About a week ago I wrote a post on overwriting. In that post I promised future explanations of literary devices that cause a piece to feel – well – overwritten. If you haven’t read that post, it’s cool, just click this link: Letters on Literary Devices 11: Don’t Be So Dramatic. If you’ve read it already, you probably remember the following explanation which details the type of literary device capable of making a novel appear overwritten: “Well, any literary device used as a descriptor has the innate qualities necessary for causing readers to throw up.” I then listed a few and proved how “apostrophe’s” (the literary device, not the punctuation mark) when overused, can seem overwhelming.
In this post I’d like to apply the same scrutiny to the literary term “epithet”.
For those who don’t know already, an epithet is a word or phrase precluding a characters name used for description. This strategy dates back to some of the earliest influences in Western Literature. Anyone who’s read the Iliad and the Odyssey, probably remembers the “Swift-footed” Achilles and the “Grey-Eyed” Athena. For ancient writers of epics, the epithet served a duel function. First, it was used as a descriptor. Second, it allowed more flexibility for poets who had to write within the constraints of dactylic hexameter. By having a list of several different epithets for each character, all having a different number of syllables, the poet could plug in the best rhythmically fitting epithet into each line.
Well, that’s great and all, but how does this apply to novelists today? Obviously, no one writes full length fiction in dactylic hexameter anymore. It would be cool if someone tried, but probably unreadable because English doesn’t lend itself to dactyls. Writers still use epithets though, even if the rhythmic function of the device has become outmoded.
Now, I’m not going to point any fingers at my contemporaries. I’ve read some books using epithets for characters that have worked really well; I’ve read some books where the strategy just didn’t work.
Instead, I’ll just point out an example from my own writing.
In my first novel, Farmers and Cannibals, I used a epithet to describe the principal antagonist, “Big” Frank. Here’s the line from when he’s introduced: “Deep, dark, mahogany – the desk was chosen to say a lot about the massive man who sits behind it. “Big” Frank founded General Wheat Corporation sixteen years previously as a small time farmer willing to take a risk.”
“Big,” is Frank’s epithet and I chose the word because of its ambiguous context dependent meaning and relatively neutral connotation.
Now, I could’ve been annoying; I could’ve been guilty of overwriting if I used the word “Big” every time this character was mentioned. I’m glad I didn’t though, because as a descriptor that’s unnecessary. Throughout the novel, I only placed the word “Big” before his name when the character exerted his characteristic “bigness”: his tendency towards viciously controlling the fates of other men. That both gave the word “Big” its meaning within the novel, and served as a recurring motif chastising the behavior of the novel’s antagonist.
Personally, I think this is a good way for novelists to use epithets. Overuse, can be annoying and seem overwritten. When used sparingly; however, the epithet is another tool for constructing layers of meaning.
Well, that’s it, if you have any examples of annoying epithets, good use of epithets, or any questions, disagreements, etc. please feel free to comment below!
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