Intoxication is a complex biological process, and it can affect people in a variety of different ways—making it a particularly difficult thing to write about. However, the acts of drinking, partying, and drowning sorrows in a bottle are prevalent themes in our world and in literature. Chances are, you’ll have to write a drunk character at one point or another.
There are several things you’ll need to consider before writing a convincing drunk character. Alcohol has several predictable effects on people, but causes people to behave in unpredictable ways. Even dialogue for drunk characters will differ based on the character and your personal style of writing. Additionally, you’ll need to convey an appropriate hangover after the fact, or the scene won’t feel as authentic to your readers. If you’re writing a story in the first person, then you’ll have to deal with the thought processes and internal dialogue of the drunk character as well, which is an even more difficult thing to write convincingly.
It might seem overwhelming to keep track of all that while writing, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. There are easy ways to break down the ideas, and you can actually use your character’s intoxication as a tool for revealing things about the story or the character in question.
How to Describe a Drunk Person
It’s usually not hard to tell when a person has been drinking, even before they open their mouth. There are a number of visual and behavioral cues that can tip your readers off to the fact that a character may be drunk without you having to spell it out for them. They are going to be slurring their words, swaying where they’re standing, and stumbling as they walk. It’s also common for people to fidget and stumble around.
When describing a drunk person visually, there are a few features you should focus on. The first is the eyes. Drunk people often have a difficult time focusing on things around them, so their eyes may seem glossy and drift around the room as their gaze floats about their surroundings.
The mouth is also a good indicator as well. When not emoting, the character’s jaw is likely going to be hanging slack, letting their mouth hang open ever so slightly. When they smile, however, they will usually smile much more broadly than they would if they were sober. Expressions would become exaggerated, because the character won’t be thinking about how their face looks.
Next, the person’s arms are a good indicator of their intoxication. Drunk people don’t have control over fine motor skills, so their gestures become more pronounced and sweeping. What would be a simple wave while sober becomes a wide-sweeping flail of the arm once intoxicated.
Another easy way to spot a drunk person is the way they walk. A drunk person walking is not going to be moving with much determination, and they definitely won’t be going in a straight line. They will be stumbling around, likely using the wall or furniture to keep from falling over. Their footsteps will be irregular, and their body is going to lurch unpredictably as the character tries to keep their balance.
Physical descriptions are not the only important aspect of describing a drunk person. You should also consider how the character behaves while they are drunk. Some people become belligerent, disobedient, sad, or giddy as a result, and how they behave will depend on several factors.
Different Kinds of Drunks
First things first: getting drunk does not magically change someone’s personality. Alcohol amplifies personality traits that a person already has, but it won’t make someone act wildly out of character. So, a person who is ordinarily angry will be even more aggressive when drunk. A person who is often sad and lethargic will become even more depressed after more than a few drinks.
That also means that alcohol is good at revealing a person’s natural temperament, so mysterious or two-faced characters may reveal more about their true selves when under the influence of alcohol. In addition to that, alcohol blurs inhibitions and critical thought, so a character that is ordinarily reasonable may be more receptive to bad ideas after they have had a few drinks.
A character’s mood before they start drinking can also have an effect on how they behave once drunk, as well as their reason for drinking. If a person is drinking to have fun, they would naturally behave differently from someone who is drinking to cope with anger issues or a traumatic experience.
(Writing characters with anger issues can also be a struggle, but if you want some help with that, I have another article on that topic: Writing a Character with Anger Issues.)
With that said, there are a few different ways that drunk people tend to behave. Some people will claim that there are officially four types of drunks, but I believe that to be trendy pseudoscience. The ways people behave while drunk are as varied as the ways they behave while sober, and no two people are exactly alike.
However, if you’re looking for ideas to get started, here are some of the top tropes. Don’t feel like you need to be constrained to just one choice, though. Many people experience several mood swings and behavioral changes as the night goes on, especially if they continue to drink. Combinations could also be fun to play with if you could make it work for the character.
A flirty drunk is a person who takes every opportunity to flirt with those around them. They may wear progressively less clothing as time goes on, and their sole goal is usually to get someone in bed before the end of the night. However, there are more benign flirty drunks, who really have no intentions behind their flirty behavior other than to chat and have a good time in the moment.
This trope is pretty common, since it’s a good one to use for comic effect. It’s also great for making other characters uncomfortable, or getting the main character in trouble for flirting with someone’s significant other. This is also a fun trope to combine with others, so play around with it a little.
Some people become much more hostile when intoxicated, and use everything as an excuse to start a fight. They may yell, break things, hurt themself, or start throwing punches. Really, they are likely to say and do whatever they want, regardless of who would be hurt.
This type of trope is commonly used to create characters that act as abusive parents or spouses, but there are more ways to apply this kind of trope. A small, mild-mannered woman could become quite fighty after a few drinks, and a young businessman could develop a rather sharp tongue once he’s had a couple whiskeys. Try to deviate from the stereotypes to disrupt your reader’s expectations.
You should try to find a good balance between surprising your readers, and not letting your characters behave in inconsistent ways.
A person that regularly breaks down into fits of giggles while drinking tends to be labeled as a happy drunk. These people tend to crack jokes and laugh often, finding even mundane things to be either fantastical or hilarious.
Happy drunks are a common choice in fiction for comic relief, since a goofy drunk can bring a smile to anyone’s face—as long as they’re written well. As you can probably guess by now, I’m a fan of subverting expectations, so play around with the idea of making more stoic or rough characters get a little goofy when they’re drunk. It’s a fun way to reveal a more playful side of their personality they could be concealing, for pride or reputation’s sake.
This is also the category that I usually fall into when I’m drunk, so I can attest: everything does get hilarious. It’s easy to get overcome with giggles at absolutely anything.
People that use alcohol as an excuse to express how much they appreciate everything are referred to as sentimental drunks. They often reminisce about the past, apologize for past mistakes, and repeat the phrase “I love you guys” or some variation of that all night long. They can get teary-eyed when offered even the smallest compliment or bit of assistance, and they tend to get physically clingy to their friends—and even strangers.
Sentimental drunks are fairly common, in both real life and in fiction. Including it in your story can create an opportunity to reveal a lot about your characters and their pasts, too. A character may express remorse for doing something that the other characters didn’t know they were responsible for, or they could confess to having a long-time crush on another character. There are tons of possibilities!
A person drinking for the wrong reasons—such as to forget a bad experience, to numb their senses, or to cope with a loss—will usually end up behaving melancholically when intoxicated. Typically, if a person is feeling sad before drinking, they will still be sad after drinking too.
Sad drunks typically hang out in a corner alone, knocking back drinks just for the sake of not being sober. They tend to slur more, and can break down into incomprehensible sobs at any moment. Other times, they may just brush off anyone that approaches them until they inevitably drink themselves to unconsciousness.
I probably don’t have to point this out, but this trope is everywhere. The main hero loses a loved one and drinks at a bar to forget (before getting his inevitable heroic wake-up-call to get his life back together again). A retired hero (superhero, detective, cop, etc) drinks alone at a bar, pretending he never was the hero people claim he is. Or, better yet, a story ends with the main character having a drink alone after losing everything at the end of the story (but only to set up the sequels). The point I’m trying to make is that this trope is just a little tired.
If you want to avoid clichés like the ones above, then you really need to dive into the experiences of the character. Explore in-depth their thoughts and feelings, and linger over things that they’re conflicted about. Make the scene mean something both for the readers and the character, otherwise, it won’t feel like anything more than just a trope.
All of the Above
Remember these are tropes, and that most people exhibit all or several of these types of behaviors. Some people display behaviors from multiple different tropes simultaneously, like sad and mean, while others cycle through them multiple times for as long as they’re intoxicated. These are also not all of the possibilities!
Here are some additional drunk personality tropes:
- The philosophical drunk
- The annoying drunk
- The violent drunk
- The childish drunk
- The messy drunk
- The mom-friend drunk
- The anarchist
- And many many… many more.
Remember that even drunk, characters should still behave like individuals. These are just ideas to help you figure out how your character could behave while under the influence of alcohol, but they are not intended to dictate or restrict how your character can act. All your characters should be unique, sober or not.
Write out a few short stories for fun that feature your characters getting drunk in different settings to try to figure out what feels right for them. Putting your ideas in practice is a great way of finding out what works and what doesn’t—before you put it in your story.
How to Write a Drunk Character in the First Person
Writing about a mind-altering condition from the perspective of the affected character can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. There are a couple of tricks you can use to make a first-person drunk scene feel more authentic.
The first mistake that many writers make when writing a drunk character in the first person is that they don’t alter the way they write everything. Your character is not perceiving the world the same way they usually do, so you shouldn’t write about their world the same way you usually do. Your character is not going to be thinking in complex, well-articulated sentences, so it’s going to feel weird to your readers if you continue to describe things, such as the character’s actions and surroundings, with the same style you ordinarily would.
There are several ways to get around this. First, try focusing on visual details and immersive imagery. Focus on what your character sees and feels, rather than what they are thinking. They will not be thinking too hard about anything, so don’t linger on any particular idea for more than a few lines. Describe things visually, and feel free to dive into what that item means to the drunk character instead of what it objectively is. Have them fixate—but just for a moment, then move on quickly.
Drunk people see things first, and act on instinct based on their experiences with that thing they’re looking at. They don’t take the time to think, and if they do, it is usually not with the same kind of analytical approach they would take while sober. For example:
“I looked out over the glassy surface of the pool, watching the underwater lights distorting with each tiny wave… I wanted to reach out and feel the icy water… the waves… And before I knew what I was doing, I found myself under the water, sputtering for air below the surface.”
That example is also a good example for illustrating another idea. Selectively cutting out parts of what is happening, such as the drunk character jumping into the pool presumably fully clothed, can represent the spotty memory and periods of blacking out associated with being drunk.
Finally, always remember to show don’t tell. In the case of drunkenness, describe how the character is feeling, don’t just say like “I felt numb and dizzy.” Instead, describe how the room seems to float around like a boat, making the character tumble when they try to walk. Describe how their eyes seem to lag when they try to look in a new direction. Describe the feeling of not quite being able to control the trajectory of their hands, or the speed at which they move. These things are far more telling than simply stating the obvious. You want your readers to experience the feeling vicariously through your character, so let the situation be immersive.
How to Write Drunk Dialogue
There are many different options when it comes to writing drunk dialogue, but which one you choose could be a matter of personal preference, the degree to which your character is intoxicated, and the type of character getting drunk. Some people slur more than others, while other people mash words together, so you might end up using multiple different options for different characters.
The first thing that you need to understand about drunk dialogue (before you worry about formatting it) is that the way your characters structure their sentences and express their thoughts could be quite different from how they usually do. Drunk people tend to stop speaking mid-sentence, or jump to a different topic without much warning. It’s also common for people to repeat themselves, raise their voice, or share opinions that they probably shouldn’t. Though a character normally wouldn’t dare to spill someone else’s secret or share their own secretly held beliefs, those things might just slip out after a little bit of alcohol.
Now, on to actually writing the dialogue.
One of the techniques you could utilize is probably one you’ve seen in other stories before. You could simply write out the words as they would sound slurred out by a drunk person. As long as the misspellings you’ve chosen for the words are recognizable and make sense, then you should be fine. It’s common for drunk people to drag out the “s” sound into “sh,” so that’s a good place to start. Just be careful about making sure the words are identifiable even after you butcher the spelling. Here’s an example:
“You’re being… ridicu-lush… ’m not that drunk…”
Another technique you could use is to smash two or more words together to further emphasize the slur and change in the character’s behavior. For example:
“Whatcha got there? ‘Nother drink? You ‘bout’a get hammered!”
In this case, “whatcha” and “‘bout’a” are compounded versions of “what do you” and “about to.” The meaning of the sentence is still clearly conveyed to readers, so it’s a good way of making the drunk dialogue stand out without making it unreadable.
Another option is to break up the character’s dialogue with ellipses, and even litter a few hiccups in between their words. This is a good option for combining with some repetition as well. As long as you don’t overdo it with the hiccups (as a lot of writers do), you should be fine. This would look something like this:
“I don’t… I don’t know if I… hic… if I wanna go…”
As with any dialogue, if you aren’t sure about what you wrote, just read it out loud. Try to embody the character, and act their dialogue out. If it doesn’t sound right after you’ve said it, then you can reevaluate it and make changes to it. That’s the best way to find out if it sounds like something someone would actually say.
How to Write a Hungover Character
Hangovers are a predictable consequence of getting drunk, so it’s something you should consider showing in your story after a character gets drunk. If your character wakes up the morning after a night of heavy drinking as chipper and healthy as usual, that might not sit well with your readers.
First things first, you’ll need to understand exactly when and how a hangover begins. Symptoms of a hangover first begin appearing the moment a drinker’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) plateaus, and begins to drop again. However, since at this point the drinker is still going to be rather intoxicated, they probably aren’t going to notice the symptoms until their BAC drops significantly lower.
The closer to 0 a person’s BAC gets, the worse they are going to feel. That’s why an extra drink is a popular “cure” for a hangover since it postpones the effects, but that only worsens the inevitable discomfort.
The symptoms of a hangover are:
- Light sensitivity
- Bodily aches and pains
- Poor attention and concentration
- Increased heart rate
- Potentially dealing with injuries sustained while drunk, such as from bar fighting, falling over, etc
With that said, symptoms vary depending on the quantity and type of alcohol consumed. Sugary drinks and red wines tend to result in worse nausea the morning after, for example. Beer, on the other hand, especially a particularly hoppy beer, tends to result in more manageable hangovers.
The symptoms of a hangover can last anywhere from a few hours to an entire day—and sometimes even longer than that. Plan to have your character out of commission for at least the next 12 hours if they’ve gotten significantly wasted.
Do Some First-Hand Research
As with almost anything, the best way to learn how to write a drunk character is to simply get drunk yourself. Pay attention to how you feel as you get tipsier and tipsier, and try to stay mindful about your experiences as you are drinking. Keeping notes is also a great idea, though they might make less sense as you get drunker. This is also the best way to learn how to write a drunk character in the first person, if your story requires that.
Obviously, that suggestion isn’t an option for everyone. If you’re underage, or you avoid alcohol for personal or religious reasons, then you shouldn’t feel the need to infringe on your preferences (or the law) to write a convincing scene. But you should still try to have conversations with people who do drink actively, and try to do so with as many different people as possible to get a wide array of experiences. Simply explain why you’re asking them about it, and most people will be open to share.
Remember to drink responsibly.
Stay safe, and keep writing!