How smart should your characters sound?


My name is Kai.

What's the fuss about "too literary"?

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In my freshman year of college, I took a writing workshop that my university randomly offered. It was facilitated by a semi-famous American writer (no idea what she was doing at our crappy school -- we don't even have a writing program). I wrote the assigned story and turned it in. She loved it -- except for one part.

My character, Ellen, was a divorcee who was working as a cashier at a big box store (do you have those in the UK?). The teacher said Ellen "sounded too intelligent" because "she's just a cashier." She thought I should dumb her down or it wouldn't be believable. (I did not do so, but then, the story has never been accepted for publication, so maybe she was right.)

Of course I immediately thought this was bunk. I grew up dirt poor, and I certainly did not need to go to college to sound intelligent. And at the time -- I was working as a cashier!

I kind of thought this was classist garbage, but now every time I write a story (my characters are almost always poor individuals, since that's what I know best), I worry that my characters are unbelievable because they "sound smart." (Defined as: using proper grammar and with a decent vocabulary.)

I'm currently working on a dystopian sci-fi story, and I'm vacillating about this. On the one hand, nobody in the story has been well-educated, and the MC stopped school at 17. But . . . gah . . . they're all smart individuals. I myself didn't get past the ninth grade and certainly didn't need a formal education to learn to speak properly.

What do you guys think?
I think your characters should sound the way that makes sense for them, as individuals. Your own story perfectly illustrates this point. As long as you keep their speech patterns and mannerisms, etc. consistent throughout the story, and as long as all the characters don't sound/act the same, you'll be fine. :)
'Smartness' is more a question of attitude, a curiosity about the world. A smart thinker will be open minded to new ideas and of finding better ways of doing things. Such a livewire approach to life isn't dependent on having paper qualifications.

I've known a couple of very highly qualified scholars, experts in their field, who were interested in nothing else but their area of study. They were highly respected, but not the sort of person you'd want to have a conversation with, as they were so ignorant of the ways of the world and culture in general.

I've always found it weird, the way that people judge others by what they do as a job; it's the second thing we ask of someone on meeting them for the first time, after getting their name. If I say 'I'm a writer', then people look at me differently to if I declare I'm a factory worker, barman, motorcycle dispatch rider, taxi driver, infant teacher, librarian, marriage guidance counsellor, community centre manager, playscheme leader, classic car restorer or company director—all of which I've also been. Same person, different jobs.

Mind you, I'd be looked at differently if I said I was a novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, ghostwriter or song lyricist.

People bring their own prejudices to judging someone, but it shouldn't affect the essential characteristics and personality of your fictional protagonist.
Hmmm... for 5 years of my studies, back in Poland I was doing all sorts of low-skill jobs (including being a cashier). I ended up as a gardener for 3 seasons and during one of them I was working in the nursery (meaning in a gigantic field, doing weeding, watering and spraying- once I even managed to drive a tractor :D). My co-workers were people from neighboring villages, mostly from poor/alcoholic background and I can tell you, none of them had more than basic education. Yet, a lot of these people were smart. Not intellectual, but intelligent. One could immediately judge that, given different circumstances, they could become intellectual as well. So I have absolutely no problem believing in a character that does not have an education, but sounds intelligent. In the end, I believe that intelligence is really common- I mean, there are plenty of intelligent people, in all social classes. Being eloquent or worldly (or just smart, for that matter) is a different thing.

Your post made me think of Wally Lamb's "She's come undone". The voice of the heroine is intelligent and smart, although one of her problems is being unable to get any education. And it was extremely believable, for me at least.
What @Carol Rose said. 'Smart' people sometimes work in 'low grade' jobs because of circumstances. You are right about the 'semi-famous American writer' being classist. Also, many major retail companies start their management trainees on the checkouts.

I worked in Russia and met a street sweeper who could discuss Dostoevesky's work.
I worked in Russia and met a street sweeper who could discuss Dostoevesky's work.

When I was in college (working two jobs to pay for it, one as a cashier), I knew a maintenance man (janitor) with a PhD in Physics. He was an immigrant from Iraq, and the job paid his bills. He was both intellectual and very savvy. He also made great homemade wine...

I have a nephew with a Masters in Biochem. He works as a contractor/handyman because it paid his mortgage better than any research job he could find after graduation, and stuck with it because he enjoys it.

That the statement was bunk is right on the money, I second and third what Carol and James said.
And on the flip side, I know a lot of "well-educated" people - meaning they have plenty of initials after their name - but when I listen to some of them speak, I wonder how they dress themselves in the morning. So just sayin'... an education doesn't always mean you speak intelligently. ;)
Donald Trump is undoubtedly rich; he says he is educated; he might well end up the president of your country.
Just listen to his off the cuff speeches and his answers at press conferences. Here is the most recent link
Donald Trump’s Brexit press conference was beyond bizarre
I'm sure most cashiers in the US can provide a less incoherent to a fairly simple question.
A three year old cannot sound like a uni professor. But a cashier certainly can.
Whew, okay. I was not wrong, then!

Thank you all!
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My name is Kai.

What's the fuss about "too literary"?