When you are writing a story and refer to a character by a physical trait, occupation, age, or any other attribute, rather than that character’s name, you are bringing the reader’s attention to that particular attribute. That can be used quite effectively to help your reader to focus on key details with just a few words. However, if the fact that the character is “the blond,” “the magician,” “the older woman,” etc. is not relevant to that moment in the story, this will only distract the reader from the purpose of the scene. 

If your only reason for referring to a character this way is to avoid using his or her name or a pronoun too much, don’t do it. You’re fixing a problem that actually isn’t one. Just go ahead and use the name or pronoun again. It’ll be good.

Someone finally spelled out the REASON for using epithets, and the reasons NOT to.

In addition to that:

If the character you are referring to in such a way is THE VIEWPOINT CHARACTER, likewise, don’t do it. I.e. if you’re writing in third person but the narration is through their eyes, or what is also called “third person deep POV”. If the narration is filtered through the character’s perception, then a very external, impersonal description will be jarring. It’s the same, and just as bad, as writing “My bright blue eyes returned his gaze” in first person.


if the story is actually told through the eyes of one particular viewpoint character even though it’s in the third person, and in their voice, as is very often the case, then you shouldn’t refer to the characters in ways that character wouldn’t.

In other words, if the third-person narrator is Harry Potter, when Dumbledore appears, it says “Dumbledore appears”, not “Albus appears”. Bucky Barnes would think of Steve Rogers as “Steve”, where another character might think of him as “Cap”. Chekov might think of Kirk as “the captain”, but Bones thinks of him as “Jim”. 

Now, there are real situations where you, I, or anybody might think of another person as “the other man”, “the taller man”, or “the doctor”: usually when you don’t know their names, like when there are two tap-dancers and a ballerina in a routine and one of the men lifts the ballerina and then she reaches out and grabs the other man’s hand; or when there was a group of people talking at the hospital and they all worked there, but the doctor was the one who told them what to do. These are all perfectly natural and normal. Similarly, sometimes I think of my GP as “the doctor” even though I know her name, or one of my coworkers as “the taller man” even though I know his. But I definitely never think of my long-term life partner as “the green-eyed woman” or one of my best friends as “the taller person” or anything like that. It’s not a sensible adjective for your brain to choose in that situation – it’s too impersonal for someone you’re so intimately acquainted with. Also, even if someone was having a one night stand or a drunken hookup with a stranger, they probably wouldn’t think of that person as “the other man”: you only think of ‘other’ when you’re distinguishing two things and you don’t have to go to any special effort to distinguish your partner from yourself to yourself.

This is something that I pretty consistently have to advise for those I beta edit for.  (It doesn’t help that I relied on epithets a lot in the earlier sections of my main fic because I was getting into the swing of things.)  I am reblogging this so fanfic writers can use this as a reference.

A good rule of thumb: a character’s familiarity with another character decreases the need for an epithet (and most times you really don’t need one at all).

Good writing advice.

I think there does come a point when a character’s familiarity actually wraps around and does make epithets relevant again, and it’s when referring to a relationship. (I remember in a short story that I’ve otherwise entirely forgotten, a ~modern~ woman saying that she had her nephew call her by her first name, and the POV character thinking how sad it was to put the distance of a name between family members–and there’s something to that.)

Most of the time when I’m writing a character interacting with their parent or grandparent, the parent isn’t referred to by name in narration–because most characters don’t think of parents and grandparents by their first name–but as “his mother” or “his father” or “her mom” or “her dad”–and this can be used to very compactly convey information about the nature of the relationship, because there’s a big difference between “my Grandmother Hardison” and “my Nana” or between “the Count my father” and “my Da.” 

And if the character is a different kind of family member–a sibling, a child, a spouse–then the moments when a character thinks not of “Erik” but “his cousin,” not of Thor but “his brother,” can be used for great effect. The author just needs to be aware of when they’re particularly highlighting the relationship and when that’s not what they need to draw attention to.

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