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I have a character who is an expert at using language to his advantage. Both in terms of doublespeak, subtle put downs and deliberately avoiding the point and making the conversation about something else, but also in terms of effortlessly sounding professional without having to think about it. I'm not particularly skilled in either.

The main thing he's using these skills for is that he's in the employ of a company who (through dodgy-dealings) is the political entity running the small country and people are trying to escape their exploitative circumstances. He says he's trying to 'help', but he's actually trying to stop them. (Of course he then has a change of heart)

What I've been doing is writing what he's actually saying, and going over and obscuring it a bit, but I'm not entirely sure what specifically I'm meant to be aiming for and how to word the dialogue to achieve the desired effect. I'd really appreciate any tips!


P.S, character background/context in case it helps.

He grew up in a political family. His parents used him as a trophy and groomed him to be the model diplomat so that he makes them look good. ('Look how amazing we are, we raised such a brilliant diplomat,' when in reality, they just emotionally abused and manipulated him into being exactly who/what they wanted him to be.)

So he's grown up surrounded by people who do the politician thing of never saying what they mean, never answering questions directly and lying without a flinch. He grew up adopting this communication style both because it was the main/only type he'd seen - but also as a survival strategy, having been surrounded by people who hide both compliments and insults under 3 layers of hidden meaning. Add parents who put an immense amount of pressure on him to be perfect by those standards, even at home, and you have a character who struggles to be direct or deal with directness. These struggles then make up part of the overall conflict since he's paired with a character with a much more direct communication style.

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    There is a YouTube channel you might get some benefit from. It's called Charisma on Command. youtube.com/@Charismaoncommand Lots of advice that I find I cannot apply in my real life because I can't remember to do it. But if I sit and process I can work out "what I should have said..."
    – Boba Fit
    Jun 14, 2023 at 13:16
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    How to ["emotionally abused and manipulated him into being exactly who/what they wanted him to be"] was published in 1936. "how to word the dialogue to achieve the desired effect" : 'Help me, Obi-Wan. You're my only hope'. Use their name, +1. Appeal to their personal sensibilities, +2. Elevate their status in your eyes to what they think it should look like, which is I'm your only hope, so I guess I'll do it, +3.
    – Mazura
    Jun 14, 2023 at 18:50
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    "I'm not particularly skilled in either." - you don't want to be.... See also, How I learned to stop worrying, be a jerk, and hate everybody.
    – Mazura
    Jun 14, 2023 at 18:57
  • I recently had to write a theatre play that included a lawyer character. His lines were super fun to write.
    – Stef
    Jun 16, 2023 at 12:29
  • Not a duplicate, but very strongly related: How does one write a character smarter than oneself?
    – Stef
    Jun 16, 2023 at 12:32

5 Answers 5

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Take full advantage of your ability to revise.

Take a long time thinking about and drawing up his dialog. That he comes up with it on the fly makes him better than you, but you can probably do it with enough revision.

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    This would be my suggestion as well. You can take hours, or days with research, to think about a 20 word response. The same thing goes for "funny". The fact that from the reader's POV your character comes up with something smart, or funny, on the fly under the pressure of a conversation will make him see smart. The fictional Sherlock Holmes does this; he seems brilliant because he has facts and knowledge at his immediate command; but the writers spend hours and days in research, brainstorming and revision to pull that off that encyclopedic knowledge that is always at Sherlock's fingertips.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 14, 2023 at 13:24
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    Yes. I bet nearly everyone had the experience of coming up with the perfect response, hours after the end of an argument. Jun 14, 2023 at 18:10
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    @DarrelHoffman I was talking about all the many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, on TV, in movies, in TV series, and the Sherlock knock offs; like House, or Monk, or Columbo. The writers of super-detectives have to think long and hard to make their hero "brilliant". In the Series, Sherlock, they show Sherlock constantly engaged in experiments, and constantly practicing with picking locks and escaping restraints and self-defense tactics and stealing cars, sometimes with comic effect, so when he does it easily in some life-threatening circumstance it won't look like a deus ex machina.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 14, 2023 at 20:27
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The politician thing of never saying what they mean, never answering questions directly and lying without a flinch.

Consider the reverse: Politician's always say what they mean, always answer questions directly, and never tell a lie.

The problem here is the trick: Politicians are cut from the same cloth as lawyers and are trained to be honest... but to the benefit of their interests (in a lawyer's case it will be for their client... in the Politician's case, what gets them re-elected by their constituents.).

As such, these people will never tell an out and out lie... but that truth has been massaged...

As an example from my own life, my own father maintained that I was the worst of my siblings to punish because I always told the truth... the exact truth. He would say in a hypothetical scenario where he comes into our playroom to find my brother doubled over in pain, crying, and pointing an accusatorial finger at me, he would ask if I hit my brother. I would say no. He'd ask if I punched my brother. Again, I would say no. Did I push my brother? No. Did I kick my brother? Yes! At no point did I lie. However, my father was asking if I violated the "spirit of the law" in question whereas I would provide the answer to "the letter of the law" in question. In my defense, I didn't want to go to the time out chair for a crime I didn't commit (My dad did eventually start asking me questions that would satisfy both... "Did I hurt my brother?" followed by "how did you hurt him?").

There are plenty of characters in fiction that will give what in spirit is a generous offer only to reveal they are following the letter of the law... which is less than generous. For example, the defining trait of many characters in the "Pirates of the Carribean" is that they are masters of this kind of twisted truth. Hector Barbossa interprets a deal with Will to "Let Elizabeth go free and none of Jack's Crew are to be harmed" as marooning Elizabeth (and Jack) and putting Jack's Crew into the brig on Barbossa's ship. When will protests, Barbossa accuses him of impugning his honor: He is letting Elizabeth go free. Will failed to specify the time or place she should be freed so he was free to choose making her walking the plank into waters off the shore of a deserted island. Elizabeth doesn't have to swim to that island... she is free... which means she can swim out to see until she drowns. And while unstated, "the crew remaining unharmed" is not the same as "let the crew go free" and if you're obligated to do only the former, putting them in the brig is probably the safest place to keep them on Barbossa's ship... it limits the ability for his own crew to harm the members of Jack's crew.

Of course, this is a long tradition among Disney's pirate characters. Captain Hook, when making a deal with a jealous Tinkerbell promises Tinkerbell he "Would not Harm a single hair" on Peter Pan's head. Of course, the syntax is unclear and Hook interprets the deal differently. He plucks a hair from Peter's head... and maintains that so long as this single hair is unharmed, he can do anything else to the rest of Peter... and gives him a bomb (A crafty wordsmith type would point out that by plucking a hair, it is no longer a "Single Hair on Peter's Head" and thus the bomb would harm all possible hairs that could qualify. A craftier wordsmith type would counter that stabbing Peter through the heart would be a more valid interpretation for Hook's agenda, since it accomplishes the same goal as the bomb, while upholding Tinkerbell's promise, since the fatal wound is nowhere near Peter's scalp or facial hair. It may harm his chest hairs... but those aren't hair on his head.).

Still others will apply loopholes in the rules to their favor in a fashion of "Ain't no rule that says a Golden Retriever can't play on a Middle School Basketball team." Which is true... the rule makers didn't think that needed to be a rule... but someone who knows the rules of the league in which the middle school sports team competes could also point out that while there is no rule that bars a player by their species... there is a rule that says the player must be a student at the school that the team represents and must maintain a certain GPA (usually 2.0 above). Neither are conditions that Air Bud meets... but the opposing coach isn't asking for a check on enrollment or grade eligibilities... he asks the ref on species eligibilities, which there are no rules barring a dog of any breed.

In the case of giving non-answers, this is actually a good practice lawyers use to keep their witnesses from commiting perjury. If there is a date/time that they are testifying to, the lawyer will always write or instruct their client to say "On or about [date/time] instead of "on date or time..." This is because in testimony perjury comes into play when you knowingly lie... if it came out that the event in question didn't occur on the date of time in more official records, making a definative claim that it was an exact date or time makes one more vulnerable to a perjury charge... however, giving a vague "on or about" does not... you're giving a general range of time (it was reasonably close to this day or time) and if it comes out it was not specific, your defense to perjury was you were never certain but had a reasonable guess... thus you didn't lie.

Another one frequently used is "I do not recall" which is a bit more protective than saying "yes" or "no". If you're wrong when you say "yes" or "no" as an answer, the question of if you are lying is easier to prove. However, even if you are lying when you testify "I do not recall" it's damn near impossible to prove that you did know and lie about not knowing as opposed to you should have known but didn't recall the conversation from the past at the time you were asked in the present. It could be you chose to lie... or you genuinely forgot... but to convict you need to prove it was only a choice to lie... which is hard to prove one's memory. People forget where they placed their car keys while holding them in their hand all the time. I forgot the specific math lesson I was taught on May 31st of my First Grade year... I'm sure I use that knowledge... I can't specifically recall what it was... but I distinctly remember my first-grade teacher punishing me with no recess for playing with my pencil box during a reading class one day. Memory is a fickle thing... of course... I could have made up that story whole cloth. Prove it.

Thus, my answer is not a bold face lie. But it's not helpful for the purposes of the question asked. Another fun one is that anyone with possible knowledge of a big classified secret, when confronted, will state "I can neither confirm nor deny the big classified secret." Legally confirmation defeates the whole reason to classify something... and denying it when true (and speaking under penalty of perjury) can bite you in the ass. Stating that you can legally do neither is a valid legal answer. (If it's true, you can't confirm it... that's why it's classified and you can't deny it... because that would be lying. If it's false, you can't confirm it because that's lying. And you can't deny it... because that could reveal the extent of the capabilities of a classified program by showing a limitation OR exposing a deception that you would like the adversary to believe is true.).

To give a still little known famous example of this, I refer to some of the politics General Dwight D. Eisenhower had to play following General Patton's famous "slapping incident." When the news had broken out back home, Eisenhower had to answer to politicians who wanted Patton to be punished for his behavior. Patton, of course, thought it was a lot of civilian non-sense and wanted to fight the Germans in the upcoming invasion... and on top of that he had intelligence officers telling him that the Nazis were certain that in a future invasion of Europe, General Patton would be the leader of the offense, so if he didn't give Eisenhower a role in the invasion, the Nazis might change how they were planning for an invasion. But, like any good politician, Eisenhower was the smartest man in the room. So he he took the American politicians into close door meetings and said, "I am going to punish Patton and you have my word, but we're at war and the Nazis fear him, so I can't tell you how I'm going to punish him... but rest assured he will not have the same number of troops under his command as he had previously as soon as I can spare him from his duties in the invasion planning." Then he took Patton in his office and said, "Look, I'm not going to punish you for slapping a guy, because I respect your skills in combat... but you owe me big time. I've got a special job for you and it's going to look like I'm punishing you... but it's probably the most important job I have to give someone and you're the only man for a job."

Then he made an announcement of staffing changes. He was replacing General Omar Bradley, the commander in charge of the "First United States Army Group" (FUSAG) and replacing him with General Patton. Which... was as good as he could get to telling Hitler that Patton was going to be in charge of the invasion of Europe, though obviously because Eisenhower and Hitler were on opposite sides of the war, he couldn't actually say this out loud.

The thing is that there was one thing Eisenhower didn't tell anyone: FUSAG was never going to go to Normandy. They were stationed in Dover... which for those of you who don't know European Geography... launching an invasion of Normandy from Dover is akin to the U.S. launching an Invasion of Cuba from Corpus Christi, Texas: Yes... you can sail from there and get to your intended location... but there are closer places to stage an invasion from within your own territory. However, where that analogy fails, is that while the Invading Normandy from South Central France is more ideal... invading France from anywhere in England is most ideal to enter France via landing at the shores of the town of Pas de Calis, which is the closest the French can get to England, while staying in France and without getting wet. It's so close that on a clear day, one can, unaided see the most iconic feature of the nearest English town the White Cliff's... of Dover. Which means an invasion fleet bound for Normandy leaving from Dover was bound to set up some alarm bells among the troops stationed in the Nazis occupied town that would have made it back to Hitler. FUSAG was never going to land at Normandy for a number of reasons, most of them being it COULDN'T land at Normandy... It couldn't even make the short trip from Dover to Pas de Calis... because FUSAG wasn't a real army unit. The support infrastructures were as functional as they would have been if Hollywood made them as set pieces. The shiny rows of were fake wooden planes painted to look the part as were the rows of jeeps... the standing boats stationed in the harbor were not seaworthy enough to cross the channel to Calis... and a few nearly gave away the trick by sinking while moored in the port. The tents that acted as temporary lodging for the mass of troops... those where real... but no one actually lived in them. The tank treads were produced by real tanks and did follow a logical path to the motorpool for tanks staging around Dover... but the tanks that German Recon planes saw were made using the same design principals we today use for bouncy castles. The personal of FUSAG were a skeleton crew that ran fake radio comms that mimicked the chatter a real army of FUSAG's size would produce... and the nighttime Reconnaissance (at the time one of the best methods for activity check) was tricked by a field of lights designed to look like the staging grounds and port... set up several miles inland and no where near Dover.

Thus, Eisenhower had played everyone by telling them exactly what they wanted: Patton wasn't punished (in a manner he felt was a punishment) and arguably single handedly saved the entire D-Day landing from certain doom (as bad as Omaha Beach was, it would have been worse if Hitler had redeployed the forces he sent to stop what he thought was the real invasion.) The politician's got what they wanted: Eisenhower didn't let Paton lead a beach head landing in Europe and was given considerably less troops and duties when placed in charge of FUSAG (he said he would punish Patton... he never said Patton would see it as a punishment). Eisenhower got what he wanted, a successful invasion of Europe. Nobody was told a lie... except... you know... Hitler... but even then, Hitler was given what he wanted... Patton was put in charge of an Army group operating out of Dover... By this point, England and France have about a millennium of experience invading each other (in doing some quick research for this story, I came upon this quote in Wikipedia's article about the results of Henry VIII's fist war with France: "Henry signed his own treaty with Louis [XII]: his sister Mary would become Louis' wife, having previously been pledged to the younger Charles, and peace was secured for eight years, a remarkably long time."). In fact, this was one of the few times time England invaded France by landing somewhere other than Calis... Hitler wanted to make sure Calis wasn't the landing site for the allied invasion... and Eisenhower was nice enough to accommodate Hitler. Afterall, he was punishing a subordinate general by giving him a skeleton crew on a training and support unit. It was Hitler who assumed it was an invasion force... Eisenhower neither confirmed nor denied anything of the sort.

Again, everyone got what they wanted... accept Hitler... but he got what he deserved.

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    I read the first and last sentence to get the gist and I cannot suggest it more. But I wanted to comment that I do find there's something so satisfying about the pattern of revealing a clever misinterpretation of words (I just read "The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue" so I might be biased). Maybe because it is more commonly used for stories of deities I love this suggestion for a political character, +1 for that alone
    – vspmis
    Jun 15, 2023 at 6:36
  • I wouldn't prefer it to be misinterpretation. It's a valid interpretation... it's just not the most common one. It's probably why politicians and lawyers (career paths that often overlap. Many of the former previously worked as the latter.) are so despised.
    – hszmv
    Jun 15, 2023 at 12:01
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Sounding Professional is profession specific.

A lawyer doesn't talk the same way as an engineer and a doctor doesn't talk like a politician, when they are speaking in their professional capacity.

To me it sounds like you are wanting your character to be a Persuasive speaker. Some one who can shift peoples wants and values when they don't align with those that the speaker needs them to hold.

There is an abundance of material you can use for research on this subject: Influence: The Science of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini and Persuasion and Rhetoric by Carlo Michelstaeder

I think there are two interesting challenges in what you want to write:

  • how to present the inner mind of the character who is a master persuader.
  • coming up with character's arguments that aren't straw men.

As the readers, we will be in this character's mind, seeing how they are perceiving the audience or the individuals they are needing to persuade. How do they evaluate their own situation and recognize the kind of mental opposition they are needing to circumvent.

Also, the situations the character is faced with need to be difficult. If the character needs to persuade everyone that puppies are good, then that's pretty easy. Most opposition to puppies would come across as two-dimensional and flat -- except maybe people who are allergic. Flat and easy to win arguments will not be engaging. I expect they'll be very boring. So your character needs to have really well thought out positions on complex and difficult topics. This is so the opposition is understandable and so the character's challenges are genuine. I suspect this is going to be the hardest part of your challenge. Even harder than making the character sound persuasive and professional.

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What an exciting character! I believe it can be well showcased in the moments when his wishes contradict the group. Regardless if it is about which path to take or which restaurant to pick, he'll have his own goals that he'll never outwardly express, but somehow he'll get his way. Doublespeak is one tactic, buzzwords is another (lovely for comedic effect), but political rhetoric has other well defined strategies.

I'd suggest to manually deep dive into what rhetorical strategies are out there, see what strikes your fancy and then retroactively see if anything would work with your story. No need to use all the strategies you'll find. Real life politicians also have their favourites, and, for an example, always fall back on dubious analogies when cornered - see what fits for your guy.

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You have time and access to help that the character probable doesn't.

To second and somewhat echo Mary, the character when speaking is usually speaking extemporaneously or "off the cuff", especially in a dialog with another as opposed to a speech that can be prepared.

As the author though, you aren't speaking extemporaneously. You have the ability to go over the words repeatedly and consult with others on how it comes across. By doing that, you can make dialog that is far more nuanced and persuasive than someone speaking extemporaneously ever could.

Consider describing the effect of the character's persuasion rather than directly stating what was said.

You don't always have to show exactly what the character said and can focus on the effects. This can be particularly true in cases where going through the entire thing would likely be tedious for a reader such as if the character gives a speech or an argument in court.

You show your character is persuasive by having other character's persuaded. You show your character is engaging in double speak by having two other characters come to different conclusions about what was said.

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