A Fiction Writer's Guide to Epithets

The topic I would like to discuss today is the issue of epithets in works of fiction, as this is something I see in manuscripts from authors across genres, sometimes with such prevalence that barely a paragraph goes by without one popping up.

Perhaps some of you are thinking, “What is an epithet?”

Basically, it is an adjective or phrase that describes a person or thing by their/its key characteristics. Examples often seen in works of literature include ‘the young man’, ‘the blonde’, ‘the taller man’, or ‘the petite woman’.

Epithets are often a sign of lazy writing and you should avoid them like the plague. The exception is when you introduce a new character whose name we don’t yet know. Then ‘the old man’ or ‘the stranger’ is fine. Otherwise, stick to the character’s name or relevant pronoun.

Why? Because using epithets makes no sense, especially when you are in a deep POV. Imagine yourself in bed with your partner (a time in stories when epithets are prone to run rampant). Things are getting heated. You look into each other’s eyes. Do you then think of that person as ‘the blond’? I doubt it. You’d think of them by their name or a nickname/endearment.

Even in a more removed POV, epithets only serve to create further distance, limiting the reader’s connection to a character, and there really is no need for them. Most authors who use them do so because they’re worried that too many ‘he’s and ‘she’s will be confusing. But, honestly, if you write clear and concise prose, readers should have no difficulty keeping track of to whom each ‘he’ or ‘she’ refers.