Friday, 25 November 2011

The Fatal Curse of Drink

"Alcohol, my permanent accessory/alcohol a party time necessity..."
--Barenaked Ladies

I am a whisky snob*. I love the the scent, the layers of taste, the heat on the tongue.
That said, there are as many ways to get your drink on as there are years of human civilisation. Even non-humans get in on the act, with monkeys and birds in desperate need of a taxi home. There is even some convincing speculation that booze was one of the first uniting forces in early agricultural societies. But for some reason, I have seen as many writers goof up descriptions of alcohol-- and inebriation-- than I see people in my local pub on a Friday night.

First, drinking does not necessarily equal getting plastered. Personally, I think this is the fault of too many Although some individuals have low alcohol tolerance (and many East Asian and Native American people cannot produce the enzyme which breaks down alcohol), individual variation is extreme (some people have extended copies of the aforementioned gene). Furthermore, alcohol tolerance can be acquired. In a society where alcohol is a better bet than plain water-- as was the case in medieval Europe, for example-- even people with low to average ability to hold their liquor will probably develop some degree of tolerance due to continual exposure. That said, societies where drinking is almost universal due to sanitation concerns will probably have low-alcohol options that people can drink during the day, and that are reasonably safe your older children. Alternately, if drinking is less of a necessity in a society, it may be reserved for special occasions, and drinking to inebriation may be socially unacceptable. Or your characters might just have time for a glass of wine before they dash off to their next plot point.
On the flip side, however, remember when your characters are tipping back glasses of sake or tankards of ale that alcohol does start to have subtle effects-- particularly on reaction time-- fairly quickly. Even if they have a solid tolerance, they still won't be in top fighting form if they get jumped on by the bad guys after several rounds. 

Second, alcohol is not LSD. I am a very boring drinker for the most part, and when I do finally get tipsy, my tendency is to ramble about some nerdy, esoteric topic until someone asks me to shut it. That said, I have encountered people who get giggly, weepy, flirty or belligerent-- this is usually consistent for that person, outside of some exceptional circumstances (for example, don't mix breakups and drinking). But I've never seen anyone tripping out on booze unless they had mixed it with some other drug, had an allergic reaction, or were detoxing.

Third, get a perspective about what constitutes problem drinking. As with the 'character plastered beyond belief after a glass of wine' issue, there are an abnormal number of characters whose drinking does not seem-- based on evidence in the text-- to be the manifestation of an addiction, but who we are supposed to believe has a problem. Alcoholism isn't about the volume consumed, but about the associated behaviours. So if you're going to portray destructive drinking, know what it actually looks like. And don't use tee-tolling as an objective measure of a character's shining morality (although if this is a cultural cue in-universe, that can work), since this is incredibly culturally subjective.

Bottom line, alcohol and drinking behaviours, just like any other food item or clothing item or magic style in your world, should be integrated into the fabric of your worldbuilding.

*Due to my previously discussed health issues, I can no longer drink beer. But the good news is that it's not kidney failure-- my body just hates purines.

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Comments and discussion are awesome and highly encouraged. Please keep it polite and on-topic to maximise the good times.
xx SB