Sitting around thinking why so many protagonists in crime fiction, at least at the darker ends of the spectrum, have protagonists who are addicted in some way. From Sherlock’s 7 per cent solution to the “dull routine of existence” to Nero Wolf’s beer to Philip Marlowe’s Old Forester, the idea that a crime novel’s protagonist must somehow be addicted has carried a lot of currency. My own protagonist, Elder Darrow, is an alcoholic in both Solo Act and In Solo Time, though practicing less and less as the books go on.
I suppose you can look at it, in character terms, as the necessary fatal flaw a protagonist must have for us to sympathize with him or her, something to make the protagonist human enough for us to want to travel on their journey. But why do so many of our main characters own an addiction? Is it because something like a drug or alcohol problem is common enough that everyone can sympathize? And if so, is a substance addiction the best way to make a character, as is said so clumsily, relatable?
I got thinking about this more when I read David Swinson’s book, The Second Girl, which features Frank Marr, a retired DC police detective with a serious longstanding cocaine habit. While the drug problem gives the character a certain edge, it’s such a pervasive part of the character that it made it hard for me to relate to him. I’m not trying to turn every character into a Sammy Sunshine but I’d like to feel as if the character at least recognizes his problem. Marr doesn’t seem to, just manages his way through the dope. Which leaves him dark, dark, dark. Not too much hope there.
So is an addiction required for us to relate to a protagonist and if so, does the addiction have to be cast as a weakness? Lucas Davenport, the protagonist of John Sanford’s Prey novels, is addicted to the hunt and to the violent end of his criminal prey. If an addiction is more intrinsic to character and less a characteristic like eye color or body odor, does that make the character stronger, more sympathetic to the reader?
If I had to guess, I’d opine that one of the things any addiction in a character provides is a way to keep a reader awake and aware at times when the plot isn’t rocketing ahead, in those inevitable places where the action must subside a bit to give everyone a breather. The addiction in a character says: “What bad decision are you going to make next because of this flaw?” And that decision may not necessarily be fueling the main plot.
I am beginning to think, though, that the subtler kinds of addiction or obsession—to one’s moral code, to one’s character flaws, to one’s deepest desires—make for more interesting protagonists than a single tangible characteristic that may not even be unique to the character. Or perhaps it’s that the addiction needs to be integrated into the protagonist in a way that makes him or her unique, or at least more interesting. Matt Scudder comes to mind—though the bad behavior caused by his addiction is mostly in the past, it has a way of affecting the way he operates in the books’ present.
Integrity of story is what it comes down to. Any addiction or obsession you provide a protagonist (or any other character, for that matter) has to be integral to the character, not a bolt-on like hair color or height. Or a plain yen for Scotch.