The following is a guest post by Eve Pearce.
Origins of Addiction
Addiction is defined as a great interest in something or a need to do or have something, and the dictionary suggests that the word originated at the end of the sixteenth century. However, artists and writers for many years had been concerned with man’s addiction to certain personality traits. As such a relatable and sympathetic trait, it can be used as a fantastic tool when creating works of fiction. One of the primary traits of many classicist texts is hubris, a key example being Icarus, who flew too close to the sun: while considering his flaws, the addictive qualities of flight and adventure, coupled with the tremendous feeling of freedom must surely be considered addictive. Many such human flaws are defined by the addictive qualities of emotions, and those characters which have remained timeless are those which drive relentlessly towards fulfilling these emotions. Even as the idea of addiction seeped into the language of everyday life during the sixteenth century, the chief writers of the day could be said to have evolved the concept. Is Marlowe’s Faustus not addicted to power, redefined as a thirst for learning? Is Othello not addicted to the love of Desdemona, jealous that it might be enjoyed by another? Shakespeare’s own sonnets demonstrate a craving and a lust beyond the simple yearning of a lover. These emotions, when viewed through the prism of addiction, demonstrate how truly great characters can be utterly addicted to emotion.
As addiction became more quantified and understood, and especially as addictive substances entered the mainstream, humanity’s ability to cope with addictive substances is doubted. Hogarth’s 1751 painting Gin Lane depicts the evils of drink in England, enough to form part of the argument for the creation of the Gin Act, a political policy which worried about the addict qualities of alcohol and the effect this might have on an impressionable public. The characters within the painting as depicted as debauched and criminal; Hogarth’s work is a throwback to the portraits of hell painted inside medieval churches, where addiction has become the new and fashionable sin. Although only officially repealed in the Sixties, a nineteenth century amendment reduced the power of these licensing laws. By then, not only had Britain become addicted instead to newly-imported, non-alcoholic tea, but the effect of alcohol was far less threatening. In its place, authors had found new addictions. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a character essentially defined by his addictive personality. We are offered two key examples: Holmes, when bored, relies and feeds upon his cocaine addiction; however, when a suitably challenging case is laid before him, this is instantly replaced with an addiction to mental vigor. This is one of the first characters demonstrating a literal chemical addiction, and it seems fitting that it should be placed alongside a character renowned for their own hubristic narcissism. Holmes is the paradigm of addiction in fiction; he feeds relentlessly and tirelessly in a manner which is utterly engaging.
Throughout the Twentieth century and beyond, art and its approach to character has become a great deal more abstract. Now, thanks to post modernism, work is not only informed by the literal contents, but by the context, the creator and the consumer. Many works now concern themselves with humanity’s growth into a society of addicts. A notable depiction would be Huxley’s A Brave New World, wherein the people are in thrall to a drug called soma, unable to imagine life without the miracle medicine. But what about addiction holds such a sway for authors? What about the flaw makes us, as an audience, so fascinated, and how can this be turned towards the advantage of those hoping to write?
Addiction is an exercise in wish fulfillment. Feeding into so many character traits, addiction represents a maximized desperation for a familiar emotion. However a character might need to fulfill that craving, whether it be for love or money, lust or power, their journey becomes relatable to an audience. Like so many emotions in fiction, addiction is useful to the writer not because it is necessarily a realistic depiction of human emotion, but rather because it is human emotion on full volume. The character has a need, a desire and is now filled with an utter compunction to achieve their goal. When creating the arc of a character, making them desire something is simple. Give them a small taste of what they could have, and then take it away. The withdrawal and the chase then become the main concern of the text. Heavily reductionist though it might be, addiction is the perfect means by which an author can demonstrate a character’s desire for an item or an emotion. While it may not be a textbook case of addiction, characters in fiction are typically written as fiends, driving relentlessly towards their goal; Ahab is addicted to his white whale, addicted to the chase and the glory. We are not necessarily fascinated by the goal (a whale) but by the addiction itself (Ahab’s desperate pursuit).
An Additive Plot
Addiction is also incredibly useful as a plot device. As mentioned above, as society has grown to understand addiction, the properties of addiction can be used by an author as a way of structuring a plot. Consider the book and film Trainspotting. All of the characters contained within are addicts, chiefly dependent on heroin. Their journeys are defined by their successes and failures in relation to battling this addiction. We as an audience understand addiction; we know the dangers of sharing needles and the other inherent risks of drug dependence. As a plot device, the character’s relationship with addiction plays a huge part. We see them battle with, beat and lose to heroin, and many of the characters are defined in relationship to their addiction. Tommy is corrupted, Renton is the corrupter. Addiction itself is the looming overlord, dictating the paths of these characters. There individual traits are exacerbated by the properties of addiction and we view their actions through the lens of their dependence on heroin. As part of a society fascinated by addiction – drugs, drink, tobacco and consumerism – we can relate to the concept of addictive personalities. Even though we may have never tried heroin, it becomes a heightened facet of humanity; the audience’s sympathy created and embellished by their understanding of human nature.
The Chief Concern of Character
Addiction is a traditionally fertile ground for fiction. Humans are essentially built as addiction machines; instincts and chemical conditioning program us to pursue pleasures and desires often to our own detriment. With so many artists themselves victims of addiction, it should be no surprise to see properties of addiction seeping into so many works of fiction. Indeed, art not only exaggerates addiction, but exemplifies it, redefining it as compulsion and obsession. When so many people are addicted to so many little things, when culture is so intoxicated with the fascination and fixation, it should be no surprise that addiction is a core tenet of the creative process. Either as a motivation device for characters, or as a pillar around which to build a plot, the properties and nature of the addict can be the key to creating wonderfully engaging works.