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How to write a drug-based magic that doesn't allude to real-world drug abuse

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Vaporo, Aug 21, 2019.

  1. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

    So, I've recently run into a slight problem. Or, it may not be a problem at all. I'm not really sure.

    In a magic system I've developed for a recent project power is obtained by injecting oneself with one of two drugs: Mihn's Eye, which allows the user to see a few minutes into the future, and Mihn Fire, which can temporarily grant a variety of abilities such as the ability to fly or the ability to radiate heat from the user's body depending on the exact mixture.

    Both drugs are incredibly addictive. Eye can result in a physical dependency after a single use, and Fire after roughly three days of continuous use. Both have powerful psychotropic and euphoric effects that require months of training to overcome in order to use properly. In particular, the overuse of Fire can cause vivid hallucinations that can continue even after the drug leaves the system. I introduced the addictive and psychotropic elements to "balance out" the drugs, otherwise there would be little reason why the protagonists, who have access to the combined wealth of several nations, wouldn't use them with reckless abandon.

    There is also a unrefined "recreational" form of the Fire that is banned in most countries due to its highly addictive psychotropic nature and the fact that most of the "recreational" fire is either stolen from legitimate operations producing unrefined Fire to eventually be mixed into magic-granting Fire.

    I've considered removing this aspect of the setting and simply saying that Fire is too carefully regulated to see significant recreational use, or that unrefined Fire has no effect, but having a large number of people who seriously abuse Fire is critical to the plot! Unrefined fire does have a very slight magical effect. On a rare occasion, a person who has lost lucidity to Fire will suddenly apparently regain full consciousness and espouse a detailed prophesy about the future. I want this to be an absurdly rare and apparently random effect, so that wealthy rulers aren't trying to "farm" prophesies, but there also need to be enough people using Fire that prophecies still occur. The obvious solution is to simply make using Fire a euphoric experience that some people will ignore the law to achieve.

    I hadn't initially set out to develop a system like this. My original goal was to create a magic system based entirely on prophesy. Originally, I'd had a much more mystical magic system in mind. However, I also had this idea for a historical sorceress/god-empress called "The Mihn," who was capable of seeing the entire future whose presence also provided a convenient source of all magic in the world. The Mihn gained her future-sight through some genetic anomaly or other stroke of luck, and she used her foresight to create drugs that replicated her powers.

    I also like that the drug doesn't really have anything inherently magical about it. Magic is the result of some set of bizarre chemical reactions in the brain, and Fire and Eye just happen to cause those reactions.

    It wasn't until recently that it really hit me: I've developed a magic system that is based on people injecting themselves with highly addictive psychotropic drugs that are illegally traded on the black market. What will people read into that? I took inspiration from real-world drugs, but my setting's drugs and their effects are meant to be totally fictional. The story is meant to be about prophesy, and a subversion of the tropes thereof. I don't really want to make any commentary on the serious real-world problems of drug abuse, and I don't want readers to think that I'm making any kind of statement either.

    So, what are your thoughts? How can I write this without readers taking it as some kind of commentary? I realize that no matter what I do at least a small percentage of readers will take my story as some sort of commentary, but I'd like that percentage to be as small as possible. Am I creating a mountain out of a molehill and don't really have a problem? Or, have I written myself into a corner here? Is my only choice to lean into the politics and create some sort of commentary? Because I hate it when a writer needlessly injects their own views on real-world politics into a story, fantasy stories in particular, and really, really don't want to write something that would I hate reading.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. Nirak

    Nirak Minstrel

    I'm not sure you can avoid comparisons. You're using a drug-based system, and people are going to have preconceived notions about that. You're also adding addiction in, which is a serious issue, and personal to many. I think you can still be neutral in how you talk about it, and avoid being preachy. But it might be worth it to do research into the real-world situation and read/watch (or better yet talk to) people who would know about different aspects of the issue. That might help you treat it with realism and respect, if you're worried about that. It's a part of your world, but it doesn't have to be the theme. There are plenty of other books/games/movies that deal with addiction issues but aren't focused on it. So you can acknowledge but not dwell, if you want. The first example that comes to mind is the Dragon Age game series, because it's a favorite of mine - their magic use is based on a substance that's also addictive and potentially harmful. It impacts characters, some severely, but isn't the main point. All this being said, I'm not an expert in this area, so others might have more informed input. I do like your concept very much, I like magic that has rules and consequences.
    S.T. Ockenner and Vaporo like this.
  3. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Why do you want to make a fantasy world that is based around an addictive drug, but not have the story deal with drug addiction?
    S.T. Ockenner and Vaporo like this.
  4. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

    I created this magic system because it felt like the natural direction from which to develop magic in this setting. Originally I had a more mystical talk-to-a-spirit-and-get-a-prophesy kind of magic system in mind. However real-world "prophesy," like that from the Oracle of Delphi, is often linked to some sort of drug-induced altered state of mind, so a drug-based magic system in a story meant to explore themes of prophesy makes sense to me. The addictive elements came later to "balance out" certain aspects of the system. In early iterations the system felt like it had no cost to it, and there was really no reason why the protagonists wouldn't just constantly use magic.

    Plus, I like having all magic originate from a singular source: The ancient sorceress called The Mihn. The Mihn and her inevitable resurrection are supposed to cast a constant shadow on the setting. The landscape is littered with technologically advanced marvels built during the time of her empire. Leaders study the surviving records of how the Mihn ruled so that they may, for better or for worse, rule themselves. She even partially terraformed the moon, leaving a massive green and blue crater visible to the entire world as a reminder of her power. To me, it makes sense to have magic also originate from the Mihn, and with the details I had developed about the nature and function of the Mihn's future-sight the most natural way to do this was to have her develop drugs that replicated her natural power.

    Overall, it just felt like the natural progression of worldbuilding in this setting.

    Plus, it wasn't until after I'd already fleshed out large portions of the setting and was loathe to change something so fundamental as the magic system that I realized how much of an issue this could become. Because I really like this setting! I like the broad-reaching implications of this magic system, the balance of power it creates, and how it affects my characters' development.

    Plus, I also don't have a lot of experience or strong opinions on drug abuse other than "Yeah... uh, drugs are bad. Listen to the D.A.R.E. cop. Don't do drugs, kids." I mean, most of my family doesn't even drink. I'm probably just about the worst person to make a statement on such a serious issue as drug abuse. I'm doing my research and trying to inform myself better, especially since I started developing this story, but still.
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2019
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I don't think you can avoid the issue entirely. You set up a system of intravenous drugs with heavy physical dependency. That's going to have consequences, and if you eliminate those consequences from your world I think it won't just be a small percentage of readers who have a hard time suspending disbelief so they can get into your story.

    I don't think you necessarily have to explore the moral, ethical, or policy aspects of drug use. The characters use drugs. The drugs have a physical effect. Show those effects and I think you're fine. If you want to go beyond that into moral statements or "lessons," you can, but if you don't want to (and it appears you don't) you don't have to. Sherlock Holmes uses drugs, for example, but apart from the occasional remark from Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle doesn't spend much time delving into the morality, policy, or anything along those lines.
    FifthView, Vaporo and A. E. Lowan like this.
  6. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    As a writer who does deal with drug use and addiction in an urban fantasy setting, I agree that with the system you've set up you're going to have to deal with drug use in some way, shape, or form. The degree to which you take this is your affair, but you ignore it at your peril. Fortunately, America is suffering from an opioid crisis of spectacular proportions, so educating yourself will prove quite easy. We're writers. We do homework for a living.
    Vaporo likes this.
  7. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    A couple years ago, I wrote a novella ('Strange Exit') that involved 'drug magic' of sorts as a key plot point. The penalties for repeated usage were more...Lovecraftian in nature, and the substances in question were extraordinarily difficult to obtain - but yes, there was a black market for them.
    Vaporo likes this.
  8. Futhark

    Futhark Inkling

    Personally I would not remove this. When people want something, there will always be those that are willing to risk it, to cash in. Someone will find a way. As to your dilemma, I agree with Steerpike. You don’t really have to ‘take sides’ about drug abuse and addiction. Sure, some readers will make comparisons, but you don’t have to explore the ethics or morality of it if that’s not what your story is about. Plenty of fantasy books have poverty and war, social privilege and slavery, and a hundred other things that happen in the real world, and they don’t tackle those issues. They are just part of the story. Perhaps a little understanding and tact is required, as this is something that has and does traumatise people, but from what you have said, I believe that since it is part of the setting and not the focus of the story you’ll be fine.
    Night Gardener and Vaporo like this.
  9. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    While making a thinly veiled polemic is one thing, introducing one's own world views into a story is somewhat unavoidable. Basically, you have to make choices about characters, setting, situations, and the choices you make are likely to "skew" one way or another unless you try an entirely objective approach. (And even choosing pure objectivity—if such is even possible—would be a choice that perhaps would reflect real world thoughts about real world things.)

    So for instance, you've already chosen to make this type of drug use a banned activity based upon certain criteria. Another writer might have chosen differently, making the unrefined Fire addictive and psychotropic but not incredibly so and giving it a spin that injects perhaps silliness into its use—like what happens when some people get too drunk on liquor.

    Some random reader might react positively or negatively to either choice. Your choice is "good" because the effects of unrefined Fire are harmful; or, your choice is "bad" because the powers that be are regulating it to production for their own use. The alternative choice, making unrefined Fire unregulated and its use less bad, might be "good" because it addresses the futility of prohibition—the powers that be are limiting our freedom—or it is "bad" because it seems to promote drug use, making light of drug use.

    SteerpikeSteerpike has given an alternative to making some sort of polemic. Just have the drug use exist in the world, but don't make much commentary on it. I don't think you'll be able to eliminate all commentary on it and still put it into your story. Author's voice is author's voice.

    Another thing to consider, important to this distinction: Ask yourself whether you are introducing (for the reader) more questions or more answers. This is something I picked up from listening to the Writing Excuses podcasts. Readers are going to think about issues raised in your story, regardless of what you do. But if you are presenting answers—This is bad, this is good, this is dangerous, this is unfair, but this would be fair—then you are taking a stand and the reader might feel you are preaching. Alternatively, you can present multiple sides, multiple effects, characters with differing views, and let the reader figure things out for themselves. You are raising questions but not giving answers in a polemic way. [Good Writing Excuses podcast discussing this: 11.45: Elemental Issue, with Desiree Burch.]
    Vaporo likes this.
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    You could think about leaning into it a little. Figure out some character arc with lightweight themes that you're comfortable with and go with it. Taking control of the risks that way might be better than trying to fight it within your story.
    Vaporo likes this.
  11. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling


    Your magic system involves the use of drugs that allow people to do certain things. The problem is that the drugs are highly addictive. There are people who can use the drug legitimately but there is also a black market which involves the selling of these drugs to those people who do not have the legal right to use it.

    The mere fact you have brought up drug use is going to provoke very strong reactions among your readers, assuming the book doesn't get banned outright, so you may as well just dive in and write about the good, the bad and the ugly side of the drugs and the magic system that relies on these drugs.

    The best approach is to tell it straight when it comes to the drug use. Don't exaggerate or downplay either the positive or negative side of using the drugs in your story. Alternatively, show the drugs having different effects on different people with the result the use of the drugs create a great deal of controversy and heated debate on all sides of the drugs debate.
    Night Gardener and Vaporo like this.
  12. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

    Thank you all for your suggestions. After some thought I've decided that while I can't avoid it entirely, so long as I acknowledge the issue, do some light to moderate exploration of the subject, and treat it with an appropriate degree of tact I can keep the main focus of the story on the parts that I am interested in without needing to take sides or offer any kind of moral.

    While your point is taken, trying to write from an objective point of view is in part what got me into this situation. I tried to look at the drug use from a purely logical standpoint using the real world as inspiration, but when I stopped ignoring my sensibilities I realized that I couldn't just import stuff from the real world without risking bringing the annoying real world baggage with it.

    I actually had considered other effects such as something like alcohol, caffeine, or something else entirely. However, the idea is that this drug is wreaking utter havoc with the user's brain chemistry in order to let them to see the future. Since forcing the user's brain into that state probably wouldn't be terribly conducive to anything we would normally call "thinking," I found almost any effect other than "totally floored for the next hour and a half" hard to believe.

    While you are right that this subject matter will provoke strong reactions from some readers, I have to disagree with you that I have no choice but to dive all the way into in the deep end. I'm a believer that anything can be written, so long as it is written carefully. I explicitly chose to title this thread "How to write" rather than "Can I write." I've also read (and have actively chosen to not read) a number of stories that went totally unbanned that are far less tactful with far more questionable subject matter. So long as I tread lightly, I think I'll be fine.
    Futhark likes this.
  13. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    Surely the main point of a drug using trope is to explore the impact on the user; ie the rush balanced by the come-down (and other long term consequences). Difficult to do this without getting cliched but even cliched stories, done well, can be interesting.
  14. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    I'm doing more or less the same thing and I felt the only way to tackle it was to deal with drug addiction. There is no real way to avoid comparisons. Tackling it maybe a good thing.

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