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Epithets, Use Sparingly

May 30, 2012

I once had a reader tell me, after reading one of my short pieces, that I needed to use more epithets. I laughed to myself because that particular habit had been beaten out of me by other readers/reviewers who called me on using epithets. Now, for those of you who don’t know what an epithet is, it’s a small, descriptive phrased used to refer to a character without using their name or a pronoun. Such as ‘the blond’, ‘the vampire’, ‘the doctor’. For example:

Sean kissed Jerry with all the passion he had, and the dark-haired man opened up to him like a flower. It was amazing. He hadn’t known this was what he was missing. As Jerry pressed him into the bed, Sean parted his thighs to let the younger man settle against him.

Sometimes, this is perfectly acceptable. Using epithets sparingly can sometimes be a lovely, poetic way to add some spice to a scene that reads a little stiffly otherwise. But usually? It just reads like instead of two people making love or having a conversation, that there are actually half a dozen people in the scene in an odd tangle of limbs. I rarely use them anymore. I started out using them a lot (read Rachmaninoff sometime), but by the time I published Catalyst, I had kicked the habit.

Some editors don’t mind them. Some actually encourage the use of epithets. I don’t. I think using the names and pronouns unless absolutely necessary is the better choice. And if you do use epithets, make sure they make sense and that you’ve established the description you’re about to use. No point in saying ‘the red-head’ if you haven’t told your readers that your character has red hair. 😉

Like most rules in writing, it can be broken. You just need to break it with style and skill. You need to know when to break it. You don’t want half your story to be epithets, but having some sprinkled here and there when appropriate is never a bad thing. Just be aware and be careful not to overdo it.

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