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I have an intelligent character. He's basically there just for comic relief, but also helps the MC.

One of the special things about him is his dialogue. He speaks usually out of annoyance, like when people provide misinformation. I want my dialogue to show his intelligence, but I'm not quite sure how to do that. I tried using more complicating words, but it just doesn't sound right and out of place. Every time I try to craft his dialogue, it doesn't sound clever or shrewd, or distinctive. It sounds quite cheesy, in a way I don't like. It also makes the reader dislike the character.

What can I do to make my character more clever-sounding?

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    Does your intelligent character falls into any of the well-established archetypes (college professor, mad scientist, evil mastermind, street-smart rogue etc.)? – Alexander Feb 3 at 18:35
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    Just a prodigy, or a "child genius"? Those are archetypes too. – Alexander Feb 3 at 19:26
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    Your question is asking for a generic advice. I am recommending first focusing on developing your character - it will determine their speech patterns, and only then you would be able to work on improving their speech. – Alexander Feb 3 at 19:39
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    Then it looks relatively straightforward. Let you character speak with the level of sophistication beyond his age, and adults commenting like: "How come I didn't think of that?!" – Alexander Feb 3 at 21:38
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    Does he read a lot, especially above his age grade? If so, he'll have a much larger vocabulary than his peers and may even overuse new words he picked up recently. – Llewellyn Feb 4 at 20:27
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Dialogue alone won't make your character seem intelligent--in fact, dialogue by itself may give the reader the impression the character is trying to sound intelligent. Consider putting him in a setting which will allow this attribute to shine.

Here, George sounds like a data analyst:

Herman handed George the file. "I've cross-indexed all the possible matches against the database excluding outliers."

This already sets up George as the office "smart guy" without even having met the character, and gives some auxiliary information about Herman as well. With this, most of George's dialogue is going to sound intelligent by default because that's the expectation you've given the reader about him.

Herman walked into George's office--Doctor George, as George was so quick to remind people. The office was empty, as expected, and the desk was in disarray. Herman glanced over it, pushing that morning's completed crossword (taking a moment to look at fifteen-down, which had stumped him) and sudoku daily calendar puzzle out of the way. Poking out from underneath a copy of Advanced String Theory was a manila folder with Herman's name scrawled on it. Herman picked it up, knowing George had cross-indexed all the possible matches against the database and excluded the outliers.

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What a lot of TV shows and movies do, and what I'd avoid doing, is looking up a bunch of technical terms from the character's profession and stringing them together in a sentence. Especially if you don't know what they mean yourself and so you're probably not going to be using them correctly. I'm a computer guy by profession, and when I hear supposed computer experts in TV shows talk I almost always laugh at how ridiculous what they say really is. If it's a subject I know even a little bit about, the techno-babble usually sounds ridiculous. Even when they get it technically right, it's often out of place.

Less dramatically, I wouldn't try to put a bunch of long words into his speech. Many people think that using long words makes them sound smart. It really doesn't. I like to think I'm a well-educated, intelligent person. And I don't go around saying things like, "Peradventure you attempt to facilitate the initiation of combustion in your automobile ..." I say, "If you want to start your car ..."

What you can do:

First thing that occurs to me is to avoid slang. A highly-educated, intelligent person rarely talks like a teenager.

Second: Avoid grammar errors. A person of average intelligence might well say, "Yeah, we was goin." But a more intelligent person is more likely to say, "Yes, we were going." Etc.

Possibly: Use more complex sentences. Have him use subordinate clauses, etc.

More difficult: Have him say and do smart things. If you're trying to write a character who is smarter than you are, this can be tricky. Like if I tried to write a story about a character who invents a time machine, while I have no idea how to build a time machine, how could I possibly describe this? But you can always just say, "George invented a time machine."

You can make him the more critical thinker. If someone tells an unlikely story, he can be the one who says, "Is there any evidence to back this up?" (Whether the unlikely story is "I was kidnapped by aliens" or "I have a system for winning the lottery".) I wouldn't make him dogmatically unreceptive to ideas that conflict with his existing beliefs and theories. I'd think that's a sign of narrow-mindedness, not intelligence. In my humble opinion, the truly intelligent person isn't the one who says, "I refuse to even look at your supposed evidence that bigfoot exists [or whatever] because I just know that such a creature is impossible", but rather the one who says, "Now wait, just because you heard a noise in an old house that you can't explain doesn't prove there's a ghost. There are many other possible explanations."

Well, there are a couple of suggestions. I freely admit that you probably need more than that but that's all I've got. :-)

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  • Great suggestions. Other elements of intelligence is recognising patterns and being able to connect the dots between two related pieces of information. Also an in-depth understanding of his core interests, but without the technobabble. (Intelligence also means being able to explain highly advanced concepts in simple terms.) – Llewellyn Feb 4 at 20:31
  • @Llewellyn Good points. You should write your own answer and elaborate on those. – Jay Feb 5 at 2:25
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A quality of very intelligent people, as opposed to high educated people, since they are not the same thing, is that they challenge their assumptions by asking really good questions, either of themselves or whomever they are talking with. Once they understand the situation, they will actively assess whether their expertise and knowledge is applicable. If not, they'll shrug.

It really takes a wise person to say "I have not idea."

If VIP, very intelligent person, knows something useful, they'll express it in a very precise and concise statement, which will commonly elicit one of two reactions from people,

A) a palm-to-forehead signifying that was obvious why didn't I think of that

B) they look at the speaker with a look of incomprehension. The VIP can then lead them step by step through the reasoning until they understand the point.

As Jay said in his answer, they don't speak in short simple sentences, usually, but speaking in complex compound statements like cumulative sentences.

Lastly, you best tool for showing a character speaking is considered highly intelligent, is by how the other characters react to him or her or it, in the case of non-human alien robots. They can be very appreciative of his or her time and their efforts to help them. They can go to great pains to avoid bother the great man or woman with their problems before finally deciding they have no other recourse. They can be annoyed with the august personage because that character makes them, unintentionally, feel small and stupid.

You might examine the dialog from dramatic movies about great people with reputation for being intelligent. How those screen writers communicated the characters mental facilities might inspire you. I'd recommend you avoid action movies and sci-fi because, as Jay said, a lot of what they say in really nonsense. It sounds intelligent, because of how the other characters react or the plot bends at the moment of their revelation.

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I agree with the other two answers here!

Like Jay said, smart people don't necessarily use big words. Of course, they still may do so if a big word is more efficient than a lot of smaller ones. Intelligent people are likely to be good at making themselves understood.

I know a person who is truly smart, and she often pauses to consider before answering a question. She doesn't feel pressured to dive right into a response. And when she does speak, she is clear, concise, and often talks rapidly.

Also, You may want to consider your character's quirks. Sometimes, very smart people are prone to mental illnesses (because they basically think too much!)...this could be a cool way to develop your character.

As for making him look still smarter...one advantage that you, as the author, have over all your characters, is that you know what's going to happen next! You can give your smart guy amazing powers of reasoning, make him see a few moves ahead because (guess what) you're helping him out! This might possibly be a hack you can use, if you do it artfully. Good luck!

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  • They may use big words because they picked them up in the course of reading. Remember that from their point of view, odd or unusual words are just part of their vocabulary. They do not think of them as fancy words – Mary Feb 13 at 1:02

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