Banishing the Wild Epithet
Ah, the epithet, thought the Potions Master as he sat down in his chair. The embittered wizard poured himself a Bibblesqueak potion and sipped it thoughtfully, thinking back to the days when Severus Snape had been someone worthy of a good fight. The ex-Death Eater sighed; now that the spy was undercover, there was nothing for the fortysomething professor to do but keep his head down and drink.
Epithets, sighed Harry Potter ruefully. The Boy Who Lived had had it with life. The sixteen-year-old-wizard shook his head and folded the newspaper. The young man never cried, but this was enough to make even a budding Auror blanch. Ron and Hermione's best friend picked up his pen and began a letter; the hero of so many battles had another one to fight.
The epithet had been the cause of Minerva McGonagall's untimely death. The Head of Gryffindor House had seen one too many horrors, and finally the Animagus had breathed her last. Dumbledore's right hand had laid down her life that others might not die from the same tragic error. The gray-haired witch's sacrifice would never be forgotten.
What's an epithet, you ask?
There's only one character in each of those three paragraphs. Every time I referred to Snape, Harry, or McGonagall without using their name, I used an epithet. You can use them anywhere: the grammar bitch, the chunky, spunky slasher; the diehard Harry Potter fiend.
And basically, unless you're in Greece and your name is Homer, epithets are usually a bad idea.
The reason why? Well, for one thing, it's confusing. read that first paragraph again. Am I talking about one person, or about six?
Epithets can also be inappropriate -- I think my favorite example is probably from an rant in X-FIles fandom, where sherrold explained:
Having the AD fuck his agent wildly just doesn't work, unless Walter Skinner has been added as a new member of the Village People and "the Assistant Director" is all he's going by, now.
When Skinner's having sex, he's probably "Skinner" or "Walter."
It's fundamentally a question of point of view. People, whether they're real or fictional, very rarely actually think of themselves as things. I'm a writer, an editor, a job-hunter, a musician, a priestess, a fat woman, a bisexual lesbian, a nearsighted book addict ... but people call me Sanj, and I think of myself as "I". When people refer to me, they use my name, my relationship to them ("my aunt"), or, in appropriate situations, my job title, as in "my manager" or "the temp." They never think, perhaps I will ask the 32-year-old slasher why she's singing that damn Britney Spears song.
Think about the people in your life. You might call somebody "my brother" or "my wife" when you're talking about them to a third party, but you'd never say "the thirtysomething computer technician" or "the mythically beautiful redhead." It's just not done, whether you're talking or writing.
Many writers use epithets as a shortcut for exposition, especially if they're writing fan fiction, where the Reciting of Heroic Deeds (thanks, cereta) will supposedly introduce us to the character. This gives you paragraphs that look like the parodies above -- or, worse, gives us scenes in which Sirius and Remus are talking while the werewolf gives the Animagus a backrub, and the ex-convict is wondering whether the former professor is going to try and kiss him. (Confused yet? Is this an orgy?)
Don't do it. Referring to people by their names in a story is not repetitious -- it's an anchor that provides necessary clarity and flow to the story. If you don't believe me, go read anything by cesperanza or resonant. I can very nearly guarantee you won't find an epithet, but you will find clever, engaging prose that allows you to imagine a scene and yet still keep track of whipsaw dialogue and even the most convoluted porn.
If nothing else, just think about how much Harry hates to be referred to as "The Boy Who Lived." Don't be like Witch Weekly, for crying out loud. If you're an advanced writer, you can sometimes have somebody (usually Draco) think of Harry as "The Boy Who Shagged," or "The Man Who Bitched," but use this sparingly, lest it lose its humor value. And never, ever use an epithet on purpose to help introduce us to a character.
If you're trying to do expository work, actions speak very loudly. If we see Snape teaching a potions class, we know that's his job. If Harry's reading a newspaper article about the death of a beloved mentor, we know he's been isolated from his own society. And if Professor McGonagall dies because of a misplaced epithet, we know she's willing to give her life for grammar.
Let's not make her pay the price.