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Q&A

How can I make a character sound condescending?

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In one chapter, the PoV character meets up with her sister. Her sister is supposed to be fairly stuck-up and thinks she's a complete lowlife, so she talks down to her the whole time.

I have the PoV character mention her sister's condescending tone, but it feels heavy-handed to me. If I want to make the sister sound condescending, is there a specific sentence structure/word choice I should use?

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You should consider what makes someone sound condescending.

I know – that's pretty much what you're already asking. But I really think it's what's at the heart of your question.

One aspect of people talking to them that a lot of people (especially adults, but perhaps surprisingly, also not uncommonly children) tend to find condescending is when someone either (a) assumes that the person they are talking to doesn't know the subject matter, so they simplify to the point of almost ridicule or even tell them some variation of "you wouldn't understand"; or (b) want to show off their knowledge, so they make a deliberate point of being overbearing, typically by using terminology or phrasings that the person they are talking to cannot be expected to know.

In contrast, someone who genuinely wants to share their knowledge in a civil manner is likely to try to quickly and fluently adapt their communication to the person they are talking to. If the person they are talking to seems to understand things or even just expresses interest in the discussion, this means to go a little more into appropriate depth; if they seem puzzled, to explain a little more and maybe use fewer field-specific terms. If the details are important, they'll probably focus on explaining over simplifying; if getting the general point across is more important than the specific details, they'll probably focus on simplifying.

Therefore, if you want a character to sound condescending, I suggest to either have them over-explain everything in very simple language, or to knowingly speak over the head of the character they are talking to. In both cases, they should also ignore hints that the character being talked to doesn't understand, or even explicit pleas for clarification or more details. They may or may not more or less outright refuse to adapt their style of communication to match the character they are talking to; some variation of "I shouldn't have to explain this to you like you were five years old" once in a dialogue can go a really long way, but it shouldn't be forced.

If the POV you're working with allows it, you can also add some inner monologue for the character that they are talking to, indicating that they either don't fully grasp what's being said, or that they wish the character talking to them would explain in a bit more depth.

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The way you make a character sound condescending it to have them say condescending things. That's it. That's the whole of the recipe.

But I suppose you knew that. I suppose you must have tried that and had a hard time pulling it off convincingly.

So here is a guess as to why that might be. I'm guessing, because writers get stuck like this all the time, that what you really want in this scene is to have your main character be condescended to. You are really only interested in their arc at this point. It is all about having this thing happen to them so that they can react the way you want them to.

So why is this hard? Because it concerns the conduct of the other character. And if that other character appears in more than just this one scene, then they have an arc themselves and if their actions don't make sense in terms of that arc, and in terms of their established character profile, then it is just going to sound wrong, no matter what words you put in their mouth.

And interaction between two characters, in other words, has to make sense in terms of the arcs of both characters. If it does, you will generally not have much trouble writing the scene. If it does not, nothing you can do in the scene itself is going to fix it. This is why writers have to rewrite their stories many many times. It is hard to get all this stuff to line up convincingly.

Of course, if you need your MC to be condescended to at this point and the sister does not turn out to be at the point in her arc where she would do this, you can always invent someone else to do the condescending. The great thing about minor characters is that you can invent them on the spot to react to your MC in the required manner and then conveniently forget about them for the rest of the novel. You don't need to align their arc, you just need to paint a convincing portrait of them in the moment.

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