was." She suggests other, more frightening, possibilities. I don’t have a degree in psychology, so I took the easy way out: I had my characters attempt to diagnose the killer for me!

I tried to stay with what I considered well-known reliable sources while presenting information in layman’s terms. Some of the sources I accessed were the Mayo Clinic, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (Canada), and Mental Health America.


Cron, L. (2012. Wired for story. Ten Speed Press.

Woollcott, J. (2022). Level Best Books.

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