green_grrl (green_grrl) wrote in fandom_grammar,
green_grrl
green_grrl
fandom_grammar

Friday Feature - Writing Tips: Epithets

Writing Tips: Epithets

with examples from Lord of the Rings, Stargate SG-1, Smallville, Due South


"Epithets?" you say. "Doesn't that mean cursing?" And it's true, we most often hear the word in the context of "hurling epithets at each other."

A nine-way spat in Middle Earth might consist of:

"Filthy Human!"

"Stuck up Elf!"

"Drunken Hobbits!"

"Grubby Dwarf!"

These are examples of the secondary listing for "epithet" in the Oxford American Dictionary:
such a word or phrase as a term of abuse

The primary definition is:
an adjective or descriptive phrase expressing a quality characteristic of the person or thing mentioned


This more general sense of epithet is one you'll be more familiar with in use. It's common to see in fanfic:
"Eowyn, you promised Pippin and me a tour of the kitchens," wheedled Merry. The blonde woman shook her head in exasperation.

Jack brought a tray with lunch to Daniel's office, and dropped it on the desk with a clatter. The blond looked up at him, startled.

(Side note: Please note that the feminine usage is blonde and masculine and gender neutral usage is blond, both in the adjective and noun forms, following the word's French origins. Common usage in the US allows blond in all cases, but in no case, ever, is a man blonde.)

"Hey, Frase, pitter patter. We got some clowns to roust. And I do mean clowns." The slender detective clapped his partner on the shoulder as they headed out of the squadroom.


The use of epithets is common, but in each of these cases, the epithet is a poor writing choice that does not relate to the action at hand. What does Eowyn's hair color have to do with Merry's pleading? What does Daniel's hair color have to do with missing lunch? What does Ray Kowalski's weight have to do with him going out on a case?

Your readers already know the characters and what they look like. They know that Frodo has blue eyes and Legolas has blond hair. They know Daniel Jackson is younger than Jack O'Neill, that Sam is blonde and that Teal'c is a Jaffa. They know that Lex Luthor is a billionaire and that Clark is a farmboy.

The other regular characters also know these things, and don't use descriptors to refer to people they know. Do you think of your best friend as "the Chemistry major" or as "Teri"? Teri is the person you've had a million and one adventures with and she means ten different things to you every day of the week. The name "Teri" captures all those memories and emotions in one word. Your characters feel the same way about the people they interact with, and your readers along with them.

Sometimes your POV character is noticing one particular aspect of another character at a particular moment. An epithet can capture that, but a description can add even more depth.

Epithet:
Home again in Rivendell, Aragorn was once more captured by the raven-haired beauty.

Description, better:
Home again in Rivendell, Aragorn was once more captured by Arwen's beauty. Her raven hair tumbled in waves over her shoulders, and he felt drawn to touch it.

Aragorn is in love with Arwen, a complex individual. At this moment, one of the things he's noticing about her is her beauty, but her beauty and her hair color are traits belonging to a larger "Arwen," not the sum total of her descriptor.


Epithet:
Lionel sneered at the farmboy.

Description, better:
Lionel sneered at Clark. What did a farmboy know about corporate responsibilities?

Yes, Clark is a member of the laboring class, in Lionel's eyes; but he's also a mysterious presence in his son's life. Lionel has history with the Kents, and Clark has significance on several levels for Lionel, with only the one factor that makes Lionel think he's easily dismissible.


There are times when epithets can be safely used, or even appropriate. They're common when it's natural to your character to use another character's title.

Sam poked her head in Daniel's office door. "The colonel said for you to, quote, 'get your buns in gear.' It's team pizza night, remember?"

The inspector was right, Fraser realized. Their supply of 212 stroke G3 forms was dangerously low.

Please note that there aren't extraneous adjectives used with "colonel" or "inspector." "Colonel" and "inspector" serve the same function as names for Sam and Fraser. If there were more than one colonel or inspector present, the character would likely differentiate between them by including last name, e.g., "Inspector Thatcher," not "the auburn-haired inspector."


There are also times when epithets are true to canon, and have been used for dramatic purpose. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien imagined Middle Earth as a place where the races have lived isolated from each other, often to the point of being near-legendary. (It is also worth noting that Tolkien was writing in a less politically correct time, and his message about racial prejudices being overcome is generally not one that contemporary writers need to hammer home so overtly.) Men of Gondor had only heard of Hobbits in tales, and called them Halflings, both in referring to them and in direct address. Elves and Dwarves had a long-standing mistrust that caused them to, well, hurl epithets. But as Boromir and Faramir got to know the Hobbits as individuals, they used their names, unadorned, more often than not. When Legolas looked to to the side in the middle of battle, he saw his friend Gimli, not a Dwarf as Elves are socially conditioned to think of them.

The Orcs and Uruk-hai, however, were literally demonized by language throughout—"foul" was nearly always attached to references of them. Gollum was nearly always "the nasty creature," except when he was occasionally "the pitiable creature." Again, epithets reduce the character to a single descriptor. In the case of the Orcs, rightly or wrongly, it created unambiguous villains. In the case of your heroes, you don't want them to appear so one-dimensional. I hope.

Another example of a canon epithet is "the Mountie" in Due South. With his Stetson hat and distinctive brown or red uniform, Benton Fraser is instantly recognizable by the citizens of Chicago as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. So when a detective in a hurry asks a bystander, "You see the Mountie?" it's a very convenient and efficient description for a stranger. Having Fraser described often by others, and occasionally by his friends, as "the Mountie" also plays up many of the themes of the show and character: Fraser is a fish out of water in Chicago, always "other." He lives by a very rigid code of ethics. He's recognizable in an iconic way, but few people know the real him, under the uniform, and he uses it to keep himself distanced.

Still, it's important to review canon for how often epithets are actually used and in what circumstances, and to see whether it's appropriate in your fic. There are times when epithets are just not appropriate or relevant.

An epithet can work when it matches the role the character is fulfilling at that moment in the story:

There's nothing wrong with names:
General Hammond looked at the offworld video footage. "I can see the temple looks Greek, but what does that mean?" The rest of the team turned to Daniel.

Poor epithet choice, not relevant:
General Hammond looked at the offworld video footage. "I can see the temple looks Greek, but what does that mean?" The rest of the team turned to their youngest member.

Better:
General Hammond looked at the offworld video footage. "I can see the temple looks Greek, but what does that mean?" The rest of the team turned to their archeologist.

-

There's nothing wrong with names:
As the pair made the long, hard run back to the gate, Jack's knees were feeling it. But someone was barely out of breath. Jack scowled enviously at Daniel.

Poor epithet choice, not relevant:
As the pair made the long, hard run back to the gate, Jack's knees were feeling it. But someone was barely out of breath. Jack scowled enviously at the archeologist.

Better:
As the pair made the long, hard run back to the gate, Jack's knees were feeling it. But someone was barely out of breath. Jack scowled enviously at the younger man.


Check to see whether the epithet is appropriate to the point of view from which you're writing, or to the speaker of the dialogue.

There's nothing wrong with names:
Lionel stared at Lex.

Poor epithet choice, not appropriate:
Lionel stared at the billionaire.

Better:
Lionel stared at his son.

-

There's nothing wrong with names:
Lex tried to focus on the spreadsheets, but his mind kept wandering to the accident at the plant.

Poor epithet choice, neither relevant nor appropriate:
The bald man tried to focus on the spreadsheets, but his mind kept wandering to the accident at the plant.

Your POV character will almost never think of him/herself in terms of a single characteristic. The exception would be, for example, Lex ruefully looking at his head in the mirror, in which case the action and/or thoughts should be fully described, not reduced to an epithet.

No epithet, in this case, not so appropriate:
This was her first trip to Smallville, and [OC] pulled up outside The Talon and parked, desperate for coffee. She walked in, and found her eye drawn to Lex and Clark, who were sharing a table in the corner.

Epithet, in this case, better:
This was her first trip to Smallville, and [OC] pulled up outside The Talon and parked, desperate for coffee. She walked in, and found her eye drawn to a strikingly sexy bald man and the prettiest farmboy she'd ever seen, who were sharing a table in the corner.

This is the opposite of one character familiar with another thinking of that person by name. Just because you and the reader know who Lex and Clark are, don't throw the reader out of your character's POV by giving your character information she can't know yet.

General Hammond eyed the Jaffa, and pondered whether he should send him on the mission.

Whether or not this is an appropriate epithet depends upon whether the fic is set within the time period after General Hammond just met Teal'c. Fairly quickly in the first season, Teal'c became a fully rounded individual to SG-1 and the general, and "the Jaffa" would be an epithet they reserved for strangers.


As you can see, using epithets can be tricky, so throw up a red flag when you use one and ask: Does it reduce my complex character to a single characteristic? Is it to make a point that could be better served by a longer descriptive passage? Is it relevant to this moment in the story? Is it an epithet that makes sense to the speaker/POV? Is it true to canon? Epithets can be appropriate, just question them before using.

Tags: !feature, author:green_grrl, writing tips, writing tips:epithets, writing tips:style
Subscribe

  • Post a new comment

    Error

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

  • 77 comments
Previous
← Ctrl ← Alt
Next
Ctrl → Alt →
Previous
← Ctrl ← Alt
Next
Ctrl → Alt →