Today I welcome Lisa Daniels to the blog. Her guest post shares tips for writing characters who are addicted to drugs. What fun! Take it away, Lisa:
Writing Addicted Characters
One of the first pieces of advice you hear when starting to craft stories is ‘write what you know’. The obvious way to interpret this is to focus on things you’re already familiar with such as your local neighborhood, jobs you’ve held and people you’ve known. There is nothing wrong with this approach and it can lead to some inspired writing. However, if you want to include elements in your story that seem a million miles from anything you’ve ever experienced, such as a character who is an addict, you will need to adopt a broader interpretation of that advice in order to achieve authenticity.
When it comes to writing fiction, research can mean a number of things. It can be from a textbook in a college library, a session typing things into an internet search engine, or going out into the world and walking in your character’s shoes. Researching addiction is no different. While you wouldn’t want to indulge in your character’s drug of choice, there is plenty of information out there that can help you craft an authentic character. Remember that in order to avoid clichÈ, be sure to go beyond the obvious and research all aspects of your character’s addiction: physical, psychological, social and emotional.
Online research should be able to provide general information on addictions, associated behaviors and the route your character would take if seeking help. For example, if you were writing a ‘rags to riches and back again’ story about a small town actor who makes it big in Hollywood and becomes addicted to painkillers, try finding information on some west coast treatment centers your character could potentially attend. Other options include finding social media chat rooms and blogs where people to share their stories, or searching out some psychology journals and books to get an idea of the thought processes often underlying addiction. If you want to carry out some first-hand research, be warned that approaching treatment centers directly is a delicate matter. If you’re confident in your approach, maybe you could find a doctor or nurse willing to discuss their work, but be extremely mindful of the confidentiality issues concerned and tread lightly. A better option may be to find some autobiographies of people who have overcome their addictions and adapt their experiences
One key piece of advice when researching fiction is ‘know when to stop’. You need to do sufficient research to be sure you can write with authority and authenticity, but only enough to fulfill the demands of your story. Unless you are utilizing the research for another purpose, such as a self-help book on addiction, you do not need to be an expert in all aspects; but you do need to be an expert on the world you create. When youíre done with the research, clear it all away and face that blank page or computer screen. By this stage you should have all you need to know embedded in your mind.
Write from experience
Look at a list of symptoms addicts often manifest. According to Psychology Today, these can include shame and guilt, a sense of hopelessness, and feelings of failure, as well as anxiety and depression. While you may not be an addict yourself, have you ever experienced any of these in your life? Maybe you’ve had a bout of depression; or lost money gambling one night because you just couldn’t walk away from the table; or turned to the bottle to escape a stressful period in your life? While you may not be able to truly empathize with someone whose life is blighted by addiction, maybe there is something you can recall from your own experience that can offer a little insight into the signs of addiction and an addictís mindset. A key word that often comes up when discussing addiction is ‘control’: losing it and getting it back. Think about times in your life that you’ve either felt a loss of control, or a time when you’ve taken control of something and apply it to your character’s life.
Power of imagination
Ultimately, stories are a work of fiction. They are the product of a writer creating and inhabiting the mind of their characters and fitting them into a believable world; whether that’s outer-space one thousand years from now, Victorian England or modern day inner-city Los Angeles. The key is authenticity. Before you start your story, shape a full character biography that fills in as much detail of your character’s life as possible. Include a timeline and think about their interactions with other characters (either within or outside the story). If you’re clear about the choices your character has made in their life so far, you can understand what fuels their behavior now. Addiction does not exist in a vacuum. Imposing the term ‘addict’ on a character (or person) is not the end of the story. Something drove them to their extreme behavior and maybe something can bring them back from the brink. If you know what motivates your character then you will know how to guide them through their story.
One final reminder is to avoid cliches. Countless stories have utilized ‘the addict’ in all too familiar ways. Think outside the box and create a character who no one would believe would be an alcoholic, gambler or drug abuser, or afflict your character with an unusual addiction. If youíve done your research, reached into your deepest emotions and compiled a detailed biography then you might not have lived your character’s life, but you will still be going a long way towards writing what you know.