Drunk in Fiction

Despite the reputation of writers as prodigious drinkers, this post is not written to encourage more of that behavior. Instead, it is targeted toward the use of liquor as a means to further drama in a novel. The reason that intoxication—of any variety, including drugs—works effectively is the impaired perception that is produced. Anyone who has driven home at night and seen double lines on the road understands this phenomenon. Which one is the real one?

The tension of lessened clarity is heightened because of a reader’s expectation that a lead character will get into trouble. That’s why we read fiction, right? To follow someone who dares to do what we cannot. Once Sarah tosses down a double at a party and then demands another, we are expecting the powderkeg to explode. We know she is going to insult somebody, go on a rant that will get her fired, etc. The author put that drink in her hand, and the author better pay up.

In the hands of a master, a drunken sequence can run on for pages. The drunken night that Dmitri of The Brothers Karamazov careens through is one of the most harrowing memories of my reading career. Likewise with the Consul in Under the Volcano: we cringe because we know a gringo shouldn’t be getting so plastered in a squalid Mexican cantina. In these books the authors merged their brilliant penetration in character portrayal with the blurring effects of alcohol.

The state of being out of control can be extended in other directions. Authors commonly deprive a lead character of sleep for days on end as the climax of a book approaches. In their state of exhaustion they may well make a mistake. If a malicious character slips LSD in the heroine’s coffee, we worry when she gets behind the wheel of a car and goes on a real trip.

For a novice author, liquor and its euphoric comrades can be used in several ways. The first is forcing you to place a character in more extreme situations. Face it, life is dull, and you shouldn’t be writing about real life. You need to push the needle into the red. You may find that a drunken character allows you to knock down walls that were hemming in your imagination.

Second, in order to create that altered state for the reader, you have to penetrate the character’s thoughts. Drunken people make mistakes in judgment. You have to put those mistakes down on paper for the reader to realize how drunk the character is. As a result, you’re knocking down a wall between you and the character.

Exercise: Read over the manuscript with an eye out for scenes that drag. You may need a scene in order to advance the plot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun in the process. Pull out the beer bong, and have someone force the character to have a go. Come on, get wild.

“When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.”
—Henny Youngman

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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