I have a character who is a refugee from another country. She comes to the protagonist, and they have a couple of scenes together, viewed from the protagonist.

I read about how important it is to make dialogue convey information about the character, to prevent adverb overdose (e.g. "Blabla, he said wisely."). Intelligence I would indicate with a broader vocabulary. But how do I do that when someone is intelligent but should not have that vocabulary? If I write everything using described gestures, broken grammar and disconnected words - as it would realistically be - that person will quickly sound like an idiot.

  • For a useful guide to writing intelligent characters in general see: The Abridged Guide to Intelligent Characters by Eliezer Yudkowsky http://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing Jun 28, 2018 at 14:03
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    The Thing Explainer (amazon.com/Thing-Explainer-Complicated-Stuff-Simple/dp/…) is a very nice example of how an intelligent person explains complex things (showing great intelligence) using only a very limited vocabulary (the 1000 most common english words). Jun 28, 2018 at 18:55
  • When I was a kid, I used to use the most specific word possible in every situation. I've always loved words, and I thought it a nice way to introduce them to others. Since then, I've smartened up ;) Jul 1, 2018 at 18:40
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    @GuntramBlohm For those who don't want to buy a whole book, there's always xkcd: Up Goer Five.
    – user
    Jul 2, 2018 at 19:20

10 Answers 10


Insight. Or, if you're so smart --- Prove It!

I think you misunderstand intelligent people, and I wouldn't rely on vocabulary to indicate it in the first place.

I am a professor in a university, intelligent by conventional standards, but in my work and in my speech I do not use a complex vocabulary, because I consider it far more important to be understood by the people I am speaking to than to impress them.

If I am speaking to students, they are basically high school graduates, so my vocabulary (without slang of my generation or theirs) is set for their level. If I am talking to colleagues I will use all the specialized terminology and references of our fields, but my vocabulary is tuned to what I expect that person to understand, for efficiency's sake. Note this is not a high bar: Many professors struggle with common English outside their fields. They represent the real life example of what you are talking about; highly intelligent with difficulty communicating.

The solution to your problem is to show the reader the consequences of intelligence. Don't try to tell them. Have your foreign speaker use their intelligence to get their point across. Draw a diagram. Solve an equation: here is an example from math.

Frustrated, she rises and walks to the whiteboard. she points at an integral amongst his dense equations, and held up a marker with eyebrows raised. He'd been staring at this problem all week. He picked up his phone, zoomed and snapped the board, then gestured at her to proceed.

She rubbed out a foot of space after the integral and wrote a transformation of it, then looked at him.
Stokes? That would help but you can't do it without proving compact support on a smooth manifold! He had neither! He tried to think of a sign for compact, and held two cupped hands together to make a ball.
She nodded once, and pointed higher on the board to a previous equation, pointed at her head, then cupped her hands as he did, then rubbed one flat hand against the other.
Compact and smooth? He stared at it; and shook his head. How do you sign corners? He touched fingertips with fingers at right angles, then did it again moving his hands around, many corners. She nodded, erased more of the board and began writing ... dividing his domain. He watched for sixty seconds and his throat caught. She was right, the corners were countable, the support would be compact and by Whitney's generalization ... Stokes would hold!
Why hadn't he seen that? He felt a strange combination of thrill with a flush of embarrassment: His problem was solved, and he was an idiot. If it was even still his problem. When she finished, he nodded, lips tight. She turned to erase the rest of his equations after Stokes, and began writing, quickly and without pause, to finish the rest of his manifold transformation in two long lines. She stood back to examine it, then capped the marker and put it back in the tray, turning back to him.
He stood, and quietly applauded, then pointed at her.
"Sue Jen?"
She pointed at herself. "Suzhien. Sue. Zhee. En. Suzhien."
He held out a hand. "Suzhien. Richard."
"Reeshard?" she said, pointing at him. He nodded. Close enough. He lowered his hand.
She pointed at the board. "Suzhien." She made a lifting motion with her hand, "Reeshard."
Then she pointed at Richard. "Reeshard." Again she made a lifting motion; "Suzhien."
With hesitation, she put her hands together flat, in prayer, and pushed them toward him.
Ah, not lift. Help. Please help.
"Yes," he said, and nodded. "Help. Richard will help Suzhien."

Of course, in whatever way your character is intelligent, you must invent a scene where that intelligence can shine without language; not always easy. I chose math because it is an easy choice, an arena in which the "language" of symbols and notation is truly universal throughout the modern world.

One might say the same thing about chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering, and perhaps other scientific fields like biology. It would be less true in fields dependent on language or culture that your highly intelligent person has not learned. She can't be an expert on Shakespeare if she has never read him and can't understand what the actors are saying.

The hallmark of high intelligence is NOT, as is commonly portrayed in nerd fiction, an inability to express yourself, or an inability to understand what the less intelligent and less articulate are saying. Nor is it opaque language others have difficulty understanding! I have spent near a lifetime in colleges, and in my experience "elevated" language is pretty much always a shield for banal ideas. When restated simply such ideas are cliché, pedestrian, or just plain laughable.

The hallmark of high intelligence is, like Sherlock, seeing clues others overlook, and thinking quickly to solve problems using those clues. Not just math problems or physics problems or computer problems. All problems. Including how to deal with and work around a handicap like not knowing the language.

Truly intelligent people are smart enough to make their complex ideas understandable in terms that others can understand. If your character is a genius with the vocabulary and language comprehension of a two-year old, find ways for her to show her genius by taking action to solve problems in creative ways that nobody around her can. The benefit of her skill will make others do the work necessary to understand her.

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    "I am a professor in a university, intelligent by conventional standards, but in my work and in my speech I do not use a complex vocabulary, because I consider it far more important to be understood by the people I am speaking to than to impress them." That's one of those sentences that can never be truthfully uttered, eh?
    – sgf
    Jun 27, 2018 at 14:29
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    @sgf The truth is not up to your interpretation or belief; it is truthfully uttered, whether you choose to believe it or not. If you choose to not believe it, then feel free to ignore my post.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 27, 2018 at 14:37
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    The core takeaway, as I understand it: as you can no longer rely on the crutch of vocabulary-as-an-intelligence-signal (as you point out, it's not a very good one), you need to put a lot more thought into what actually makes the character more intelligent, and how you can show that through your writing. The example helps tremendously.
    – Charles
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:59
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    @i336 I wrote this for this post; it is original with me.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 28, 2018 at 9:49
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    I loved your piece of writting there. I would love to see this concept (two scientists using non-verbal cues and math to work together) expanded into a sci-fi thriller. Heck, this is already better than most of Dan Brown`s...
    – T. Sar
    Jun 28, 2018 at 17:12

Two years ago I took a course with a new professor in our university - a fresh immigrant from the US, who had to teach in Hebrew. Said professor is one of the most brilliant researchers at our faculty, so "intelligent character" - covered. How did he speak?

First there was the accent. 'Heavy' doesn't begin to describe it. In writing, you wouldn't want to write phonetic accent over long chunks of text, as it considerably reduces readability, especially if for your readers English (or whatever language you're writing in) is a second language. But you can mention your character having an accent, you can give an example, you can mention the protagonist struggling to understand what the foreign character is saying. You can look at The Three Musketeers for an example: Dumas repeatedly mentions d'Artagnan's Gascon accent, to the point that it remains his recognisable characteristic in both sequels.

Together with accent comes bad grammar, and confusing similarly-sounding words. Grammar would be influenced by one's country of origin, so you'd do well to find out a little about the language of your character's country of origin. Issues can be misgendering nouns, using the wrong articles (a/an/the), wrong verb conjugations etc. It's important that the meaning of the sentence must remain easily understandable, or you risk losing the reader. Same goes for similarly-sounding words - the reader must understand the original intent. (Bonus points if the wrongly used word results in something funny or inappropriate.)

This professor used simple vocabulary to explain complex ideas. Technical ideas aren't the only ones that can be explained in simple terms. Philosophy, geopolitics etc. can be treated in the same manner. In fact, you have to understand the subject really really well to be able to explain it using only simple words - it's further testimony of intelligence.

The last aspect is the way the character reacts to being in this situation, having to explain oneself in a foreign language. The character might get flustered over unable to explain themselves, crestfallen over making a mistake, resort to hand gestures or drawings to explain themselves... All those can express the fact that the character has more to say, as well as more about what kind of person they are.

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    +1 for emphasising that you'll see "Intelligence" from the concepts that they are talking about, and "how well they know that language" from the words they use to do so. (They might fall back on words in their own language, and then struggle to find a suitable translation with help from the protagonist too) Jun 27, 2018 at 12:20
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    A good example might be the character van Helsing in Dracula: clearly someone very intelligent who had a distinctive and eccentric spoken style (even in broken English). Jun 27, 2018 at 12:43
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    Word order an especially good way to indicate foreignness is.
    – Mark
    Jun 27, 2018 at 22:08
  • Used simple vocabulary to explain complex ideas => Nicolas Boileau (a French Poet) once wrote Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement, Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément. It could be translated as What you understand well, you enunciate clearly. And it has so far matched my experience that people who truly understand a subject can generally do an ELI5 (Explain Like I'm 5) or easily conjure up analogies. On the other hand, I've seen quite a few posers who used complex vocabulary as a clutch to hide their own ignorance. Jul 1, 2018 at 18:48

To show the intelligence of a character you need to make the reader understand in which way she is intelligent.

I could tell you how I would do it but in this source you can find some good do's and don'ts: Writing smart characters. In this place you can probably get a better explanation than from me.

The challenge you have is that you cannot make the character (refugee) herself show her intelligence, you need another character that understands this intelligence. This is the protagonist in your case.

To use the protagonist it requires for him to have a similar level of intelligence as well. The protagonist needs to mirror the technobabble the refugee makes and show how impressed he is with the idea this character. This way you can convey to the reader that this character is actually more intelligent that she sounds.

As an additional pointer. How the character talks is not the only way to show intelligence. It is also the attitude of the character, the opinions made and proper respect that shows intelligence. All this can be told without the need of a technobabble.


My wife is a gifted individual with a highly impressive academic record, and has been learning my mother tongue for a while now. When she speaks, she uses relatively simple words and grammar, but she can express complex thoughts even while struggling for words. A good indicator now that she becomes more fluent is ideosyncratic mistakes which are easily understood in light of her mother language (hers doesn't have gendered articles, and she struggles remembering which things in my language are male, female or neutral).

One thing that stands out is that by language itself you would not guess at her intelligence. It is only in the content that you can understand you are not speaking to a simple person. A highly intelligent person will struggle with having the simple language available to her express complex thoughts. Where appropriate, he or she might go to abstractions such as mathematics.

To make this character believable, write out their thoughts in the most high language you can conjure up. Complex grammar and sentence structure, multiple thoughts within one sentence to show connections between them, non-linear thoughts and interrelated topics. This is what is in their head. Now take something like Simple English and express that thought in simple grammar and words. Finally, add a couple grammer and word mistakes, if possible using the same type of mistake throughout the story.


The other answers here are all to do with making the character come across as intelligent in conversation. There is a flip-side to this, which probably bears mention: Non-verbal cues. Consider the following scene:

Protagonist A is waiting for Character B in a café, reading a newspaper to pass the time. When B arrives, A folds the newspaper, places it on the table, and starts the conversation. After a couple of minutes, socially-inept C suddenly bounds up and starts chatting away at A, completely ignoring B.

By the time A finally extricates themself from the (rather one-sided) verbal deluge, they notice that B has passed the time by getting out a pencil and working through the one of the harder logic-puzzles (sudoku, nonogram, etc) in the newspaper with remarkable efficiency.

This, of course, only works for certain expressions of intelligence - for a musical prodigy or a skilled tailor you would need a differenct scenario - but it's like this: If you want to indicate that someone is a mechanical genius, do you have them talk about sprocket design, escapement mechanism and gear ratios, or do you have them casually strip down, repair and rebuild a broken clock with little more than a glasses-repair kit and a swiss-army knife?

  • Surely, a ballpoint pen? Jun 29, 2018 at 7:24

Do what transformers did with Grimmlock. Have your character make insightful points and observations while speaking with minimum verbosity using broken English. Frequent pauses would be appropriate. The observations she makes should be high level for the setting though. Have her use the meanings of words rather than the words themselves.

Verbosity does not equate to intelligence.

  • Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy also springs mind.
    – J.R.
    Jun 29, 2018 at 14:20

You need to find a way of letting the refugee speak in their native language so that they do not have to rely on a means of communication that is foreign to the character and therefore cannot demonstrate their intelligence and allow you to use dialogue to convey the information you wish.

Two ways to do this are:

  1. Provide a translator. A translator will be able to render the native language into words that will demonstrate intelligence
  2. Give the reader access to the thoughts of the character. Showing us internally verbalised thought processes will demonstrate the intelligence of the refugee. Broken language can still be employed, but only as a means to communicate with the other characters rather than the reader.

Both these methods should allow you to use vocabulary in the way that you intend.

Good luck with your writing.

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    Another approach would be to avoid presenting the character's words directly too often at times when the character is speaking in the poorly-mastered language but (for purposes of plot) it does not impede communication. If a character readily understands what another character is saying, the reader should too. If a writer says that Bob told Joe about the unrest on the surface, and Joe understood, a reader would readily understand as well, even if making sense of Bob's dialect had taken years of practice.
    – supercat
    Jun 27, 2018 at 16:49

Avoid direct speech. Use lots of indirect speech instead.

X tried to explain to Y how his approach to perform vector multiplication in five-dimensional hyperbolic space was flawed. But without having the necessary vocabulary it was quite difficult for X to bring her point across.

Y seemed sceptical and asked X whether she actually had a real degree in mathematics or if the university in her home country just gave degrees to anyone.

X tried to tell him that her math degree was genuine and that the academic prerequisites for obtaining it in her home country were in no way inferior to those here. But Y apparently didn't want to hear any of it and started shouting. X didn't understand most of it, but she recognized some of the phrases she also heard from the protesters in front of the refugee camp.

  • Please could you make X and Y stand out, It’s confusing to know who’s-who because they don’t have more letters in each of their names? Jun 28, 2018 at 16:49

Use specialized words that tend to be common between languages

Most "five dollar words" are the same in many languages

  • because scientists and technologists of all stripes will adopt terminology verbatim to make their jobs easier

    • Words such as computer or programmer share the roots across most of the modern world (except notably in French, which has a strong language authority). Two professionals from different or analogous domains would be able to have something of a conversation using only technical terms.
  • because the word is freshly introduced by a popular and wide-spread culture

    • the Norman conquest brought beef, poultry, etc to England, and French dishes such as vol-au-vent are famous world-wide. Your average otaku knows words like arigato and konichiwa from anime or manga.
  • because the word comes from Latin or Greek roots (dominant cultures of the past) or literally is a Latin and Greek word unchanged

    • et cetera, ad absurdum, basilica, phalanx, ab initio - it's hard not to pick up a few of these regardless your field of study.

This is not so noticeable in English, which does less word loaning and more word kidnapping, but in other languages it stands out much more.

If a very intelligent character is highly learned, they would a) know many such words, and b) know from the literature that they tend to not be translated. They will be equipped to have an awkward conversation where a few very complicated words are accompanied by a lot of pointing.

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    So in the end someone with too little vocabulary to know the word "bird" might describe it as "descendent of Archaeopterix with aeronautical aptitude"? Jul 1, 2018 at 15:06
  • @HagenvonEitzen More likely after their class, Aves - which also happens to be the word for "bird" in Spanish and Portuguese.
    – SPavel
    Jul 1, 2018 at 17:22

To some extent, you still can express intelligence with complex and detailed word choice, used sparingly, or even in the importance the person places on words. Schadenfreude is a very complex concept, and while many people can identify with the emotions involved, only constant exposure to that word drives home its importance as the only appropriate term. An average-intelligence person says, "I felt shitty about it, but I was glad when that old bastard died." The above-average intelligence person says, "I felt so guilty, but I had an enormous sense of..." ((how do you say? Schadenfreude?)) because word choice matters to them, even when speaking another language.

As another example, we never did the whole baby-talk thing with my (now six year old) son, and he has an amazing vocabulary. In preschool, though, he hated sounding too 'smart', so he parroted the more-basic language his peers did....right up until there was a concept he couldn't express properly in that way. He was arguing with his friend about the chances of them having Cheez-its for their upcoming snack. It was all "nuh-uhs" and "yeah-huhs" and "I don't see any" until the other kid said it would never happen in a million bazillion (etc, etc) years. And my son shot back, "It's not impossible, just improbable!" He knew the word, knew it best expressed the concept, and cared enough about that difference that he was willing to risk (minor) social stigma to properly express himself.

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