All psychoanalytic approaches to literature have one thing in common—the critics begin with a full psychological theory of how and why people behave as they do, a theory that has been developed by a psychologist/psychiatrist/psychoanalyst outside of the realm of literature, and they apply this psychological theory as a standard to interpret and evaluate a literary work. The developer of the theory and the details of the theory will vary, but the theories are all universalist in scope, positing patterns of behavior that are not dependent on specific times, places, and cultures. Frequently invoked theorists include Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jacques Lacan.
Because psychoanalytic theories have been developed outside the realm of literature, they are not tied to a specific aesthetic theory and are frequently coupled with other schools of literary criticism (e.g., feminist psychoanalytic criticism, reader-response psychoanalytic criticism, etc.).
Psychoanalytic literary criticism can focus on one or more of the following:
- the author: the theory is used to analyze the author and his/her life, and the literary work is seen to supply evidence for this analysis. This is often called "psychobiography."
- the characters: the theory is used to analyze one or more of the characters; the psychological theory becomes a tool that to explain the characters’ behavior and motivations. The more closely the theory seems to apply to the characters, the more realistic the work appears.
- the audience: the theory is used to explain the appeal of the work for those who read it; the work is seen to embody universal human psychological processes and motivations, to which the readers respond more or less unconsciously.
- the text: the theory is used to analyze the role of language and symbolism in the work.