by Lisa Featherston
Let’s face it, it has become more and more difficult to shock today’s reader because of the level of violence we see on a regular basis on television and movie screens. Sensationalism seems to be the one element writers increasingly feel they need to achieve the jarring effect they hope for in any mystery/suspense novel. Because of this, media has transformed forensic psychologists into a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants role, thereby altering their roles as consultants, assessors, and treatment providers into crime-solving super-shrinks.
If only this were their true role, I would double my efforts in university coursework in an effort to land that job as soon as possible. Just dust off my cape and utility belt and I’m ready to go. Unfortunately, this exciting fantasy career is mostly fictional.
Psychology in general is one of the most fascinating careers available, and thanks to all that we still don’t know about the human mind, there is just no possibility for boredom. Just how much of a forensic psychologist’s career can be depicted in mystery and suspense novels that will still get the reader’s attention and keep it?
To first understand what a forensic psychologist is and does, we need to understand what forensics really means. Forensics is the analysis of information suitable for use in a court of law (Ramsland, 2002). So then, a forensic psychologist is responsible for various tasks within the legal system that add a scientific analysis to civil or criminal proceedings in our court systems.
Most everyone loves Alex Cross, the brilliant doctor and forensic psychologist in many of James Patterson’s tales of suspense, but even Patterson exerts some serious creative licenses in the Cross character’s professional duties. It may be worthwhile to find the suspense and contributions of these professional characters in a more realistic role. No psychologist is going to chase a serial killer through the woods while wielding a .38 special. Sorry to disappoint.
One special note: Many times during competency and insanity assessments, the Malingering test is applied. This test is used to determine if the person is lying.
* No psychologist will take over a case or investigate a case on his or her own. It just does not happen. So although Alex Cross is a brilliant man and psychologist, he would never, in real life, follow leads and hunt down killers on his own, if at all. Forensic psychologists are hired as contributing sources only and will always restrict their participation to that area they were hired for. To do otherwise would impede investigations and potentially cause legal backlash, more likely to themselves than anyone else.
An important consideration for writers: As forensic psychology continues to become more popular, it stands to reason that an increased interest in this field of study, by both those who desire such a career as well as the general public, will ultimately mean a more informed public. Increased popularity for forensic psychology can be attributed to the explosive interest from media portrayals. This means we will quickly reach a point when the public will be well enough informed about the realistic services forensic psychologists provide. Any author still writing about sensational but fictional super-shrinks will be viewed as lacking authenticity and writers may see a significant decline in reader/fan following.
My recommendation -- If you are serious about exploring what a forensic psychologist character might add to your murder mystery, you would be well advised to seek a real one out and ask questions until you’re blue in the face. These people have extraordinary jobs because by definition, they are most likely the ones to work face to face with our most deviant criminals, whether for research to better understand deviant behavior, to treat such criminals to relieve their suffering (because yes, most of these people are suffering), or to evaluate them according to a court order for treatment or release options in the future. The point is, no one knows the roles of a forensic psychologist OR the character of the deviant better than your local super-shrinks themselves.
If you aren’t sure where to start, check your local university. Ask for either the behavioral science department or the Psychology department (preferably the Instructors for Abnormal Psychology). Again, despite popular belief, there are very few law enforcement departments that have a forensic psychologist as a full-time staff member. These people typically operate their own practices, teach in universities, work for private or county agencies such as mental health facilities, or work in prisons or other correctional institutions. Don’t be afraid to approach these people. Though they may be busy, they are human beings and love to educate others as to what they actually do. Good luck!
About the Author
Lisa Featherston is a third year student of Criminal Justice: Forensic Psychology at Kaplan University.