Sorry everyone, I’m going on a (hopefully) short rant about epithets and their uses.
I’m a professional writer who knows a few things about editing by this point in their career. I’m also involved in a few non-professional writing circles, and every so often, new writers have an argument about the use of epithets.
I can’t say I’m not guilty of using epithets. However, I have since learned the error of my ways and want to pass off some advice: DO NOT USE epithets in your writing.
First of all, it drives editors mad.
Remember those people that look over your work and make it infinitely better than all your previous drafts? Yeah, editors hate epithets with a burning passion and will set your manuscript on fire if you use them.
What is an epithet?
An epithet is when someone uses a descriptive phrase to refer to a character instead of either their pronoun or given name.
Example: the blond
This is the most common for some reason, because there are so many blond characters. See also: the brunet, the raven-haired (person), or the red-head. People seem to like describing people by their hair colour a lot.
But also: the (character’s profession), the taller/shorter person, the older/younger person, and the (facial expression) person.
These are just the common ones, but epithets can get somewhat ridiculous the more elaborate a writer tries to make them.
The main argument writers use for including epithets is that using the character’s given name over and over gets repetitive. The secondary argument is that when two or more people have the same pronouns, then writing a scene becomes confusing.
First of all, maybe for the writer using the same name over and over is repetitive, but trust me on this one, it’s not for the reader. The reader won’t even notice. They will, however, probably notice you using an epithet, especially if it is a particularly idiotic-sounding one.
Second, if you’re getting confused by pronouns in your writing, just use the person’s given name instead. Go through and edit the scene and change character’s pronouns to their name if there’s confusion about who the sentence is referring to. Sometimes this means you need to change some of your uses of the character’s given name back to their pronoun to make it flow better. You can do it, it just requires editing.
Why should you not use an epithet?
First of all, editing is part of a process that makes your writing more concise, and epithets are the opposite of concise. When trimming your writing down, it’s necessary to cut out anything unneeded.
Second, it makes your writing sound juvenile. Another writer can immediately tell how new a writer you are if you use epithets. Especially if you try to beef up your descriptions by using epithets to describe your character.
Lastly, it’s lazy writing and lazy editing. Just don’t do it.
There is one exception to this, and that is when you are introducing a character that doesn’t have a name yet. The description is necessary for the reader to know who you’re talking about. But you only use the epithet once, maybe twice, for that character. After that initial use, you introduce that character and give them a name.
If it’s a minor character that only appears once, they don’t require a name. If that character shows up often enough that you find yourself using an epithet repeatedly, they need a name.
And I see that this turned into a longer rant than anticipated, but if my post in any way contributes to writers cutting down on epithet use, then I don’t mind.
Don’t use epithets!
– The Dark-Haired Author
(See how silly that looks? Don’t be that writer!)
One thought on “Epithets”
Other things to consider is POV. First person, you might could get away with it a bit more, since the narrative voice might honestly choose to view/reference a person that way (it can be a way to demonstrate animosity or disrespect of that character). Still use with caution though.
In third person, though, it’s worth considering that people rarely think of others in contexts of their descriptors. My mom is my mom, not “the former marine” or “the shorter woman”. When I think about her or talk about her, I refer to as “Mom” or “my Mom” or (rarely) or actual name.
I like to link this site a lot when the question gets asked: http://www.trickster.org/symposium/symp159.html
It also covers the issue of having too many epithets for a single character. And I have read stories where one character was reference by 5 different epithets in a single paragraph.
And the Fandom Grammarians on LJ give a fair breakdown on some (possible) exceptions for using them: