Welcome to the new Writing Q&A site! This is the place for anybody interested in the craft of professional writing, editing, and publishing. We welcome questions about all types of writing: fiction, poetry, technical documentation, journalism, scriptwriting, non-fiction, essays, and more. Got questions? Click the "ask" button! Able to offer answers? Try the search button, click on any tag, or just browse. And please vote on content that stands out.
If you have an account on Writing Stack Exchange, you can claim your questions and answers with your account here.
We're currently running on temporary software while waiting for Codidact to be ready. The URL is on codidact.com now, and the software will be updated to match later. Regardless of the software, you can help us expand our library of questions and answers right now -- please join us.
How can I make a character sound uneducated?
Some of my characters have little to no education, and I'm looking for ways to show that through their dialogue. (They're uneducated, but not necessarily stupid.)
Here's what I've tried so far:
- Grammar mistakes. These get obnoxious quickly, so I can't do this too often.
- Low-level vocabulary. This looks like a good start, but I'm not sure it's enough.
Are there any other tricks I can use?
Edit: This is mostly for a medieval fantasy setting - by "uneducated" I mostly mean "illiterate". These characters aren't taught much beyond what they need to do their jobs.
Begin by noticing that educated is a relative term. Today we tend to think of it in terms of formal schooling. But many people with less formal schooling, may be educated in other things by other means, such as apprenticeship. Similarly, someone highly educated in physics may be completely ignorant of history, or vice versa.
So the first question you should be asking yourself is, what does this person know, and what do they not know. Ask yourself what misconceptions are common among people not educated in a particular subject. These will be important clues that the character is not educated in the subject under discussion.
Also, when people are struggling to understand something, they commonly try to cast it into terms they do understand. (A gifted teacher tries to do the same thing for their students.) So use how the character tries to express themselves in terms of their own expertise to indicate their level of understanding of the subject under consideration.
Don't rely on bad grammar. Most people speak grammatically, even if they struggle to write. Their grammar may not always be standard, but that is a different thing. It is a matter of region or class variations from standard grammar, not lack of education. Use these, by all means, if you understand them well enough, but not as a sign of lack of education.
Actually, it is the partially educated that are most likely to use bad grammar in speech, because they try to follow grammar rules they learned in school that are either incorrect , or that they don't understand, or are applying incorrectly. The uneducated don't make those mistakes because they were never taught these rules. They speak in the grammar of their people.
There are some aspects of "formal" grammar that act as shibboleths, designed deliberately to set the nobility apart from the peasantry, but the use of these also has more to do with class than education.
In summation: use local patios/dialect and their grammar if you truly understand it, and you think your readers will recognize it. But otherwise focus on what your characters know and don't know, and how what they know shapes how they inquire into the things they don't know. Education is a matter of knowledge and ignorance (when not corrupted by politics), so focus on what they do and don't know as markers of their education level.
Grammar mistakes. Low-level vocabulary. Are there any other tricks I can use?
A. We can trust the reader. A very occasional grammar mistake goes a long way to get the point across, and the reader will hold the character image they form to inform the rest of the story. As long as you don't jar them out of their mental image with inconsistent character behavior, you should be okay to use this very sparingly.
B. Low level vocabulary is good. Sounds like you are using this effectively already.
C. Have educational norms and reveals come up in conversation. This leans toward telling, but can still be done in a showy way with voice and character judgment.
"You didn't go to school?" It was surprising; she seemed bright enough.
Gloria cocked her head and frowned. "No reason to. Dad taught me everything I need to know."
D. Shine a light on the relative high education of the other characters. Show through contrast that your world has both.
You don't need to rely on dialog, unless you want to. Non-dialog ways of achieving this includes the following:
E. Depending on genre, you can world build tip-offs.
He wore a pin on his lapel. Gloria's mother had once told her those pins meant a person had gone to University. She didn't care about university education, but having a pin like that would be nice.
F. Go ahead and use internal monolog and narrative to show in addition to using dialog.
'These ivory-tower types really got on his nerves.' (internal thought)
The man sounded well-educated. That had never been the sort of thing to impress Gloria. (narrative)
G. Rely on reader bias and give your character a job that the reader will associate with poor education. Field worker, manual laborer, and so on.