Writing Altered States

drinking in bar

Something I come back to sometimes in my writing, for some reason, is altered mental states and related topics. Drugs are an obvious example, but this can also be relevant to magic and a wide range of other possibilities. If your character just lost a limb in a sword fight, they’re not in their usual state of mind.

I wrote a story in uni about a rocket scientist microdosing LSD. My WIP features some drinking, a fictional opiate, and the state in which mages access magic. I recently wrote a story about a lich in Magicholics Anonymous.

If you want to show your characters drunk, on something, or affected through other means, here are some thoughts on how to address that.

Do your research

There’s a good chance you already know how alcohol works (if not, information will be easy to get). Beyond that, you can find reports on what various substances are like in places like r/Psychonaut, r/Drugs, and affiliated subreddits. The YouTuber Cg Kid has apparently taken everything, and candidly describes both the experience and the dark side.

Similarly, you can look up weird meditative and spiritual experiences, sleep deprivation, shock, the effects of solitary confinement, whatever else the plot requires.

The impressions given in general media tend not to be as subjectively in-depth or accurate as what you’ll get from resources like above, though any source has its bias. Marijuana in films and TV has often been made to look like a psychedelic for some reason, and LSD visuals may be more subtle than the stereotypical imagery.

If you’re making a fictional substance, bear these categories and examples in mind:

  • Depressant: alcohol, marijuana.

  • Stimulant: caffeine, cocaine, meth.

  • Opiate: morphine, heroin.

  • Psychedelic: LSD, DMT.

  • Dissociative: ketamine.

  • Deliriant: datura.

Fight the purple

It’s very easy to slip into purple prose if your character has dropped DMT, or is meeting with an entity from another plane of existence to negotiate a pact.

Overwrought similes and metaphors can just be confusing word salad. Don’t be afraid to do a bit of telling, or trim down some of the detail and give readers space to picture it themselves. If you’re being metaphorical, base the metaphor in relatable physical things so the reader has something solid they can hitch their imagination to.

For example, it’s much better to describe an opiate as a warm, heavy blanket than to write a paragraph about thoughts going quiet.

Down-to-earth details

Well-chosen details, particularly physical, can add great realism and nuance while fighting purpleness. Infinite Jest does this well, including things like itching behind the eyes, saliva, a clinical taste after injecting which addicts end up associating with the high, and so on.

Bringing in the five senses, and mentioning side-effects in a non-didactic way, are ways to make something outside most people’s experience much more real, showing you didn’t just skim the opening sentence of the wikipedia page, while avoiding an excessively rose-tinted stance.

Use external behaviour – what they say, how they move, how they interact. You can write a drunk character without a single word about how they feel.

Use the contrast

Don’t focus solely on how the character feels inside.

This is an opportunity to reveal new facets of your characters, to make them lighten up or to make them get reflective. Show a talkative character drawn into themselves, exposing hidden depths; or a normally careful character losing their inhibitions to explosive effect. Show a seasoned commander unresponsive, a background follower recklessly leading the charge.

Contrasting with the way they normally present themselves will add dimensions to both the altered state and the character in it.

On the level of sentences

Something to consider is changing up the rhythm of your sentences and paragraphs to help paint the experience. This can be quite powerful, and might buy you points from the literary crowd for being ‘experimental’ if you take it far enough.

So a character. In an opium den. Might be nodding out. So short sentences like this. Can help show a sleepy daze. As everything slows down. And it’s hard to think.

Or if they’re on like coke or meth or adrenaline in a battle well it’s going a mile a minute and you’re not going to get a paragraph or much punctuation really for a while there might be multiple strands of thought going back and forth rapidly just freewrite a bit and see what comes this will help you get in the right zone of mind too.

Apply this in their dialogue too.

Do you find yourself writing this kind of thing much? How do you approach it?

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