Apparently, Epithets are Bad

I don’t mean calling someone insulting names.  I just mean coming up with things to call your characters, apart from their names and “he” or “she.”  Let’s take a passage from my new story, Zack and Larry Make a Porno, altered slightly:

“Will you stop acting like my goddamned mother?” he said with a groan.  “I can make my own decisions, you know.”
“Like that time you did a handstand on your skateboard, down Harriman Hill Road?”
“I was eleven.”
“Or that time you let me shoot a tin can off your head with a BB gun?”
He gave him a lopsided grin.  “That was your idea.”
“I know,” he admitted.  “But you were still dumb enough to let me do it.”  He had been a cocky little shit with that BB gun.  It never occurred to him that it was possible he could miss.  He had just stood there, trusting him completely, and fortunately his aim had been good. 
“I knew you’d never hurt me,” he said with a shrug, as though friendship alone had kept him from shooting his eye out. 

This is nearly incoherent.  We have no idea who’s saying or doing what.  Obviously, something more is needed to distinguish one character from another.  Since one character is named Zack and the other is named Larry, we could try using their names:

“Will you stop acting like my goddamned mother?” Larry said with a groan.  “I can make my own decisions, you know.”
“Like that time you did a handstand on your skateboard, down Harriman Hill Road?”
“I was eleven.”
“Or that time you let me shoot a tin can off your head with a BB gun?”
Larry gave Zack a lopsided grin.  “That was your idea.”
“I know,” Zack admitted.  “But you were still dumb enough to let me do it.”  Zack had been a cocky little shit with that BB gun.  It never occurred to Zack that it was possible Zack could miss.  Larry had just stood there, trusting Zack completely, and fortunately Zack’s aim had been good. 
“I knew you’d never hurt me,” Larry said with a shrug, as though friendship alone had kept Zack from shooting Larry’s eye out. 

This is certainly better.  But it gets a little weird in the middle.  Obviously, using “he” or other pronouns would be a good idea, in at least some of those places.

Now, here’s where I’ve been going wrong, according to a recent review I got on The Christmas Wager, as well as my editors and several people who have critiqued my stories.  Since I have a tendency towards making one character tall and blond or redheaded, and the other shorter and dark-haired (I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve been doing this since I was writing as a teenager), I’m prone to using hair color to distinguish between the characters:

“Will you stop acting like my goddamned mother?” Larry said with a groan.  “I can make my own decisions, you know.”
“Like that time you did a handstand on your skateboard, down Harriman Hill Road?”
“I was eleven.”
“Or that time you let me shoot a tin can off your head with a BB gun?”
Larry gave the dark-haired boy a lopsided grin.  “That was your idea.”
“I know,” Zack admitted.  “But you were still dumb enough to let me do it.”  Zack had been a cocky little shit with that BB gun.  It never occurred to him that it was possible he could miss.  Larry had just stood there, trusting him completely, and fortunately his aim had been good. 
“I knew you’d never hurt me,” the blond said with a shrug, as though friendship alone had kept Zack from shooting his eye out. 

Now, this seems perfectly readable to me, and since there are only two main characters, I don’t find it hard to remember which one is blond and which one has dark hair.  I know I’m not the only writer who does this, because one of my earliest writing memories is the girl in my High School class who was upset that the editor of our school writing magazine had accidentally changed “the tow-headed boy” to “the tw0-headed boy” in one of her stories. 

But alas, my readers seem to hate it.  Even when I’ve suggested alternate epithets, such as “the jock” or “the peasant boy” (in a fantasy novel), it’s met with a lukewarm response. 

So, after hearing the criticism a number of times, I’ve had to acknowledge that epithets irritate people, even though I myself don’t find them irritating.  And to that end, I’m now going through my stories with a fine-toothed comb to eliminate them, or at least drastically reduce them.

Here, in case you’re curious, is the final draft of that scene:

“Will you stop acting like my goddamned mother?” Larry said with a groan.  “I can make my own decisions, you know.”
“Like that time you did a handstand on your skateboard, down Harriman Hill Road?”
“I was eleven.”
“Or that time you let me shoot a tin can off your head with a BB gun?”
Larry gave him a lopsided grin.  “That was your idea.”
“I know,” Zack admitted.  “But you were still dumb enough to let me do it.”  Zack had been a cocky little shit with that BB gun.  It never occurred to him that it was possible he could miss.  Larry had just stood there, trusting him completely, and fortunately Zack’s aim had been good. 
“I knew you’d never hurt me,” Larry said with a shrug, as though friendship alone had kept Zack from shooting his eye out. 

NOTE:  That anecdote is based upon a real incident.  When I was a teenager, and not the super-genius I am now, I let my best friend, Phillip, shoot a soda can off my head with his BB gun.  Fortunately, his aim was good, and I still have both my eyes.

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4 Comments

Filed under Romance, Writing

4 responses to “Apparently, Epithets are Bad

  1. george allwynn

    I agree – I don’t find epithets irritating either – if used sparse.

    However, in my monthly writing groups, I have been called out on enough of them to know not everyone shares my opinion – I mean, to me, using one more than once a chapter is too much – to others, having even one in a story is a sign of an amateur.

    So, when writing same sex stories – it’s rough. But not impossible – as you have worked out for yourself. Good job.

  2. Yes, the same-sex part complicates it. In a heterosexual romance novel, you can get a lot more mileage out of “he” and “she.” 🙂

  3. mfskarphedin

    I thought the first one was readable. The best one was your original except for the epithets – good mix of names and pronouns. There are too many names in the last one for readability, IMO.

    I often identify people by their hair in real life, too, but I’m not used to seeing it in text. It does seem kinda weird. Actually, you know where I’ve seen that a lot lately? In the cheap detective books I borrowed from my mother’s husband. Ew, I picked up a couple at the Dover Library’s sale, too.

    Um, did I just really insult you? “No chips for you!” D:

  4. That’s okay. I’m not insulted by being compared to cheap detective novel authors. 🙂 At least they were making a living (maybe).

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