My character is a drug addict. Now what?
About a year ago, I read through a popular thread in the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum entitled, “Characteristics You Hate in Main Characters.” As I read through the thread, it became pretty clear that every possible character trait is on someone’s hate list:
Personally, I don’t like underdogs.
I don’t like characters with low self-esteem.
I hate Holden Caulfield and any character who reminds me of him.
I strongly disagree with all three of the above opinions (especially all the hate for poor Holden), and they were ripped straight from the first two pages of comments. I understand that everyone has their likes and dislikes. But as I skimmed through the vast majority of comments, I noted a characteristic that at least five or six posters agreed on: addicts. Not many people like an addict for a main character–save for House and Sherlock Holmes. Why is this? Is it because people believe that, by writing a main character as an addict, he or she is simply too unappealing or too difficult to sympathize with? Are “moral sins” impossible to overlook for many readers because of the societal stigmas associated with them?
I’ve always been a huge advocate for (sometimes overly) flawed characters or characters with difficult character traits because perfect characters bore me to tears. People aren’t perfect, so why should your characters be the very best at whatever they do, the strongest, the most beautiful? Flaws bring characters down to a level that readers can sympathize with, not the other way around; just like any person, characters need to be fleshed out and given traits–the good along with the bad.
Though not the main character of the novel, the main antagonist of Boot Hill, Fortun, is a (mostly) functional addict. He is addicted to a fictitious drug in the world of the story called vignoire. I’ll spare the explanation, but suffice it to say that it’s kind of like a much less appealing combination of marijuana and acid because of its nightmarish addictive properties. While I understand that addiction may be unappealing to certain readership, it is an essential part of Fortun’s characterization: it affects the way he makes decisions and interacts with other characters, which heavily affects the outcome of the novel. I wouldn’t get rid of this character trait for anything in the world. However, I am not using his addiction as a means to vilify him. In fact, I would argue that the novel’s protagonists, Finch and Linds, are a bit more flawed than most of my antagonists overall. Imagine that!
To those of you who may be writing characters with difficult character traits: it’s okay. Actually, it’s more than okay. I personally recommend it. Focus on making your characters rounded rather than the simple black or white of “good” and “evil.” Tapping into what society considers morally or socially deplorable characteristics just to make a blanket statement about a character isn’t typically a good idea because it can be a sign of a lazy author. It’s easy to say, “So-and-so killed an entire race of peoples, so he’s evil.” But why does the character do this? There has to be a reason, and I guarantee you the reason will need to be more interesting than “because he’s evil” to make readers believe the character. By delving further into a character’s psyche, an author is able to uncover the gray area that exists there–the coexistence of “good” and “bad.” And I believe that that makes for a much more interesting character than the alternative.
Here is a small snippet of Boot Hill from the perspective of a drugged-up Fortun, the main antagonist:
“We have arrived, Talont Rustreil-lis-Signes,” Gratien says with a sigh, bringing the vehicle to an abrupt halt. He shakes his head slowly, keeping his gaze forward and his hands tight on the steering wheel. He hasn’t looked at me since he pulled up into the central station parkway and I slumped into the seat beside him, staring wide-eyed at the roof of the car in silence.
The door lever shrinks away from me as I fumble with the cool metal. I finally manage to grasp the lever and pull it down, pushing the door open, and I lift myself out of the seat. The vehicle’s metal frame creaks as I stumble off of the running board and onto the cobblestone walkway. I lean against the door and, despite my swirling sight, spot the golden glow of the distinguished clock tower a few blocks away, partially hidden behind a number of buildings.
“This isn’t where I asked to be taken,” I say through the half-open window, pointing at the clock tower. Gratien smooths his graying mustache and then leans across the width of the car, finally looking at me.
“Your parents were fortunate that they didn’t have to see you like this,” he says. “I can’t imagine what your sister thinks.”
I reach for the door handle to let myself back in but Gratien straightens and propels the car forward, parting the sea of people hastening toward the city square with a high-pitched honk of the horn. Crowds draped in vibrant reds, oranges and yellows trickle into the area once occupied by the car as if it was never there. I grit my teeth and watch the hood of my car quickly fall out of sight as it plummets down the steep roadway.
I begin to walk toward the clock tower, falling in line with the crowds. Street musicians strum guitars and rattle tambourines against their wrists while passersby shout and sing in wandering circles around me. Children wail for their parents. The sounds all culminate into the brief memory of waves crashing against a cliff. The watchtower, five years ago. The blistered bodies of my soldiers. Rhys.
Glancing down, the cobblestones bend and stretch beneath my feet–this isn’t right. I squeeze my eyes shut and then look up at the huge, glowing clock face looming above me and try to make out the time. The hour and minute hands wobble and drip into the numbers the longer I stare. Its golden glow ripples out into the sky. After a few deliberate blinks I can focus enough to determine that it’s a quarter past four. The effects of the vignoire should have subsided more than an hour ago. Anxiety spreads through my stomach as I trudge across the remaining length of the city square, fretting over the prospect of the Holy Bastian seeing me like this.
I breathe in deeply, shake my head, and shrug my way through the bustling crowds until I’m within the clock tower’s long, afternoon shadow. As I approach the base of the tower, the chaos around me collapses into the background and the familiar hum of wheels and cogs clanking from within the building swells to a low whir like a tumultuous beehive.