Updated: Jun 3
Written by Elias McClellan
If you're going to give your character a drug problem, do it right. Make sure you have a good understanding of why they are using and what they are using.
And Elias McClellan shows us just what we need to know how to do this in his latest guest blog post.
James Frey didn’t invent drug use in fiction. Like popular music references to drugs—Johnny Cash sang “Cocaine Blues,” in 1960 and Red Arnall took credit for “writing” the song in 1947, but variations go back to the 1900s—book references to illicit drug use dates back over a hundred years. And for good reason: like any other foible, substance use/abuse lends gravitas to a character.
Of course, every drug aficionado, from Cheech and Chong to your cousin Tim, will tell you that Sherlock Holmes used cocaine. Truly, Holmes did use cocaine as well as morphine, alcohol, and tobacco. Probably had a serious ‘Nilla Wafer habit, too but we don’t judge. Motivation is the meat of the matter, and most authors aim for the underlying drama rather than gratuitous sensationalism. Most authors.
Richard Stark’s Parker returns from betrayal land, (never go during the offseason, trust) to find his woman, Lynn, with a debilitating heroin habit. After her introduction, Stark writes Lynn out with a convenient overdose because even in a crime novel featuring a murderous heister the times required a didactic down-nose at junkies.
Among double-crossing junkies and tragic victims, other clichés include foolish playboys and playgirls smoking their Insta-pots, shooting their Sugar Smacks, and sniffing Satan’s snuff. Wait, how’d that ABC Afterschool Special sneak in here? There is also a virulent subset of “drugs turned ‘em into monsters” trope, e.g., Thomas Harris’ meth-addled gang leader Evelda Drumgo. Needles tied in her hair? Who does that? My barber can’t be asked to make my cowlick lay down.
Who’s done it well, then?
First I have to redeem Thomas Harris. As wince-inducing as the Evelda Drumgo depiction was—and it was—Mason Verger is GOLD. Mason is the yacht-riding-playboy character taken to its logical conclusion. Mason inhales amyl nitrate, among beaucoup other pharmaceuticals, to enhance his sexual experiences, his endurance, and probably his canasta game, too.
Chasing a high and seeking a fresh victim, Mason accepts a “hit,” from an esteemed Baltimore physician, thinking he will put the doctor in “his pocket.” Of course, consequences are a bit more dire than the very-special episode of “Facts of Life.”
John Sanford, owing to his years as a Twin Cities beat reporter, chronicles drug use, common to both criminals and cops in his novels. Lucas Davenport is the do-right (mostly) hero-detective, but Del Capslock is the rotten-toothed real undercover cop among meth addicts and bikers. Yes, “Capslock.” And, yes, Sanford is lousy at naming ancillary characters but different topic, different time.
Dennis Lehane gives a master class in addiction from dry-drunks to geezer junkies. Doubt me? Read Eyes of Prey or Gone Baby, Gone. But don’t come running to me when the Boogie Man comes to get you. Me and Baloo (oh, like you don’t sleep with a boo-boo bear) have our own issues. Geezer junkies ain’t no punks, Y'all.
Where to start?
Ideally NOT with your cousin Tim. Seriously, he ain’t right, and he bogarts the bong. Or, you know, so I’ve been told. No. There is no easy way to say this, but you can’t write it until you’ve lived it. You have to try everything: chalk-candy cigarettes, milk-and-Pepsi benders, snorting poprocks, Mentos suppositories—the whole shooting match. Kidding.
You could, I dunno, read about it? I understand there’s this interweb thingy, but as a shy catholic boy, raised in a pious home, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Or those nuddies of Bea Arthur fourteen-year-old me kept under the bed.
Whatever avenue you take, here are points for consideration compiled by the experiences of folks who weren’t hampered by my curfew and tooth-chipping Irish mother.
First, as previously mentioned, motivation. The best writers understand the base most motivation for drug use: utility.
Sanford’s Detective Davenport uses amphetamines to chase serial killers, for days at a time. Sanford’s psychopath-pathologist, Michael Bekker uses drugs to function among people—even gauging whether PCP (stiff and wooden) or cocaine (aloof bordering obnoxious) will help him best play the grieving husband at the funeral for his murdered wife.
Frank Herbert populates Dune with ambitious people seeking to elevate their consciousness, unlock genetic engineered abilities, and cure canker sores, (a fate worse than death, Y'all) through use of one chemical compound or another. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective uses cocaine to counter crippling depression.
However, temperament is an equal partner with motivation in determining the method. Sherlock Holmes primarily used cocaine, not morphine or alcohol. Of course, Holmes is a man of action and genius in motion. Tao Lin’s Paul is not a man of action. He uses oxies to stave-off anxiety while on a book tour as opposed to Xanax.
James Webb’s war-weary Senator, haunted by his actions, uses sacks of VA-issued benzodiazepine to quell horrid memories or silence inner voices instead of speed, or hallucinogenic frogs, or fried banana-and-peanut butter sammichs.
When your character motivations and temperament help you fill their need, you’d do well to understand the drug effects. Cocaine and amphetamines are ups or stimulates. Heroin and barbiturates are downs or sedatives. Mushrooms and LSD are hallucinogens. But there are always unintended or side effects just as there are bullshit stories (thanks, Tim) about main effects and side effects. Seek clinical sources.
I once heard about a guy who…
Anecdotes are prone to hyperbole and cliché. A popular “story” from my childhood was of the crazed PCP (phencyclidine, an anesthetic that can induce hallucinations) addict who “took six rounds from a .357 magnum and kept coming.” I heard the same story in four different cities and saw it depicted in Sharky’s Machine.
When Paul McCartney met Harry Nilsson, the clearly inebriated singer-songwriter offered McCartney PCP, (then exclusively an animal anesthetic). McCartney asked if it is fun. Nilsson replied, “no” and McCartney declined. No gun-play involved. This exchange is documented in Rolling Stone Magazine.
However, as often as fiction has gotten it wrong, fiction has also gotten it right. Heroin’s effects, main, side, and after, are heavy. Renton’s heroin withdrawal in Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting is harrowing. But subtlety, even humor, is more effective and you don’t have to get that date-killing hairdo.
In Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega spends more time chasing a toilet than Marsellus’ briefcase. Nowhere near as romantic as Tarantino’s languid shots of Vincent shooting up, the repeated scenes of him on the toilet, on the way to the toilet, and ultimate exit from the toilet are the ~ahem~ hard truth: opioids cause constipation. Or runaway diarrhea—it’s a crapshoot.
Mary Gaitskill, with sparse words, establishes the amphetamine cycle of speeding and crashing and self-destruction in her would-be-lothario bookkeeper. The bookkeeper’s delusions are entirely unrelated to the amphetamine use.
Responsibilities, we have two…
Which answers the begged question: can you go too far? Yes, James Fogel’s Drugstore Cowboy can’t decide if it wants to be crime novel or addiction memoir and thus fails at both.
Worse is James Frey’s train wreck—less memoir than dishonest fiction. It aspires neither to improve nor to entertain, it is a barroom boast meant to distract while the boor picks your pocket. But worse than dishonesty is to become maudlin. Our primary responsibility is to tell a story—a dynamic, enriching story.
PCP, absinthe, and crystal methamphetamine all fell out of fashion, like double-knit safari suits, because their consequences are devastating and life-long and often, life ending. However, just like poor fashion choices, they all cycle through every generation or so. While there is nothing to be gained from writing a morality play, (unless that’s your thing, in which case, do you), there is a cost to everything. It’s a balancing act. Fogel does well-balancing drug depictions against consequences.
Indeed, an indulgence, or habit, can round out your bad man, or deadly woman. Critics may complain about the alcoholic cop or coke snorting stripper, but cliché and trope are two sides of the same coin. If handled lightly each become the sweet smell of city streets or sweaty, hellish memories of damning indulgences. The difference between a trope and a cliché is tropes contribute to the story.
Elias McClellan is an accountant for a state agency never to be named but aspires to commi—write, write crime. You can find him on Twitter at @TuttleNTexas. But why would you want to do that?