If Speculative Fiction Genres Were Psychoactive Drugs

Every genre of speculative fiction has its own signature atmosphere: often a combination of fantastic, awesome, terrifying and bizarre. So do psychoactive drugs – and the two match up. This article looks at which drugs give a vibe that best matches the vibe from a genre of speculative fiction.

High fantasy fiction matches up to cannabis. Lord of the Rings contains a couple of sly allusions to cannabis use, most notably when Saruman admonishes Gandalf for his “love of the halfling’s weed” while explaining how Gandalf missed a clue that he should have noticed. The scene in the film Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf and Frodo sit above the drunken revellers and smoke some magical substance from a pipe is one familiar to most stoners.

Some of the experiences that Elric has in the Stormbringer series of novels by Michael Moorcock were also very likely to have been cannabis-inspired. There’s something about Elric’s experience of having an extremely powerful ally that couldn’t really be trusted that speaks to the paranoia that sometimes comes with the cannabis experience.

The sword and sorcery style of low fantasy matches up with psilocybin mushrooms. It’s unlikely that Robert E Howard took any magic mushrooms before writing any of the Conan the Cimmerian stories, but the protagonist’s many adventures in dark, subterranean caves and inside fantastic towers and castles are reminiscent of the depth and range of sometimes terrifying personal insight that often comes with mushrooms.

The Forgotten Realms universe of Dungeons and Dragons adventures, with their massive, dark forests full of elves and goblins also relates closely to the vibe of the psilocybin mushrooms experience. The reason why magic mushrooms enthusiasts are encouraged to try taking five grams in silent darkness is because it leads to exploration of a fantastical inner world, and going down into the subterranean to arise wealthier at some later point is a regular theme.

Most of what sells as science fiction could have been inspired by LSD. Stories like The Demolished Man, with a very strong psychological content, harken to the disintegrative effect that psychedelics can have on the personality. The main character of The Demolished Man, somehow between protagonist and antagonist, ends up having his personality completely demolished (and then rebuilt) as punishment for his crimes, reminiscent of how the psychedelic experience can destroy a person and then build them back as something stronger than before.

This sense of twisted psychology comes through also in the writings of Philip K Dick, who had himself tried LSD. Psychedelics might have inspired the plot of Ubik, in which the character Glen Runciter experiences a believable but bizarre reality while his physical body is “on ice” in a cryogenic chamber. Wondering if you’re really dead or alive is the kind of thing that LSD can make happen to you.

The almost schizophrenic belief in a hidden real world outside of this merely simulated one is a mainstay of cyberpunk literature, and is similar to the impressions one gets on DMT or salvia divinorum. For thousands of years, human shamans have been having experiences of dying to the physical world and being reborn to the real one, like Neo did in The Matrix. In that regard, The Matrix is really a retelling of the ancient mystery school teaching of death and resurrection, reclothed in 21st-century technology.

A description of what might be the spirit of the DMT experience is given in the ANZAC cyberpunk novel The Verity Key. In the chapter Mindknife, the protagonist Jonty Gillespie has his perception altered by ingestion of a drug called Cinque Nuevo, which briefly blasts his consciousness out of his physical body and into an entirely external dimension that is occupied by beings that take the form of balls of light, while mechanical constructs that might be metaphors churn around him.

The datura experience is pretty similar to what befell many of the unfortunate researchers in the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. A disquieting sense of things not being quite as they should be grows into an intense paranoia that leaps at every shadow and from there to total psychological collapse at the raw horror of reality itself. Alien beings that seem to have come to Earth just to torment you is the kind of thing you’re dealing with in either case.

Datura is also the kind of drug that fits the background of weird horror stories such as those in His Master’s Wretched Organ. Talking to grotesquely deformed entities like Mr. Creamfeather and eating tobacco cakes are the sort of horror that, once experienced, leaves a person never quite the same again. The concept of ordeal rituals that leave you wiser for having suffered come to mind here.

Others are arguable. The steampunk of The Rocketeer might suit opium, the boo-yah aggression of Starship Troopers might suit mescaline, and the gritty military noir of the Altered Carbon series might be the old classics of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.

It might be hard to read any speculative fiction on most of these drugs, because a person on them is more likely to be occupied with the inner theatre of the thoughts in their head than a book in the external world. However, it might be possible to have a richer experience of reading speculative fiction after having tried some of them, because they could open your awareness to realms of thought previously unimagined.

Writing the Schizophrenic

The literary medium offers vast scope for portraying the perceptual and cognitive oddities characteristic of schizophrenia

There are a tremendous number of misconceptions about schizophrenia – a combination of a cultural reluctance to confront the reality of mental illness and prior inaccurate portrayals in popular media. Avoiding these misconceptions and cliches is crucial to creating a believable and engaging schizophrenic character.

Perhaps the most glaring misconception is the belief that having schizophrenia means having multiple personality disorder. Many people still seem to believe that having schizophrenia is like Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which a powerfully suppressed evil nature sometimes breaks through to the surface and takes over the mind of the patient.

It’s certainly possible that a schizophrenic might have powerful struggles with inner demons, but they are not werewolves. A psychopathic alter ego is more characteristic of the psychopath. Powerful mood swings might make the schizophrenic seem like different people, and might make them difficult to deal with, but the characteristic of multiple personality disorder is that the personalities are not aware of each other, and schizophrenics are not afflicted by this.

It’s also not true that a schizophrenic will just babble nonsense all the time. Although psychological disorganisation is characteristic of schizophrenia, and although this disorganisation makes it more difficult to speak and converse coherently, speaking in word salad is more characteristic of an acute state of psychosis. This is a common state for a schizophrenic to fall into, but is different to schizophrenia itself.

Schizophrenics usually spend much more time in non-psychotic states than psychotic ones because it’s extremely difficult to maintain the state of acute agitation necessary to become psychotic. This state requires so much emotion and energy that in practical cases the sufferer either wears themselves out or ends up becoming convinced (or forced) to take medication.

So it’s relatively rare for a schizophrenic to act truly crazy all of the time.

What is characteristic of schizophrenia are what is called positive and negative symptoms. These don’t mean ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symptoms but whether the loss of touch with reality is the result of something being added to the “normal” experience of reality or something being taken away from it.

Dramatic visions, delusions and hallucinations, such as those portrayed in the film A Beautiful Mind, fall under the rubric of positive symptoms. The most common form of positive symptom is that of hearing voices. This is very difficult to imagine for anyone who has not experienced it, but a character who suffers this symptom might think that someone is talking to them when no-one is really there.

Sometimes when a schizophrenic appears to be rambling, they are having a coherent conversation with someone who doesn’t appear to be there. This naturally sounds like rambling to an outside observer although the schizophrenic themselves might believe that they are having a perfectly reasonable conversation with someone right next to them.

Likewise, when a schizophrenic appears to be staring into space, it may be because they believe themselves to be in a part of the Great Fractal that is different to where the outside observer is. Much like in a dream, the material world might not be making much of an impact on the consciousness of the schizophrenic.

This means that writing a story from the perspective of the schizophrenic is likely to be a cross between surreal and terrifying. Because what other people take for granted as firm laws of reality do not seem to apply to the conscious experience of the schizophrenic, it’s very difficult for any other character to understand what the experience of a schizophrenic is like.

It’s also terrifying because having original ideas about the nature of reality brings out some powerful emotional responses in other people. It isn’t easy to have other people profoundly disagree with you about things that you take for granted. Experiences like this might go some way to explaining why a schizophrenic character would also suffer from negative symptoms.

Disengagement with society, flattened emotions and an inability to maintain routines are the characteristic negative symptoms of schizophrenia, and if you can present realistic positive symptoms to your reader then some of these negative symptoms should be easy to believe.

For example, the reader might understand why a schizophrenic character feels the need to disengage with society if they read about how frustrating and frightening is to constantly be told, by everyone that character meets, that reality is actually very different to how that character perceives it.

Likewise, they might understand why schizophrenics have flattened emotions when they read about how a schizophrenic character has to compensate for the apparent fact that many of the things they perceive to exist aren’t really there. There are good reasons to not react strongly to things, even when those things are extremely bizarre or unusual, if one ordinarily sees a series of bizarre things that aren’t really happening.

The experience of being unable to maintain routines is a natural consequence of having an unusual amount of chaos in the mind, and it could be the routines in a character’s life falling to pieces that gives the first sign to those around them that a mental illness is developing.

Generally speaking, schizophrenia is an extremely difficult condition to portray accurately because of its complexity and because the experience of a schizophrenic is often fundamentally different to the experience of other people. Often the schizophrenic character will react reasonably and logically to the impressions that come into their mind and it is how those impressions get there which is the truly strange thing.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18.

Writing the Narcissist

Portraying believable narcissistic characters in your creative writing poses a set of challenges that are similar to those posed by writing psychopathic ones. This is because both types of characters are extremely selfish, but there are many differences nonetheless. This article looks at the typical qualities of the narcissist so that a creative writer can most realistically portray such a character.

In that the narcissist is arrogant, self-absorbed and exploitative they are similar to the psychopath. Where they are different is that the psychopath seems dead inside to those that really know them, whereas the narcissist is full of emotions and life.

For example, narcissists are highly prone to strong feelings of envy. If the protagonist of your story achieved a major personal milestone, and received adulation from all around them, this could be the plot point that drove a secondary narcissist character into action.

That character might feel so bitter about the positive attention received by your protagonist that they began to scheme to bring them down. This could result in anything from gossip, to spreading false rumours, to a false accusation or even to violence. The more likely it is that the narcissist would step into the shoes of the protagonist if they took them down, the more strongly the narcissist will be motivated.

Narcissists also have a marked tendency towards magical thinking. If the narcissist makes a mistake, or lets someone down, or has an embarrassing failure of some kind, they are likely to use all kinds of implausible and bizarre explanations to escape any feeling of shame. Often they will simply distort reality rather than admit to being at fault for anything, and distortions of reality can lead to all manner of problems.

They are also likely to project their failures onto others, as a way of dealing with the internal feeling of shame. They are extremely reluctant to admit to either failure or weakness, and experience admitting such things as very humiliating. An intelligent character will be able to use this tendency as a way of determining the narcissist’s secrets, because they tend to accuse other people of what they themselves are guilty of.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the narcissist is grandiosity, which manifests as a deep sense of superiority. This frequently becomes difficult for other characters in short order, because in the mind of the narcissist this sense of superiority gives them the right to treat others with contempt or disdain.

For this reason, narcissists tend to upset other characters. The more narcissistic those other characters are, the more they are likely to get upset – which is why it’s often dynamite when two narcissists meet. The coming together of two narcissist characters could make a fitting climax to any story or comedy.

Similar to the psychopath, the narcissist is capable of engendering powerful feelings of hate in other characters. These other characters are bound to feel that the narcissistic character is arrogant and rude, and the narcissistic tendency to be completely oblivious to the damage they cause only makes it more aggravating.

The narcissist is also capable of engendering powerful feelings of hate in themselves. Not being the centre of attention and adulation can be extremely damaging to the self-esteem of the narcissist. They might find meeting someone like a famous politician or distinguished intellectual to be an extremely unpleasant and belittling experience, enough to cause them depression for a while.

A narcissistic character will not necessarily bring misery into your story world, and this is another major way they are different to the psychopath. They may have found a way to sublimate their narcissism into bringing a lot of joy to people, such as becoming an actor or professional sportsman. Such a character might struggle with the excesses of their narcissism at the same time as mostly succeeding in bringing people joy.

Usually, however, narcissists do bring misery to those they encounter. The nature of the narcissist demands that they try and get the most adulation possible, and this means that they are prone to aggressively seeking high-status positions, even when there is another candidate who is obviously better qualified (a narcissist is not likely to realise that someone else is better qualified).

The narcissistic character might have an unpleasant early history that partially explains why they themselves are not a pleasant person. Many theorists believe that narcissism in adults is frequently caused by a lack of empathy and respect towards them when they were children, leading them to overcompensate as adults.

Frequently the narcissist will have one, or both, parents who did not seem to treat them as valuable when they were children. This lack of a normal, healthy level of positive attention in childhood is what makes the narcissist so desperate to receive it in adulthood. The narcissist might reveal, in their behaviour and actions, the resentment they feel towards perceived neglect.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18.

Writing The Psychopath

Psychopaths make for fascinating characters in creative writing because they are dangerous, ruthless and unpredictable

The psychopath, sociopath or person with Antisocial Personality Disorder has for centuries been one of the most interesting subjects for creative writers. Something about their nature reliably invokes a sense of horror in the reader – perhaps the ruthlessness, perhaps the callousness, perhaps the deep and smouldering hatred for life. This article looks at how you can believably portray a psychopathic character in your own creative fiction.

It’s important to note that ‘psychopath’ and ‘psychotic’ are two entirely different things. A psychopath is seldom a madman – there is usually a distinct logic and methodology to their actions, even if those actions are considered abhorrent by the majority of people around them.

Psychopaths are primarily characterised by a lack of shame or remorse. Essentially this means that they don’t feel bad about causing suffering to other sentient beings. If they do cause suffering to another person or animal they will rarely accept that they shouldn’t have done so, and even when they do they are never sincere.

A striking lack of remorse after the psychopath did something that harmed someone might be the clue that lets other characters realise that they’re dealing with someone who is a bit different up top. The psychopath might be unaware that they’re supposed to feel remorse (depending on their level of sophistication) and may appear to become confused when another character acts as if remorse would be expected.

Lying is another essential characteristic of the psychopath. From the perspective of the author, this presents an interesting challenge, because the characters that interact with the psychopath are unlikely to realise (at least, not initially) that they are being lied to.

This isn’t just a question of telling a lot of lies. Psychopaths are good at lying as well. They stay cool when telling lies – even if initially disbelieved, and this means that the microsignals that people subconsciously use to detect liars are present less often.

A character who encountered a psychopath might find themselves slowly figuring out that they’re being lied to. They might be so taken in by the glib charm of the psychopath character that they are reluctant to accept that that character has been misleading them, and only by thinking hard about the facts do they realise that something doesn’t add up.

These two traits combine as well, in remorseless lying. The psychopath does not care about the consequences of telling lies, neither when it comes to the suffering caused or the risk of being caught out. The lack of shame means that even if they are caught with indisputable proof that they are lying, they might continue to insist that their accuser must be mistaken, possibly mentally ill, or that they should just “get over it”.

These characteristics might be of more interest to psychological fiction than a psychopath who is just a remorseless killer. Although, if they are a remorseless killer, they no doubt will have developed a fantastic web of lies to divert attention from the fact. Keep in mind that some serial killers were even able to keep their streak of murders a secret from their own wives!

Another personality trait that typifies the psychopath is a constant need for stimulation. It seems that psychopaths do not derive the same satisfaction from everyday activities that non-psychopaths do, and this has leads to an increased incidence of risk-taking behaviours, such as sexual promiscuity, violence and drug use. The psychopath tends to be impulsive, on account of that they don’t have much in the way of inhibitions.

This means that a psychopath character will almost certainly not practice meditation, for example. Neither will they be fond of long walks on the beach, hiking, chess, Test cricket, gardening etc. They wouldn’t be able to sit still for long enough to partake in pastimes such as these.

A history of irresponsibility also characterises the psychopath. It’s common for psychopaths to be incapable of holding down a stable job or relationship because of the need for constant stimulation and because their lies and callous behaviour tends to limit social opportunities. Some other characters in your story might find this history a warning sign.

Another decision that the author will have to make is whether their character is a psychopath or a sociopath. Although both conditions generally fall under the rubric of Antisocial Personality Disorder, there is a distinction in that psychopathy is innate whereas sociopathy is a learned condition from the environment.

Depending on the needs of the story, the character might have been “born bad” or they might have lost their natural empathy as a consequence of massive physical, sexual or psychological abuse. The author will have to decide this once they decide what emotional reaction they want to reader to have, because a character who has had everything good beaten out of them in childhood will be more engaging to some readers, particular those with a higher demand for psychological realism.

Taking these considerations into account when writing a psychopathic character should allow the author to make an accurate portrayal of someone with the condition while avoiding the common cliche of mindless, uncalculating sadism.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18.