I See, I See: Psychic Tropes by Chris Chelser

Psychic Tropes by Chris Chelser

Picture of Chris Chelser

Chris has been writing dark fiction with a silver lining for some 20 years now, but has worked as a financial and legal business consultant before becoming a fulltime writer.

She lives in a study somewhere in the Netherlands where she writes unless coaxed out by her husband and son.

You can find her at: http://www.chrischelser.com/



I See, I See…Psychic Tropes


Psychics fascinate us. The idea of people who see what we cannot – the future, deceased loved ones – gives us hope. They shine a light at the end of the tunnel that is our own misery.

In horror, psychics are particularly abundant in ghost stories. Anyone can see the evil critters coming, but when unseen forces attack, the Hero (m/f) needs a guide to figure out what they’re facing. Psychics are also convenient prophecy dispensers or means to deliver the Ominous Warning no mortal could find out about in a conventional way.

When cast in a leading role, the psychic tends to evolve. Instead of a plot convenience, they are now a paranormal radio antenna that receives all ghostly frequencies, loud and clear. Okay… A treasure trove for writers short on conflict, to be sure, but there are better ways to achieve that.

Regardless of the psychic’s part in a story, the abyss of stereotyping gapes wide for us writers. In this post, I parade a few of my personal pet tropes, as well as two practical tools to avoid them.

Trope #1: The Gypsy Woman

The most common – and most overused – stereotype psychic needs no introduction. As a trope, the Gypsy Woman dates back at least to the 19th century (in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brönte already exploits its trope-status). But the mystery and mistrust ‘proper society’ associated with Romani, Sinti and other Travellers has existed for much longer. Yes, there were travelling shows. Sometimes those shows included a soothsayer of sorts, because people have always paid good money to hear a) whether their dead loved ones still loved them, and b) what the future had in store for them.

In modern stories, the Gypsy Woman is rarely a true Traveller, but she fits the ancient stereotype all the same. Always a woman, always with an ‘alternative’ fashion sense, who is either stoically mysterious or a complete raghead. Professor Trelawny in Harry Potter quite fits that bill.

Trope #2: The Reformed Fraud

Today’s enlightened society is convinced that psychics are fraud by definition. Enter the trope of the fake psychic who doesn’t believe in the paranormal and summons fake ghosts to con bereaved families. Until they discover that ghosts are – gasp! – real after all. Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost wasn’t the first to have this epiphany, and she will not be the last.

A trite concept, because the audience knows from the off that the character’s presumptions are wrong. The conflict those presumptions lead to is so obvious and the dragged-out resolution so inevitable that the character’s development fails to satisfy. It’s just too darn predictable.

Trope #3: The Helpful Medium

This one is the go-to psychic for paranormal series. When this psychic is female or underaged, she is compassionate by nature and wants to Help, capital H well deserved. Help bereaved people move on, help ghosts most on, help ghosts be avenged, solving their murders, etc. A prime example is the series Ghost Whisperer, but don’t forget Medium (although the latter was based on a real psychic). Easy entertainment in the tradition of police procedurals. But hey, I happen to like police procedurals.

When the Helpful Medium is male, he tends to be forced into helping. Ghosts haunt him and he wants them gone, or the living pester him until he does The Right Thing. Usually that involves something dangerous, like stopping murderers (i.e. the movie The Sight). The majority of the story consists of him being dragged kicking and screaming into his role as Helpful Medium, until he comes around and does The Thing. That’s it, the End. Hence the male variety of this trope are more frequently spotted in stand-alone stories than in series. Jim Butcher’s paranormal sleuth Harry Dresden aside, but then Harry is a wizard and his stories police procedurals.

Trope #4: The Vulnerable Child

Hands up, everyone who immediately thought of Sixth Sense? Ha, I knew it!

While “I see dead people” is a great poster boy for this trope, the phenomenon is common as muck. Mysterious, silent and wise children who see the future and communicate with the spirits are found everywhere across time, cultures and genres: Princess Hinoto in the manga X, Suntop in the comic Elfquest, Eleven in Stranger Things, just to name a few from the top of my head. There are so many, even the trope lists on the internet aren’t complete.

The source of this is no doubt the equally widespread idea that children are more sensitive to the paranormal. However, what bothers me about this trope is that the character’s inherent vulnerability is always exploited: the child is misunderstood and/or abused by adults, pestered by other children, kidnapped by the bad guys, etc.

This is a cheap means to create conflict. Not necessary. But then tropes never are.

Avoiding The Trap

Tropes, like clichés, exist because our brain prefers familiar things. Stock characters are easy to classify and don’t take much brain power to figure out. Considering that in order to write a psychic character, said character must possess essential characteristics of a one, going down the trodden path is just too easy to resist.

How to fix that? With two simple tools.

Strip, Twist & Make Them Real

In my experience as a writer, the best way is to strip that trope down to its essential elements and give at least one of those a twist.

For example: need a child psychic for your story? Take the vulnerable element and twist it: create a child psychic who’s isn’t a shy, scrawny introvert, but a sports fanatic. A kid who has great social skills and tons of friends that may or may not know about the ghosts, and who has found ways to deal with what they see other than locking themselves in their room.

Such twists make a character memorable for two reasons. Firstly, the audience pays actual attention to the character, because it doesn’t fit the standard format. Secondly, such twists can inspire unforeseen conflicts and add extra detail to the story, which wouldn’t have come up with the stock version of the character.

Do Your Research

Even a nameless psychic who only appears once to spew a prophetic warning, you still need life-like details to convince the audience. So before your let your Hero (m/f) stumble on a mysterious woman with a crystal ball in the folds of her colourful dress, look into real-life psychics. Study what they can do and how their particular ability works. For every trope psychic, there are more tropes about what psychics can do.

To give you a taste, here are a few debunking insights my own research unearthed:

  • Clairvoyance doesn’t mean seeing ghosts like you see living people. It’s more of a knowing that someone is there and what they look like. It feels like seeing, but the sensation by-passes the physical eyes.
  • Divination isn’t looking into a definite future, but rather the most probable outcome of a situation based on the present.
  • Card readings don’t tell you anything. They help your mind to free associate and view your situation in a new way, thus triggering what feels like revelations.
  • 99% of psychics are people like you and me. They don’t flaunt what they ‘see’, and rarely speak to other people about it.

As with anything: even if you don’t believe something is real, do you research as if it is. The more you know, the more creative your twists when applying the strip-and-twist method.

With these two tools, you can change stock character sock puppets into real people. A bit like Pinocchio, except there’s no additional magic required.


Jane Eyre: https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/j/jane-eyre/summary-and-analysis/chapters-1819

Professor Trelawny: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Sybill_Trelawney

Ghost (movie): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_(1990_film)

Ghost Whisperer (series): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_Whisperer

Medium (series): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medium_(TV_series)

The Sight (movie): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sight_(2000_film)

Harry Dresden: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dresden_Files

Sixth Sense (movie): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sixth_Sense

X (manga): http://xtvclamp.wikia.com/wiki/Princess_Hinoto

Elfquest (comics): http://elfquest.wikia.com/wiki/Suntop

Stranger Things (series): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleven_(Stranger_Things)

‘trope lists’: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PsychicChildren and http://allthetropes.wikia.com/wiki/Psychic_Children

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3 thoughts on “I See, I See: Psychic Tropes by Chris Chelser

  1. A few more observations on the tropes:

    1) No doubt the Gypsy woman got started because WE don’t have psychic powers, but one of those more animalistic primitive people who live closer to nature do. (Did I get enough cliches in?)

    2) 1996’s “The Frighteners,” starring Michael J. Fox, was an interesting twist on the reformed fraud. Fox’s character isn’t a fraud because he can’t see ghosts; he’s a fraud because he gets ghosts to cooperate with him to defraud people!

    3) Helpful mediums? Did anyone else think “The Legend of Hell House”? It’s got both stereotypes: Pamela Franklin plays a sweet young thing, while Roddy McDowall plays the reluctant male.

    There’s one other psychic trope that drives me batty: the psychic who can see everything EXCEPT the most important thing that will happen to him/her. Think Paul Muad’Dib in “Dune,” whose psychic abilities fail him every time he gets into mortal combat. Mark Twain actually played with this in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” in which the Boss challenges a “magician” to figure out what the Boss is doing with the hand he had behind his back; the magician explains that he only tells about what happens to important people, etc.

    1. Gah! I’m so sorry, Brian! I thought I replied to this, but apparently I either flat out didn’t, or it didn’t go through.

      Oh gosh, I remember The Frighteners. That was a fun movie, and you’re right, that was an interesting twist. I never even thought of it like that way.

      I can’t say that Legend of Hell House popped into my head, but..yeah, you’re right.

      And yeah the whole “Blind to everything but” is annoying!

      1. Eh, don’t worry about it, but thanks for the re-do (or whatever). And if my “likes” have been scarce on the blog lately, it’s because the like button hasn’t been working for me for several days once again. Seems to be working now, though!

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