Part of the "Variety Is the Spice of Life, and I Need Some Tums" set of essays. For the others, see:
Purple Fanfic's (total lack of) Majesty | Said Is Not a Four-Letter Word
For a list of epithets used in various fandoms, see my epithets page.
written December 2004
An epithet, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is "a characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing".
They're a very popular writing device. They shouldn't be -- or at least, not as popular as they are.
Epithets are one of the biggest weak spots in fanfic; they show up in droves in every fandom, diluting story after story. They include descriptions of:
(For a list of many, many epithets used in many, many fandoms, see my Epithets page.)
While there are certain situations where an alternative to a name worksbetter (see Are They Ever a Good Idea?, below), those are far and away the minority. In general, it's a much better idea to use characters' names as often as necessary, rather than give in to awkward variation without a very good reason. The main variant should be a pronoun (he, she, it), which works as a pointer directly back to the name.
Why do something that seems so boring? Because people tend to use a single identifier for people -- and that identifier is usually a single name.
A name encompasses everything about a person. The more you learn about someone, the more their name represents for you. You don't need to use his first name sometimes, and his last name other times, to remind yourself who he is; you don't need to describe him (by his looks, his emotional state, or his occupation), either. All you need is the name you default to when you think of him.
And yet, epithets abound. People use them because they've been told that repeating someone's name is boring. On the surface that seems reasonable: one name, repeated over and over, versus fifteen descriptive phrases. In fact, though, the opposite is true. Take some common epithets for Daniel Jackson of Stargate SG-1, for instance.
- the person who has a degree in the study of antiquities
- the person who is skilled at languages and how they work
The blue-eyed man
- the man with blue eyes
The younger man
- the man who is younger than some other man
Each of these is a static, one-dimensional slice of a picture of someone; they say nothing about the real person that the author is trying to write about, but instead reduce him down to that one small characteristic. If that weren't boring enough, each of them applies absolutely equally to everyone in the world who shares that characteristic; there's nothing remotely individual about any of them.
A name, on the other hand, means everything there is about a person:
- studied in Chicago, under Dr. Jordan
- rivals (of sorts) with Steven Rayner
- world's leading expert in Ancient culture and language
- learned basic midwifery in the Yucatan
- built (and getting more built all the time)
- wears glasses, not contacts
- doesn't need the glasses after enough sessions in the sarcophagus
- doesn't like to be touched
- orphaned as a child
- traumatized by watching his parents die horribly in front of him
- lived on another world for a year while married to a woman he loved deeply
- has a wonderfully similar grandfather named Nick who's off learning things from giant ghostly aliens
- several romantic interests were taken as Goa'uld hosts or turned out to be sociopathic homicidal maniacs all on their own
- hard to kill permanently
- death and revival
- torture and resistance
- taught Teal'c how to drive
- member of SG-1, with close relationships with Jack, Sam, and Teal'c
- willful murderer of baby Goa'uld
- blue eyes
- light brown hair
- broad shoulders
- sweet smile
- deadpan sense of humor
- can't sit cross-legged easily, but tries
- forgiving -- of some things, and some people
- prefers bandanas and boonie hats to caps
- willing to make a complete fool of himself in front of his peers if he believes in what he's saying
- deep, abiding hatred of the Goa'uld
- deep, abiding love of knowledge
- loyalty to his teammates
- indifference to military hierarchy or orders
- utter confidence in his own abilities
- scorn for bureaucrats who try to interfere with the SGC
The list of characteristics and description and history goes on and on (well beyond what I have here), all contained inside that one small word.
Daniel, like all names, is a huge concept, and it will never get boring, because it encompasses so many facets, and it keeps adding more facets all the time.
Using a name or pronoun instead of an epithet like "the archaeologist" means your readers will have a much richer sense of the character, because they'll be able to bring all those different facets into play in their own minds, even if they're not conscious of doing so. They'll be picturing/feeling an entire person, not just one tiny portion of him.
Sure! Sometimes, a carefully chosen epithet really is the perfect way to go. The situations where you need them are pretty specific, though:
Some characters canonically think of other characters in terms of epithets. If your POV character is one of them, you should use the same epithet(s) they do. For them, the specific epithet basically begins to function as a name. For instance:
In Stargate SG-1, Sam Carter often refers to Jack O'Neill as "the colonel" when referring to him, and "Colonel" when addressing him. She doesn't use his name alone. If she's the POV character, "the colonel" is entirely appropriate for Jack in narrative.
In The Fugitive, Richard Kimble consistently referred to the man who had killed his wife as "the one-armed man". There was never a name involved, only the physical description.
With the exception of his family, pretty much all the West Wing characters refer to Bartlet as "the president" when they're not speaking to him directly (in which case, it's "Mr. President" or "sir").
If your POV character sees or meets someone he doesn't know, an initial epithet is fine. It's human nature to try to attach identifiers to people as quickly as possible, and without a name, people resort to description, trying to find one thing that sets that person off from everyone else so they can easily identify him again. But once the character learns the name, the epithet should pretty much vanish.
Jim glanced down the beach, eyes narrowing at the surfer dude in the acid green shorts. "I think I've got him. Surfer, green shorts, down there near the family with the three kids."
Blair squinted, then raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare. He grinned. "Sorry, man -- that's Toby Peterson. He definitely didn't do it -- he was in my class that morning. We got into this fantastic argument over the Inca death cult." He waved energetically.
Toby waved back and headed over, smiling. Jim made polite noises when they were introduced, but kept scanning the beach, sure the perp was here somewhere.
There are two parts to this:
For these characters, an epithet is the way to go. No reader expectsto find out their name (and it's distracting if a name is given; a named character is one the reader is supposed to pay attention to, even if only a little). Background characters often function better when described purely in terms of occupation or looks.
Jack waved everyone down and crept forward a few more feet alone, settling behind a bush and using his rifle's scope to check the guard's position.
Jack's not trying to find a person with a background and a history, he's literally trying to find the guard, any guard, whatever guard, whom he needs to get past. The job title is the key identifier. The thing to avoid in this case is going too far in describing the guard. Figure out how important he is to your story, and judge accordingly.
The more detail you give about a character, the more the readersfeel obliged to remember him or her. If a character is only going to show up for a second, stick with the simplest epithet you can, like "the guard".
If you have multiple background characters showing up at the same time, give only enough detail to differentiate them, and only if it's absolutely necessary. As long as individual guards aren't going to do anything interesting, you should go with "the guards" or "the six guards" or something.
If the character is going to show up a few times and your main characters are going to notice him or pay a bit of attention to him for whatever reason, give a bit more, so your readers can remember who it is, but not so much that they think they should be invested in him.
When the background character is someone your POV character knows, make up a name. That’s your readers’ clue that this is someone who has a history of some sort with your character. Since your readers have no idea who this person is, you can add an epithet or two if need be to help describe him and his place in the story, but there are usually better ways to handle giving information about someone.
"Morning, Sharon," Walt said, sliding onto a stool.
"Morning, sheriff," the waitress behind the counter replied. She poured him a cup of coffee without asking. "Running a bit late today, huh?"
That’s fine, but it would be a bit more interesting as:
"Morning, Sharon," Walt said, sliding onto a stool.
Sharon smiled at him as she finished wiping down the counter. “Morning, sheriff.” She grabbed a pot of coffee from a burner and walked over to pour him a cup, not bothering to ask if he wanted one. "Running a bit late today, huh?"
They both give the same basic information: Walt’s in a diner, he’s a regular there, the waitress’s name is Sharon, and she knows he’s going to want coffee right away. But the second one paints a better picture of the action at the counter, letting us see her as a waitress, rather than just announcing that that’s what she is. Showing is always stronger than telling.
Comparisons are rarely necessary. There are usually better ways of pointing out a difference between two people than defaulting to younger/older man, taller/shorter man, etc. Also, unless the differences are significant, they're -- well, insignificant. <g> They don't matter. But if you have a situation where the information can't be given in some other way, by all means, go ahead. (But please -- try to think of another way. These sorts of comparative epithets are so prevalent they set my teeth on edge.)
Jack studied the newcomers for a moment after they got tossed into the cell with him, then gestured the stockier man over. "Give me a boost, wouldja? I want to check that window."
Sometimes an epithet can deepen characterization, giving the reader a glimpse into a character's internal attitudes. But there has to be a specific reason they're thinking in epithets (not necessarily canonical, but necessary to the story you're trying to tell).
Warrick's wide eyes and ragged breathing were all the evidence Hodges needed. He had the gambler in the palm of his hand now.
This one could be either a bad epithet, or a good epithet, depending on the story surrounding it:
If it's a romantic story about the night when Hodges broke down and admitted how he felt about Warrick, and Warrick admitted some things back, and they wound up back at Hodges's place, where he got to prove that an unpleasant personality didn't necessarily equate to lousy in bed, to the point where Warrick had become willing putty in his his hands -- wow, is that a bad epithet.
The situation has absolutely nothing to do with Warrick being a gambler, and if Hodges isn't thinking of Warrick as a person here -- Warrick's hooked up with a very unstable man, and should get the hell out.
If it's a story where Hodges has found out about Warrick's gambling addiction, and has looked at the situation and realized that the only way he'd ever make it into Grissom's good graces is to force himself into Grissom's favorite's (Warrick's) good graces, so he started stalking Warrick and collecting info on him until he had enough proof of Warrick visiting low-rent casinos and getting involved in street gambling to finally confront Warrick and blackmail him with it -- that's a pretty good epithet.
In Hodges's mind, Warrick is less a person in his own right than a conduit to Grissom, and the gambler part of that conduit is all he's concerned with. He controls the gambler, he controls Warrick, he gains access to Grissom.
Even outside the above situations, epithets do provide some variation -- in moderation. As long as it’s appropriate to the situation, the occasional epithet is fine. But the key words are “appropriate” and “occasional”.
Appropriate: The detective swallowed back nausea as he studied the crime scene.
Not appropriate: The detective woke up, scratched, and walked downstairs to make coffee.
While he would likely specifically try to immerse himself in being as professional a detective as possible at a disturbing crime scene, his job has nothing whatsoever to do with waking up at home.
Please. I beg you. In the name of everything anyone has ever held holy -- never use a job title in place of someone’s name in a consensual sex scene, unless the job title is “prostitute” (or a variant thereof), or your characters are role-playing for kicks.
Comparative epithets should also be avoided; do you really want people wondering exactly in what way “the bigger man” is bigger? (Or, worse, how “the smaller man” is smaller?) Descriptive epithets aren't much better. If your POV character is having sex with Blair and suddenly starts thinking of him as "the curly-haired man" and "the blue-eyed man" and so forth, it sounds like he's got amnesia and is just going with the flow because he's happy about the blow-job he's getting, whoever it is that happens to be giving it. Not very romantic.
Epithets are distancing to begin with, and if you pull back that far from the people who are having sex, the whole thing turns very clinical and sort of creepy.
In short, context and characterization are everything when you're dealing with epithets. Don't just use them because you think your readers will be bored reading a name, or a pronoun, again. Use them because they're necessary to the story you're trying to tell, or leave them out entirely.