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I'm writing a short story told in first person by a character who, an avid book lover, is much more likely to grow her vocabulary by way of ancient books than by talking to other people. Because of this, she tends to use rare or even outdated words when telling her story. This is an important part of her character, and I love how her personality shines through in her voice. However, I'm starting to wonder if I'm overdoing it and it's making the story too difficult to understand.

Of course this is only my first draft, and I know I'll have to tone it down later. But how can I do that without losing part of the main character's personality?

This is only a problem for the narrative. I've yet to encounter a piece of dialogue where another character would have to ask her to "translate" her own speech. Sometimes, she'll preemptively repeat a statement in different words, but most of the time, other characters get the gist of what she's saying without even that. But there's no reason for her to "dumb down" the narrative inside her own head, where she'll happily make use of her large vocabulary. (She's not writing a book or letter that would force her to simplify her thoughts for an imaginary audience.)

Some limitations:

  • I'm writing in English, even though it's not my native language. While I'm more than comfortable writing in English, this makes it much harder for me to guess what the average reader might understand.
  • My usual beta readers have a lower level of English than I do. (They're great at pointing out mistakes in the plot or character development, but I wouldn't ask them to proofread.)
  • My audience is likely to also include non-native English speakers.

If the reader doesn't understand the literal meaning of every word, that's exactly the effect I'd like to achieve, but they should still be able to follow the plot and the main character's thoughts based on the surrounding context. In other words, the story should absolutely not require the reader to consult a dictionary every 5 minutes (or, worse, give up in frustration).

I already know not to use words I don't understand. While I frequently use a thesaurus to help me find the right synonym, I only ever pick words I know and have seen used in a similar context to mine. (Maybe it's because English is my second language, but I often have to check the list of synonyms to recognize the one I was looking for, which might not be unusual at all. For example, when looking for a synonym for "large fire", I'll end up picking "blaze" over "conflagration".)

Can you give me any advice, possibly other than "try to find better beta readers"?

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The thing to remember with writing is that you're trying to produce an effect --to induce certain states of mind in the readers, to give them experiences through your words. Everything that helps that is a good thing, everything that doesn't, isn't.

A modern convention followed by many writers for any unusual speech pattern is to give enough of it for flavor, and to establish the idea of it, but to render the majority of it in a more neutral voice. This has the advantage of being more accessible --it demands less of the reader. Accordingly, you would sprinkle in a few more unfamiliar or ornate words to establish this character's voice, but you wouldn't render every sentence that way. Older books made much fewer concessions to the reader. Whole novels were sometimes written in obscure or difficult dialects. That demands a lot more of the reader, but can be a more immersive and transformative experience for those who win their way through it --it forces the reader to engage more deeply with the language.

Unless you're consciously choosing to position your book counter to modern trends --which can sometimes be a successful strategy for an author --I would recommend the modern convention. Readers of today have many options, and short attention spans. A book that challenges them too much, just to read it, may be a book that is put down quickly. With that said, it is important to be true to yourself. If you find it more natural to write in an elaborated fashion, better that than to awkwardly suppress your own writer's voice.

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  • This is good advice, thanks. I'll pay extra attention to these words while editing and on whether they add to or hinder the intended effect. Thank you! – Llewellyn Nov 8 '20 at 19:22
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When you introduce a new word, you can provide a context that allows the reader to figure out the meaning.

For instance, in the book The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, he makes use of the word fiacre, which is a horse-drawn carriage which did in old times what a taxi cab does in modern times. When the characters hired a fiacre to go somewhere, Wolfe made sure to provide the context of hiring the fiacre (such as paying the driver, using it to get about town, and so forth), so that the reader can understand that it's a temporary hired ride.

Only if it is impossible to provide the necessary context, you can have some expository dialogue. If you're getting too much of that, then it may be best to drop that particular word in favor of something better-known to the target audience.

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  • This doesn't quite seem to fit with the context - the narrator is telling her own story inside her head, so she wouldn't give context for all the words - and I get the impression it's quite a lot of words. – DM_with_secrets Oct 28 '20 at 7:56
  • While I agree with @DM_with_secrets that it's harder to provide explicit context since the narrator is unlikely to explain things to herself, it sounds like the mentioned example was actually implicit, so that might still work. Thanks! – Llewellyn Nov 8 '20 at 19:27

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