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Don't speak Latin in front of the books, Xander.

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The Evil of the Epithet

by Erin

The dark haired mortal looked up at the bleached blond vampire, glaring but with every breath coming in a ragged gasp. The chipped vampire smirked at the helpless lust in the boy's dark eyes.

"Can't help but want it, can you, Harris?" Spike said, his weight pinning the bigger man to the bed.

"Screw you, Spike," the mortal said, even as his hips canted upwards in invitation.

The game-faced vampire's smirk widened. "Think that's gonna be the other way around, mate."

The other man's hands tightened on him and that was all the encouragement the older man needed.

So we have Spander. It should be yummy, hot Spander, but what stops it from having that sizzle-till-you-squirm feeling? The epithets. What exactly is an epithet and why is it The Evil That Must Be Slayed in fanfic, or any writing for that matter? So good of you to ask.

The man/woman/vampire, the boy/girl/teenager/young man, the older/younger man/woman/vampire, the taller/shorter man/woman/vampire, the bigger/smaller man/woman/vampire, the [insert eye/hair/skin color here] man/woman/vampire, the other man/woman/vampire, the Slayer, the Watcher, the student, the anything other than a proper name. These are all known as epithets and should be used either exceedingly sparingly (once per page at most) or not at all in narration for characters whose names are already known to the reader. Dialogue or the first person point of view is an entirely different matter and a whole other subject; this applies to the narration of the story itself as told through the third person point of view.

An epithet is a word or words used to describe and/or characterize something or someone. It's not noticeable when used in narration for a thing -- the hardwood chair, the gray wall, the black tablecloth -- and that's an acceptable use, but not when it comes to people. It's all too noticeable when someone is known mostly by descriptions instead of their proper name. To use a quote from (the oft quoted) Big List of Fanfic Peeves by Sandy and the Bitkahs, "Having the AD fuck his agent wildly just doesn't work, unless Skinner has been added as a new member of the Village People and "the Assistant Director" is all he's going by, now."

The same thing applies to Buffy/Angel fan fiction, having "the British vampire" holding and kissing "the Slayer's white knight" is doing both characters a disservice. Spike is more than just British, more than blond, he's a slayer of Slayers, a former poet, a demon, a killer, a lover and so much more. Xander is more than just Buffy's friend, more than just a sidekick, he's also a teenager, a young man, a construction worker, a boyfriend, a best friend, and too many other labels to just pin one on him. You can't pick any one label to describe any character, it simply doesn't work. (And as an aside, "the boy" should never be used with Xander to begin with. The moment Xander becomes a sexual being in someone's eyes, he ceases to be a boy and makes the transition to "young man" at least, otherwise you're heading into pedophilia-land. Not a happy place.)

There really is no reason to use epithets to begin with. Readers of any Buffy/Angel fan fiction are generally already aware of specific character traits, that Spike has a chip in his head, that he bleaches his hair, that Buffy is the Slayer and blond, that Angel has a soul and broods, etc. There's no need to restate any of that using epithets; it's a bit like preaching to the choir.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with using proper names or an appropriately placed pronoun instead of endless epithets. In fact, it's what should be done. Don't worry about using someone's name too much; the eyes of the reader will move right over the name without seeing a single thing wrong, whereas epithets are a big stumbling block. Too many and you start losing track of who's who in the scene, even just a few and the reader still notices, still has to think about who's being referred to. A simple name takes care of any and all confusion.

Here's that starting paragraph again, this time without the annoyance of the epithets:

Xander looked up at Spike, glaring but with every breath coming in a ragged gasp. Spike smirked at the helpless lust in Xander's dark eyes.

"Can't help but want it, can you, Harris?" he said, his weight pinning Xander to the bed.

"Screw you, Spike," Xander said, even as his hips canted upwards in invitation.

Spike's smirk widened. "Think that's gonna be the other way around, mate."


Xander's hands tightened on him and that was all the encouragement he needed.

So much easier to understand and so much more hot.

Revel in the hotness of the Spander, but toss those epithets aside along the way; it's easier on the writer, not having to come up with a different description in every sentence, and so much easier on the reader, not needing to make up a cue card just to keep track of all the different epithets for each character. Begone, foul epithet, and long live Spike and Xander.



October 2004

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