I've been reading Stuart Gibbs' Spy School series, and one of the things that is common is that he names then-anonymous characters with a distinct property of theirs.

For example, he uses "Bad Toupee" to refer to a person with a bad toupee.

Here is a paragraph from my book:

Green Hair appeared out of thin air in front of me. I fell backwards in shock. Her mouth curled into an unpleasant grin. I scrambled to my feet and tried to escape, but an invisible force knocked me flat on my face.

Is this an okay practice?

  • 2
    This technique has been used for many years in literature. For one, Conan Doyle uses it in some of the Sherlock Holmes short stories to refer to people whose names are not yet known to the main characters.
    – Chenmunka
    Feb 19, 2022 at 13:17
  • @Chenmunka wow! I didn't know that it was such a common practice.
    – DaCool1
    Feb 19, 2022 at 17:08
  • Cigarette Smoking Man from X-Files is another well-known example. It's also used a lot by kids (and adults) for nicknames.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 19, 2022 at 23:04
  • @Stuart I'm not sure that is what I mean. I think it's more of a property that I'm uppercasing. In your example, it would be Cigarette Smoker.
    – DaCool1
    Feb 22, 2022 at 18:17

2 Answers 2


The author using physical qualities as if they were the individuals names, making them proper nouns. I think this might qualify as a metonymy

It is a fine technique because it gives the reader a uniquely identifiable name to identify a minor character. It also demonstrates some qualities of the POV characters: wit, intelligence or absence of it, irony.

It can get old fast if over used. An example of where it wasn’t over used is S. King’s The Stand, he refers to Randall Flag as the Walking Dude for a good part of the novel, but that is the only character that is purely referred to by a sobriquet. There is Trash Can Man, but we know his name and know Trash Can is a cruel nickname.

Over use examples might be like if the names connote condescension and snark by the viewpoint character. Some people might think its really funny, but for me I’d likely see it as cheap jokes and it would annoy me.

Also, if every character is given a unique sobriquet by the viewpoint character, like Green Toupee and Limpy and Tee-shirt guy, then it will likely have a distancing effect. If the POV character or the narrator don’t care about the people they are interacting with, then that can back project onto the character and narrator, making them some one I don’t have any interest in.

Of course, there are scenes were it can work, like when it is impossible for the POV character to know anything about the people he or she is watching — a like a new reel or surveillance through a telescope to make up a few examples.

  • can you elaborate on your sentence "it can get old fast if overused"? I have quite a few references to the metonymy "Green Hair", and I've overused the pronoun "she". Revealing the name through dialogue is not applicable in this case, since the characters interact mostly through attacks and/or magic.
    – DaCool1
    Feb 19, 2022 at 17:13
  • @DaCool1, Over using character names or pronouns is a different problem, it indicates a problem with the focus of the narrative. How one addresses the problem is different depending on if it is an action scene or a flash back or narrative summary or whatever
    – EDL
    Feb 19, 2022 at 21:19

These are examples of epithets and they are capitalized.

Capitalize the following: [...]

  • Epithets and substitutes for the names of people and places: Old Hickory, Old Blood and Guts, The Oval Office, the Windy City.

Fact Monster, from Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary

An example in literature via ThoughtCo:

"In H.G. Wells's science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895), the narrator uses epithets to refer to all but one of the characters who frequent the Time Traveller's—itself an epithet—house every Thursday evening: the Medical Man, the Provincial Mayor, the Editor, the Psychologist, the Very Young Man, and so forth," (Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 2nd ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003).


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.