On Drinking, Smoking, & Drugs in Fiction

Readers think they’re smart. Be prepared to go Gonzo rather than trying to trick them.

Writers: Make sure if your fictional character is doing these things (drinking, smoking, and drugs) the reader has some sense of how it affects them. What’s their experience level with the substance? How do we know? Writing drinking and drugs in fiction can be a challenge, but with a little planning, you can get it right. 

A reader considers themselves to be “a good judge of character.” He or she also (generally) considers him/herself to be intelligent, not easily fooled,  and a good judge of truth.

You can be the judge of your readers’ ability to judge. I’m not here to judge that.

That being said, readers will notice when a writer mentions that a character is drinking, smoking, or doing drugs, but the character is not acting as if he or she is actually doing those things. If a character is supposed to be experienced at trying certain substances, but doesn’t use the terms that users use, or can’t explain how to ingest the drug and what effects to expect to a new user, the reader will call bullshit before the end of the page.

Writing Tip of the Day: Be Prepared to Go Gonzo, a la Hunter S. Thompson

If your characters are going to drink, prepare to make them drunk dial. If your characters are going to get stoned, prepare to make them lose track of large chunks of time and consume mass quantities of chips. … Jokes aside: your readers need to be able to see themselves in your characters. There needs to be the realism that alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs in fiction all have a relatable effect on the characters.

If your character has knocked back multiple double whiskeys and isn’t slurring his words or stumbling over his feet, the reader will need a reason to understand how your character has such a high tolerance.

If your character is sparking up a cigarette in every scene, then immediately snuffing it out in the next paragraph, your readers who smoke will roll their eyes. “At least, if you’re going to have the character light the damn thing, incorporate it for a reason.”

If your character is trying different types of drugs that give different highs, someone who has chased one type of high or another in real life will know. (Drugs in fiction can be especially questionable or unrealistic.)

It’s part of what made Thompson so powerful: he lived the experiences. He could write about the life he was living.

Not that I’m advocating any single one of you pick up any of the lifestyle choices (drinking, smoking, drugs, etc.) mentioned here: simply that, if they are not a part of your lifestyle, you will need to talk to people who have lived it, you will need to research what it is like to actually live the lifestyle in order to accurately relate it.

You have to be prepared to take it to a Thompson-esque level for your character when incorporating drinking and drugs in fiction. You have to be ready to make the character’s experience believable for the reader. Or else, by the time your character “sobers up,” your reader will already be home and in bed with another book.

Photo credit: Antoine Douglas at Concrete Rose Films.

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