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.


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9 thoughts on “My character is a drug addict. Now what?

  1. I 100% agree with you on character flaws. I am much more interested in writing and reading about characters with a wealth of mistakes and shortcomings, sometimes more so than positive traits. The trick is to handle the “negative” traits in a way that’s still interesting and will drive the plot. This post makes me especially excited for more Boot Hill narrative.

    • I think you’re absolutely correct in that an author must handle “negative” traits in a way that’s interesting. Originally when I was ranting about character flaws with a friend, I had said something more along the lines of the need to “redeem” characters, but I no longer think that’s necessary. Why does someone who is simply imperfect need redeeming? I feel like readers might expect a character who is engaging in harmful activities to change, but that’s not always going to be the case. I’m going to stick with my, “just make them realistic and people will understand where they’re coming from” camp. :) I’m glad my post piqued your interest. The moment I started writing Fortun, I knew it would be a good experience for me as a writer to undertake a character who is so unlike myself yet so similar in a number of ways.

      • I find myself more and more disliking the “redeemed character” trope, especially when it comes to villains. What’s interesting about flawed characters and villains to me is how traits are used to push the character’s actions. I also made a decision to write a character nothing like myself, and he’s become one of my most favored fictional people, and honestly, I think he helped me become a better character writer. So kudos, and good luck, because if you’re anything like me, I bet Fortun will end up being a blast to write.

      • Yeah, I am starting to feel similarly about the redeemed character trope nowadays. I also agree that writing characters that differ from me have helped my character writing overall. Plus, it’s fun to delve into mindsets you hadn’t even imagined before; doing so expands the mind and allows for so many more possibilities.

        Thanks for the luck! I’m already having a great time writing Fortun, and I’m excited to see where it takes me in the near future.

  2. puerandpaper on said:

    I personally love well-written addicts because they can be really vulnerable and I care about them (why would I want to BE a character when I can instead want to put them in my pocket and protect them?) The fact that being an addict necessarily means that your character has a lack of control over part of there life is fascinating and makes me root hard for a character fighting against that. Even this tiny snippet about Fortun makes me want him to help him and also makes it easier, as a reader, to forgive him for his past genocidal actions.

    If you have any more of your book reading for reading, I’d love to see it :3

    • I agree with you. Well-written addicts are often portrayed as vulnerable because of their lack of control, and that is probably why I’m so attracted to those kinds of characters, haha.

      Another interesting point: when I was re-reading the forum thread mentioned in my original post, someone said that they hated when an addict was portrayed as “functional.” That really struck me the wrong way because there are so many people out there who are functioning alcoholics or drug addicts. What does this person expect? That everyone with a vice is a pathetic slave to it and can never get on their feet or be an active member of society? That’s just not the reality of things, and I feel like that person’s hatred for functioning addicts stems from personal hatred for addiction in general, you know? Which is fine, but I get a feeling this person doesn’t understand addiction very well to make a blanket statement like that.

      I guess I find less functional addicts a little less engaging in writing or media in general because they seem to be more passive than their functional counterparts, and readers usually prefer to read about active characters. That’s something I will give to people who don’t like to read about addicts, I guess. The characters still need to be active in some way, progressing the plot and their character arcs.

      I’m actually writing some things out of order right now, so I will need to go back and fill in some holes soon. When I do that, what I’ll have done chronologically will probably be around 25,000 words. I definitely wouldn’t mind sending what I have for you once everything is cohesive and in order, haha. :) The scene here with Fortun is actually his third “chapter,” so there’s an entire chapter I’ve skipped in favor of writing this one, teehee.

  3. puerandpaper on said:

    Please forgive my hideous spelling of their and my awkward syntax. I just got home from eleven hours on the road and am not quite all there at the moment @_@

  4. Kylie Byrd on said:

    I agree that flaws are crucial! And I love your points about good and evil/”heroes” and “villains.” Though I haven’t read the Song of Ice and Fire books (but I’m obsessed with the show), at an author reading I went to recently, Leigh Bardugo cited Jamie Lannister as a brilliant example of how a complicated-enough villain can actually make you come to love them as a character. We are primed to hate him—he pushes a ten-year-old boy out a tower window in an effort to kill him for witnessing something—and later in the series he becomes a fan favorite for his good qualities (no spoilers).

    It’s true that some people are instantly turned off by the presence of drugs/addicts in fiction/nonfiction. But that just means they’re not part of your audience. And that’s fine. Let them have their squeaky clean books.

    On the flip side, addiction memoirs have been flying off the shelves for a while now. Even people who have never tried drugs might be interested in experiencing it vicariously through a character’s (or author’s) perspective, if only to satisfy morbid curiosity.

    I LOVE the word vignoire btw. Any hints on what inspired it? :3

    • I was totally thinking about Game of Thrones when writing this piece (and Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad). While I take some issue with how George R. R. Martin treats some of his characters (i.e. killing so many of them off), I applaud him for how rounded and real his characters are by and large, all while maintaining a gigantic cast to boot. I was talking to a friend recently and he raved about Jamie just as Leigh did. I’ve seen enough of the HBO series to agree that he starts off as a total asshat but from what I’ve heard he definitely becomes a fan favorite because of his complexities, which is such an inspiration. It can be done!

      I’m totally fine with having a narrower audience if it means that I get to stay true to my characters. In a perfect world, I would hope that readers would see past the flaws and difficult traits of my characters and see the bigger picture, but I know some people will inevitably turn their nose up at addiction, homosexuality, genocide, and various other controversial topics. Good riddance–I don’t want them reading my work anyway, hah. I just have to make sure it will be appealing enough to an agent!

      Vignoire is actually ripped from the French words “vin” (wine) and “noir” (black). Originally vignoire was going to function more like alcohol, but I’m way more interested in psychoactive drugs (lol) and it seems to make more sense in the world of the story. Also, if you haven’t noticed, a lot of character/place names are blatantly French or very similar to the French language. One of the races we’ve created speaks a language that phonetically resembles French or straight up mirrors it. :P I LOVE THE FRENCH, what can I say!

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