- In crime fiction, forensic psychology often gets shortchanged.
- Psychologists can consult in many areas besides profiling, but profiling is the predominant role they get.
- Crime fiction should expand its range of how forensic psychologists are portrayed, particularly female ones.
When I entered a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing recently, I decided to pen a series about a forensic psychologist who runs a PI agency. I used my thesis research to look for a potential role model, i.e., to see how forensic psychologists are generally portrayed in fiction. To my surprise, despite the many useful skills psychologists can offer to the legal system, fictional consulting forensic psychologists most often act as profilers. This shortchanges the profession.
The discipline of forensic psychology covers those interactions between law enforcement and psychology that benefit from psychological research and clinical experience. Such practitioners can apply their knowledge and experience to the civil and criminal arenas. For the court, forensic psychologists usually evaluate defendants’ present or past mental states or future potential for violence. They offer information to help triers-of-fact make informed decisions. They might perform assessments on specific populations in the correctional system—sex offenders, psychopaths, or juvenile offenders—or might assist with legal strategies. In addition, psychologists assess such behaviors as lying, malingering, and falsely confessing during interrogations.
Yet the most visible psychologists in crime fiction are profilers. Maybe authors just believe this skill provides for the greatest conflict and suspense (important to fiction). Profiling does offer some predictive value. Still, many detectives can do this, especially if they’re among those who’ve received training at the FBI’s National Academy. And the FBI offers profiling at no cost. In most cases in the U.S., there’s little need for a psychologist to perform this service.
Britain’s another story. Behavioral Investigative Advisors (BIAs) in the UK generally take courses in applied psychology programs and learn police investigation techniques. They act as assistants but don’t necessarily have graduate degrees in psychology, let alone a clinical license. They help to gather information that then gets interpreted within a scientific framework based on sociology, geography, and psychology. They learn to gather relevant victim and crime scene information.
For my research, I looked at representatives in crime fiction from both countries. Still, I mostly found psychologists or BIAs acting as profilers (or criminal mind readers).
Also, most are male. If female, they tend to be therapists or patient advocates. I wanted my protagonist, Dr. Annie Hunter, to be neither. She’s a researcher with clinical credentials. She can do an assessment but prefers to take on challenging cases that need special expertise. Hers is suicidology, and she can also consult on reconstruction, motive, staging, and multiple types of behavioral analysis, particularly a psychological autopsy.
I’ve seen the method of psychological autopsy in some crime fiction, but rarely. Since police officers receive limited lessons on suicide analysis, this would be a valuable area to tap. It’s not as limited as it might sound and can open up other behavioral areas of concern. It overlaps with profiling on the need for comprehensive victimology, but these methods are also quite different.
In simple terms, profilers can discern whether the offender is a careful, organized predator versus impulsive or disordered. They determine whether the offender used a vehicle, showed criminal sophistication, had a specific type of mental illness, paid attention to the investigation, or is addicted to a particular type of sexual fantasy. These behaviors help to develop links among crimes and narrow the potential pool of suspects
Developing a profile often relies on evidence of psychopathologies, such as sadistic torture, postmortem mutilation, or pedophilia. Some killers leave a “signature” or a behavioral manifestation of a personality quirk, such as staging the corpse for the most humiliating exposure, biting, removing specific body parts, or tying complicated knots. Some behavioral patterns can aid in predicting future possible attacks, likely pick-up spots, or dumpsites.
Psychological autopsy dives deep into a decedent’s life and antemortem state of mind. Such investigators gain informed context from suicide databases that help to resist erroneous cultural myths: e.g., that most suicidal people leave explanatory notes. Coroners and medical examiners must have accurate information to determine a manner of death as natural, an accident, a suicide, or a homicide, but when the factors are unclear, a psychological autopsy might resolve the impasse. The consultant’s role is to crystallize the factors that clarify a mental state.
In my M.F.A. research on role models, I eliminated “cozy” mysteries, novels that were factually wrong about psychological consulting, or protagonists who were cops with degrees in psychology. I also avoided those based on stereotypes.
Friedman et al. survey the way forensic psychiatrists have been portrayed in fiction, describing five categories (which also apply to psychologists): Dr. Evil (a villain), the Professor (the source of information), the Hired Gun (unethical), the Activist (an advocate), and the Jack-of-all-trades (multiple skills and credentials). The latter conducts evaluations and investigations that go beyond the scope of normal forensic practice. Such a character “conducts clinical interviews, interrogates suspects, investigates cases in the field, testifies in court, and provides clinical treatment” (415). Authors sometimes add law enforcement or private detective credentials to empower these characters as investigators, but their range of skills can be unrealistic.
My character has gone through British training, but given her niche, she didn’t need it. She’s also not a Jack-of-all-trades because she has a core team that includes a private investigator, and she has access to a network of consulting specialists. She sticks close to her field of expertise in psychology. To increase her acumen, she tests herself on resolved cases. She also trains police, coroners, and attorneys.
After reading multiple crime fiction novels, I found few that feature consulting forensic psychologists that showcase the range of skills they offer to law enforcement. Many focus on the profiling formula. By giving Hunter forensic associates and an investigation agency, I have plenty of plot potential for mystery, thriller, and suspense.
Canter, D. (2004). Offender Profiling and Investigative Psychology. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, vol. 1, 1-15.
Friedman, S. H., et al. (2011). Reel Forensic Experts: Forensic Psychiatrists as Portrayed on Screen. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 39(3), 412-417.
Ramsland, K. (2009). The Facts about Fiction: What Gil Grissom Could Learn about Forensic Psychology. The Journal of Psychiatry and Law, 37, 37-50.
Ramsland, K. (2018). The Psychology of Death Investigations. CRC Press.
Welner, M., & Ramsland, K. (2006). Behavioral Science and the Law. Foundations of Forensic Science and Law: Applications in Criminal, Civil, and Family Justice. CRC Press.
Ramsland, K. (2022). I Scream Man: A Nut Cracker Investigation. Level Best Books. www.katherineramsland.net