Drug addiction and alcoholism are challenging, controversial, and complex to write about, but I personally choose to address both, in my fiction.
I do have personal, although not recent, experience, in the areas of problem drinking and volatile substance abuse – but not of using illegal drugs.
There are many resources that can help with our research online, but definitely, a lack of material dealing specifically with how to write about these issues, in our fiction. I hope that this will change and, even though I can by no means claim to be an expert on substance abuse, I’m going to share what I am able to, at this point in time.
I did touch upon the subject of drug and alcohol abuse, in my post regarding how I address mental health issues, in my fiction. Mental illness and addiction are closely related, so I would suggest reading that post, for further insights.
Now, let’s get into the tips for writing about characters with substance abuse issues.
Just one more quick note first, though – to mention that addiction covers much more than substance abuse. I recognise that addictions to gambling, shopping, and so on, are very real. I simply can’t deal adequately with those, in the context of this one post.
Drug addiction, alcoholism, and binge drinking are also subjects that feature heavily in my WIP, making it natural that I would make it a priority to discuss these matters, here on my blog. 2020 update: The WIP, referred to here, is my novel Distorted Perceptions, which was published this year.
It’s vital to know about the physical effects of any substances your characters are abusing.
That’s the absolute minimum, so start your research there.
Know how the drug alters the personality and behaviour of your character.
If a character is introduced to readers prior to the addiction, contrast and changes will be easier to demonstrate. Early warning signs should be evident.
Know in yourself, at least, how the character was before. It may mean delving into back story. Was there any trauma, in the character’s past, that contributed to development of the addiction?
There will be some perceived benefits.
What does the drug do for the character? Does it numb physical or/and emotional pain? Ease symptoms of anxiety? Alcohol, for instance, is often used in an attempt to self-medicate, by sufferers of social anxiety.
There will be specific ways, in which the addiction clearly controls the character. Make sure that you show some of these.
How does the person fund their habit?
Any committing of crimes, such as burglaries? Has the addict become a dealer? And, of course, to say that it is not easy to escape those networks, is an understatement. Attempting to do so could place the person, along with loved ones, in very real danger. This would be an obstacle to recovery, even if the character was able to “get clean”.
How have relationships with family members and friends, who are not themselves addicts, been affected?
People, however close, will draw the line somewhere, and most will, ultimately, walk away. So much damage will have been done, possibly over years or decades. There can come a point, at which the strain is more than the relationship can take.
Usually, an addict will reach a crisis point – rock bottom, basically – and then decide to change.
Is your character able to give up drugs, drink, or both – as applicable? Does the individual subsequently relapse?
Do your research regarding the long-term health implications.
There could be serious, and even fatal, physical health consequences. Equally so with mental health. The addict is at an increased risk of suicide.
Access your own inner darkness.
Even if you haven’t had the precise experience that you’re describing, you can probably relate, on some level, to aspects. If you were drawn to write dark fiction, in the first place, there’s a reason.
Survivors understand survivors. Research the specifics, but beyond that, write from the heart.
Writing about drug addiction and alcoholism is no easy task, but I hope that these tips will guide and inspire you, as you attempt to realistically portray substance abuse, in your fiction.
More specific information, regarding substance abuse and addiction
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