Writing Drunk

A dear friend who was kind enough to read the rough draft of my very first novel made a comment that is still very true of my writing today. I need to spend some time in bars and see how people really talk when they’re drinking. Now I was 18 at the time, so I had little in the way of life experience, but now 12 years later I still can’t say I’m any better qualified to write a scene in which the characters are believably drunk.

I tend to get very geeky when I’m drunk which is probably not a very good model of the population  as a whole. Probably the only characteristic I share in common with people under the influence is a slightly increased use of colorful metaphors, and a decidedly increased interest in the beautiful little red haired girl (my wife in case any of you are new to the site).

Part of the problem in this particular case is that I’m still figuring out the baseline of my character, so it’s a little hard to figure out how he’s different when he’s been drinking. We all have slightly different personalities when we’ve had a few, though our drunk traits have their roots in how we are when we’re sober. In my story we’ve got a priest who’s an alcoholic saying “f— it” at the end of the world and talking about women. Most of us can probably relate.

So the obvious possibilities for getting past the block are writing this in a bar, or at home after a few pints of Guinness. This brings to mind something that all writers have to figure out at one time or another. How much can they write about things they have never really experienced? Now I’ve been drunk before, but my experience of being drunk is pretty different than the one I’m going for.

Another big one on this list is sex. I generally feel like this is one of those things you need to experience to write about well. Whether or not you choose to be explicit or Victorian is up to you, but even euphemism comes from basic understanding. But even someone who’s had great sex might not be able to write about all kinds of sex in all kinds of circumstances. As writers we have to have some basic ability to put ourselves in circumstances we can never experience. I’m probably never going to space, and it’s even less likely that I’ll commit a murder, so I kind of have to figure out how to get into the minds of characters who would do these things without doing them myself.

But even things we can experience can be tricky to get a hold of. Ultimately it takes spending time with your characters and knowing when to take a break and live to write another day. Maybe try to figure out some good source material to review, a scene that does something similar to what you want to accomplish. And maybe a little liquid libation will loosen the literary logjam.

I swear to you all I’m drinking right now is lemon-lime.

What do you talk about when you’re drunk?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Writing Drunk

  1. I don’t think i behave TOO differently when I drink, but I very very rarely allow myself to get drunk these days.

    Alcohol is a mood enhancer so I would just take the mood of the character before drinking and then exaggerate it a little… It relaxes the body (thats what ‘depressant’ means. It depresses the central nervous system, resulting in being more relaxed and your senses being dulled.) loosens the tongue and the inhibitions, but I don’t believe alcohol makes anyone do anything that they wouldn’t think about doing sober. Thats a question i ask myself. Would the character be tempted to behave this way when sober? If the answer is “never in a million years” then I don’t make them do it whilst drunk.

    • All good points Naomi, and that certainly jibes with my experience. I think my specific problem is one of language. It’s similar to the whole idea of people thinking they are having profound discussions and thoughts when they are. Maybe some people are, but there’s a certain amount of inaneness in their conversation. Alcohol, consumed in quantity, can make us louder, more vulgar, and possibly less able to string together sentences, though my friend Brian and I seem to make an added effort to appear highbrow even when drinking a hofbrau. My characters remain too capable, thoughtful, and focused when drinking and at least one of those needs to be off.

  2. Keep in mind there are stages of “the drink” that come into play (http://www.bestdrugrehabilitation.com/blog/addiction/what-are-the-different-phases-of-getting-drunk-on-alcohol/). Also, a person’s tolerance and addiction come into play (http://www.healthline.com/health/stages-alcoholism#Alcoholism1). Some people drink to forget the pain of loss and become more maudlin as the night progresses. Some drink to forget the mistakes of the past and become violent as the night progresses. There are the people drinking to celebrate and tend towards saying / acting funny and doing things they wouldn’t normally do. And then there are the people who are able to drink to excess and maintain their personality until they pass out in a bathroom. Overall, an environment in which there is drinking people’s speech and outward actions are more relaxed hence more swearing and personalities are more enhanced; stoic characters become more withdrawn, excitable characters become overwhelming, angry people start looking for fights, sad become easily upset, etc.

    • Mood is definitely a factor and you have a good survey here of reasons for drinking. Probably the closest emotion at the moment is one of futility, which to me has always resulted in gallows and baudy humor. When the world’s going to hell we try to at least have a laugh about it. I’m doing some work tonight and we’ll see how it comes out.

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