Q&A: Bar Fights

Any recommendations for a bar fight in a sword & sorcery setting?

The basic question at the heart of any and every bar fight is: who are my characters and what are they like when they’re drunk?

That’s going to tell you a lot about where and how the fight will go. This leads to other important questions: How much do you know about being drunk? Have you ever been drunk? How much time have you actually spent around other people when they’re drunk and you’re sober? How much time have you spent around other drunken people while drunk?

If the answer is little to not at all, this is going to be a challenge. The key to writing good bar fights is understanding how humans work while under the influence, and the cascade effect of multiple drunken individuals interacting with each other.

Alcohol exacerbates factors already present in our personalities, it removes inhibitions. What those inhibitions are depends on the person. Depending who your character is when they’re drunk (and whether they drink at all), you’ve got a range of options for how the bar fight begins. (This is all before we get to the drinking traditions of different cultures. From the Irish, to the Scottish, to the British, to the Germans, to the Japanese, everyone’s got a specific use for alcohol. Also, regiment rivalries like Army versus Marines. In the hazy land of alcohol, tribalism reigns free.) Nailing down your character’s drunken personalities is important to writing a successful bar fight. Without that individualism and understanding, it won’t feel natural.  Depending on the genres you’re used to looking at or have been reading, your exposure to natural drunken reactions may not be great. We can say words like ‘compromised’ and ‘impaired’, but unless you know the behavior that translates into it’ll be a rough hike. The major issue most writers face when coming to bar fights is they become so focused on forcing the fight to happen that they forget the drunks. The assumption is that it’s irrational, the other person is just a jerk, or it can somehow be written off in the aftermath.

Keep this in mind: your bar fight isn’t just an isolated fight scene, it’s part of your story.

Every bar fight begins with some inciting incident. The behavior and course of action of the participants seems entirely rational to the person who is drunk. It may seem irrational on the surface, but assuming that will doom the scene. Everything a drunken person does is incredibly logical in the moment, it’s just that their decision making and grasp of context is compromised. They no longer understand consequences. So, the part of your brain that goes, “no, that’s a bad idea” doesn’t kick in. Your id does what it wants, when it wants, however it wants. This doesn’t mean those desires, ideas, or decisions will work out. It just means you’ll do it.

This is where that interplay between alcohol and violence begins. The brain is not processing anything beyond, “I want to punch that dude.” Or, “I hate you! I’m gonna hit you with my stiletto heel.” It may not even begin somewhere negative. They could just like hitting people or violence is an expression of how much they’re enjoying themselves. They could also be trying to stop the fight, like every single cowboy who fires his revolver into the ceiling of a bar because loud noise = everyone stops. However, no thought is given to the people upstairs. We’re acting on impulse, there’s no comprehension of what comes after or what the results will be. The choices can be anywhere between intentionally aggressive or genuinely well-intentioned. Regardless of the outcome, the inciting incident that kicks off violence between two drunken people is based in something real. It is not generic. It is character specific.

Remember, these characters are not out of control. They are not irrational. They are making choices. Dumb choices, more often than not, but they’re still choices. It was logical when it happened, it’s just a stupid decision. Painting in vague swaths will ultimately handicap you, your humor, and your drama.

If you ever want an answer to who your character is when drunk, the simplest question is: what would they do if they thought were no consequences for their actions?

That’s who they are.

A mean drunk can be the seemingly nicest person, who is essentially forcing themselves to be nice all the time. When they’re drunk, all that antagonism they keep buried comes out.

A flirty drunk might be someone who feels emotionally or sexually repressed, who isn’t brave enough to express themselves or feels it isn’t a good idea to act on their impulses.

A fighting drunk might be someone who is angry, someone who likes to fight, someone who enjoys the feeling of being powerful/invincible (they’re not),  someone who is looking for an excuse to explode because they feel out of control in their own life. It can honestly go any direction.

A drunk isn’t going to always be the same kind of drunk. The mean drunk can be flirty or transition into a fighter. The destructive drunk can also be flirty, out to sabotage a relationship they feel uncomfortable about. There’s a spectrum of drunken behavior that changes based on the amount ingested, which is why it’s a bad idea to ascribe morals to who they are when impaired.

What’s important to remember is the underlying cause for their behavior, something pushing them to behave the way they do. It can be personality based or situational, or both. In a fictional context, bar fights are about showing us who characters are. Their flaws, their failings, and where the short end of their temper is. Knowing who someone is while under the influence is often eye opening.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you see the real person when they’re drunk. Think of it as their most impulsive self, if that helps. This is only who they are when their brain has been poisoned to the point where their common sense stops functioning. They’re not firing on all cylinders. The real person is somewhere between who they pretend to be and who they are when they don’t give a shit about aftermath. The person they are when they’re drinking can run the gamut. They could end up in the corner catatonic, hitting on their crush (single, married, or otherwise engaged), cracking people’s skulls open with their axe, or serenading the watch barracks as a three am wake up call. They could fall into the river and drown.

What’s powerful about alcohol in fiction is a character’s personal issues are often laid bare. This is central to your characters when drunk. Good bar fights incorporate the characters, and are driven by their actions. They are driven by the choices of those in the scene.

Bad bar fights are when an author tries to create a bar fight wholesale with no attention to, well, the people in the fight. They work from the outside in, rather than the inside out. It’s usually, “Character X comes under threat from Drunken Asshole Y, and then they prove they’re a badass.” This route can work, but it’s boring. It’s even more boring if there are no consequences or chaos that results. Bar fights do not happen in isolation, but in crowded spaces. Someone will jump in. Being drunk is not a justification. It’s removal of inhibition. No fight is ever a get out of jail free card. Everybody has to own up to whatever it is they do while under the influence, whether that’s cheating, stealing, arson, or murder.

The good news is bar fights are mostly the same… anywhere. All you’ve got to do is take into account what the place looks like and what kind of weaponry everyone has access to.  Then, remember it doesn’t matter how good at fighting your character is, because the chaos of a bar fight spreads. Rapidly. Also, nobody fights at peak proficiency when they’re drunk.

When a bunch of drunken people throw down, they’re just going to cause even more drunken people to join in. Someone is going to stumble into someone else, get thrown across a table and end up slammed on the floor in a rain of glass. The people at the table might take some issue with that, especially if they’re the fighting kind, testy, and prone to violence while on the sauce.

Basically, your characters are going to want to get out of dodge before the drunk mage in the left corner decides he’s going to set the whole place on fire because a barbarian just sent his buddy out the window. It was an accident. He really was swinging for the guy on the right, honest. That won’t matter though, and alcohol doesn’t mix well with fire and wood.  Light a match and… boom.

Basically, a fictional bar fight is like a trail of cascading dominoes. One piece hits another piece, which hits another, and another after that. That’s where the most entertaining ones are, it’s just mass chaos. It might start with fists, it might start with weapons, but it will move from one to the other. You can bet some ale or grog is going to go in someone’s eyes followed closely by the mug. Alcohol and weapons don’t mix, and if you’re drunk enough everything becomes a weapon.

Bottles. Mugs. Tables. Chairs. Plates. Paintings. A rack of deer antlers. Stuffed badgers. Whatever you can get your hands on, really.

One guy grabs another, lifts him and just runs him up the bar face first through all the drinks, bottles, glasses, and food. Only for the first guy who grabbed the guy to get grabbed by another guy and have his face plowed straight into the bar.

So, what does it look like?

Mass chaos. Everybody fights everybody else. Someone will inevitably be scrabbling under the tables trying avoid getting skewered. Someone will pull a knife, another guy’ll pull a sword, and the last guy grabs a spoon… then realizes and runs. Someone’s going to be grabbing up all mugs and beer, drinking as fast as they can because hey, free beer! The two guys who started it all might just end up deciding they hate that other guy over there more and team up. The maid and the bartender are either hiding behind the bar or they’re in the thick of it. You better believe someone’s robbing the till. There are a couple of lovebirds macking through the whole thing, though the partners may switch. And then, there’s that one guy snoozing. He doesn’t wake up.

They’ll fight until either A) the guards come and roust them, or B) there are no guards to break it up, so they’ll fight until they run out of steam. Basically, it’s a riot.

You can get some amazing drama out of these bar fights, but the best thing to do is initially play it for laughs. Consequences are for tomorrow. However, remember those consequences on the morrow. Nothing happens in isolation, and no one is ever going to be quite drunk enough to forget everything. A bar fight is an inciter for drama, it is not a get out of jail free card. Every tension that caused the fight to happen in the first place will still be there when your characters wake up, and they’re going to have to own up to whatever it was they did.

Western bar fights are the best because the fight inevitably leads to someone getting shot, dying, and then somebody swearing revenge. Or, you know, several people get shot and everybody swears revenge. Then, they all go out to shoot each other while sober. (At least one character will still be drunk.)

Sword & Sorcery rides extremely close to the Western, so it’s worth keeping those genre tropes in mind. After all, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is a major influence here, and Howard grew up in Texas boon towns during the early 20th century. He observed the real thing, and that made it into his work. Sword & Sorcery bar fights are Western bar fights, which means someone’s going to get murdered on accident and that’ll be the inciting incident for your characters into either a major or minor whirlwind of drama. If they’re involved, they’ll probably have to leave town.

Now, writing drunk people takes practice and, to get it right, personal experience helps. My suggestion is to get drunk with your friends and study them. Go to bars with friends, be the designated driver and take the opportunity to people watch. If you are of age and struggle with writing drunken characters then there is also the method actor approach. Get yourself tipsy during the first draft. Notice I said tipsy, not drunk. (This works well when writing sex too, if you’re shy like me)  However, if you are a minor, under twenty one, or an alcoholic this isn’t an option. Turn then to fiction, and all the writers who write drunkards really goddamn well. If that’s just watching Pirates of the Caribbean of The Hangover twenty more times, then so be it. My suggestion is watch lots of Westerns and movies where soldiers go to the bar. Western bar fights are so iconic they’re genre cliches. They’re also mass chaos, utterly hilarious, and more than a little horrifying. That said, I don’t care if your choice is Top Gun or The Pacific or both, you need a sense for what the trigger happy look like when drunk. What the depressed and miserable look like when they’re drunk. All the different kinds of raging assholes, because there are so many possibilities.

Try to remember that drinking is a social exercise. The goal is really for everyone to get drunk together. Keep in mind too that when you’re drunk, nothing ever quite goes to plan. Someone might try to pull their sword, only to have it get stuck halfway in their scabbard. Try to fire their bow without their bowstring… or arrows. Climb on tables. Seduce the millers daughter by falling into the rose bushes. Whatever. They thought it was a good idea at the time.

No matter where they are or what genre they’re in, humans are going to be mostly the same under the influence. All that really changes are the tools they have access to. Once you figure out the motivations, the second half gets a lot easier. You can just apply what you know of the behavior to new situations as they are re-imagined.

If you know how people behave when they’re drunk and can figure out the catalysts then you can write them in any situation. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 21st century, the 20th century, on the moon, or in High Fantasy.

People are people.

If it helps, I’ll tell you who I am when drunk. I am a multi-stage person who changes based on the amount of alcohol consumed. (This is most people, everyone’s got stages between tipsy, drunk, really drunk, and goodbye world. The amount of time it takes between those stages is your tolerance level.) I rotate between being a touchy, flirty drunk who needs to hug everyone, a sad drunk who cries into my cheerios, a manipulative drunk who will use my crying to get people to feel bad for me, and a sleepy drunk who conks out on the couch. It can literally be all four, just one, or skipping straight to the last stage.

I can tell you that based on the one time I was really drunk, but not blackout. I don’t drink much, so believe me when I say that one time in the safety of your own home is all you need. (If you can’t due to circumstances or just don’t want to ever for any reason, then watch videos of drunk people on YouTube. They post them.)

-Michi

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