Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Addictions in Character Development

Addiction –noun
The state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.

Books have been written about addictions. Addictions are wide ranging and don’t always stay within common definitions. You can use addictions to sex, alcohol, wealth, cigarettes, chocolate, drugs, drama, adrenaline, work, danger, power, failure, victimization, adulation almost anything you can think of as a negative habit can become an affective character trait. My teacher Stella Adler used to say, “In your choice is your talent.” So, selecting addictions can be a very good choice.

The following are some questions you might ask if you are analyzing or creating an addicted character:

What is the character addicted to?
How does that addiction play out in the story?
How does it affect people around the character?
How does it sabotage the character?
Like certain medications, how does in interact with other character traits?
Most of all, how does it advance the plot?

One clue that is good to be aware of is that usually people, who are addicted to one thing, are addicted to other things. There is such a thing as an Addictive Personality.

So, if you were examining a character like Rush Limbaugh, for example, knowing that he has an addiction for Oxycotin, what other things do you think he might be addicted to: Food (hence the overweight), chocolate, power, sex (hence the Viagra), nicotine (hence the cigars), rage. Indeed, the character who is addicted is often defined by his addictions. You could say, the addictions predict the character.

Interaction with other character traits can go far beyond the obvious (like narcotics negatively enhancing the effects of alcohol). If a character is addicted to power there has to be a negative connotation to the power. So, in order to gain his power this character has to go on the attack. He has to assure dominance. And the things this character selects over which to assert dominance can be hugely interesting. Limbaugh chooses to assert dominance over the Republican Party among other things. He also plays fast and loose with the truth because the truth is less interesting than the power he gains by playing to the worst fears or most negative beliefs of his audience. So who is his audience and how do they partner him in his dance of power?

Interactions with other addicted characters can also be interesting: the sadist and the masochist, the victim and the victimizer, the successful parent and the failure child, all enter an intricate dance of addictions with one another. The key to addictions is that they always have a negative aspect to them. They sometimes have a positive aspect and they are most interesting when you can see the fallacy in the positive interpretation, or when you can see both sides of the coin.

The same addiction can wear many hats. In a well constructed story, there is generally a turning point (or inciting incident) at which the main character makes a decision that takes him into the body of the story. Generally, he makes a decision that seems to be taking him out of a bad situation but which actually leads him into a worse situation: the pot head who gives up smoking for drinking alcohol and becomes a raging alcoholic. The woman who attracts abusive men into her life (and yes, being abused is an addiction for many people) leaves one man for a worse abuser. Spousal abuse and alcohol abuse are evil twins and complimentary addictions.

Addictions can look like ways to manage your life or manage another addiction. Bulimia and anorexia for example appear to be solutions for women worrying about eating too much or getting fat.

As an exercise: What would you choose as an addiction for a character and how would that play out in your story? How has an author you are looking at used addictions in his story? How would you expand on the way an author has used addictions in a story? Addictions by their very nature have negative consequences. Work is a great ethic, but a workaholic neglects his life and family. Coping with danger as a soldier is good, becoming addicted to danger so that you have to keep going back into dangerous situations, or even generate dangerous situations, in order to feel alive is negative. Describing the dance of addiction is a great way to develop character or examine the way an author has developed character.

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