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"Burly Detective" Syndrome

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"Let's say you are talking about [the late French Socialist leader Gaston] Defferre. It's OK to say Defferre once, but not twice. So next you say the Mayor of Marseille. Then, the Minister of Planning. Then, the husband of Edmonde. Then, Gaston. Then, Gastounet and then... Well, then you stop talking about him because you don't know what to call him next."
Claude Sarraute, "Bis repetitia", Le Monde, 22 May 1985 (as translated by Clyde Thogmartin)

A variety of Purple Prose in which the writer goes out of their way to avoid character names and pronouns, using descriptions instead: "the wizard said," or "the red-head said."

Writers use (and often overuse) these descriptions in an attempt to eliminate redundant words and make the dialogue more interesting. More experienced writers realize that names and pronouns are mostly invisible, and can be used without jarring the reader out of the story — descriptions are the opposite, forcing the reader to pause for a second and remember who the description might be describing.

Of course, Tropes Are Tools. There are times when descriptions are helpful or even necessary, such as when the thing being described is immediately relevant to the scene. It is the overuse that is the problem.

While this is most common in fan fiction, it does show up in published original fiction, not least due to the rise of self-publishing.

The trope name comes from the Turkey City Lexicon, which named it in reference to the Michael Shayne detective novel series — whose various writers preferred to call the protagonist "the burly detective" or similar epithets rather than writing out Mike Shayne's name.note 

In the UK (especially amongst the press), you might see it referred to as "Popular Orange Vegetable" syndrome, after a Guardian article brought attention to a particularly hilarious version in an article about carrots, which tried to avoid saying the word "carrot" entirely after using it once in the first line. Such descriptions are also referred to as "knobbly monsters", supposedly named after a story about crocodiles.

See also Said Bookism (which can occur at the same time), Delusions of Eloquence, and Author Vocabulary Calendar; often accompanies (or is accompanied by) Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness. Compare and contrast Superhero Sobriquets and the Red Baron, which are In-Universe descriptive names given to a character who (usually) merits them. Compare Nameless Narrative, in which epithets are used because all characters have No Name Given. See You Know the One for when this is used to conceal a character's identity.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun: Invoked and Played for Laughs. Chiyo wouldn't stop talking about her crush Nozaki to her friends, so her friend told her to stop saying Nozaki. Then she proceeded to continue talking about him, only replacing his name with things like "the ex-member of the basketball club", "the student in seat 14 in class A", or "the person who bought set B lunch at the canteen".

    Comic Strips 
  • Calvin and Hobbes: When fantasizing himself to be private eye Tracer Bullet, Calvin refers to people he encounters by concise descriptions, such as "the brunette" for his mom.

    Fan Works 
  • Deserving: This Harry Potter fic has a scene in which "the Gryffindor" is used in a scene where both present characters are Gryffindors.
  • Very common in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fandom, to the point of coining the nickname, "Lavender Unicorn Syndrome", as well as inspiring a few parodies:
    • Parodied and exaggerated in the short fic "Don't Wear It Out." Pinkie Pie accidentally breaks her name by overusing it, so no-one's able to call her by name anymore — not even the narrator. So the narration instead refers to her with epithets, each broader the last: "the pink mare", "the pink pony", "the pink equine", "the pink ungulate", "the pink mammal", "the pink quadruped", and finally "the pink carbon-based lifeform".
    • Warren Hutch, author of fanfics like Earth and Sky and The Turning of the Screwball, was an unashamed user of Lavender Unicorn Syndrome, and even defended the practice when critics tried to call him out on it. For example, in the first scene from Out of the Nest, he refers to Fluttershy as "the young pegasus" and Celestia as "the white giantess" and "the towering white mare".
    • Parodied by the fanfic Lavender Unicorn Syndrome. In this case, the syndrome is a literal disease that transforms characters into a duplicate of Twilight Sparkle. As a bit of Self-Referential Humor, the narrator consistently calls Rarity by name in the first chapter, but switches to calling her "the lavender unicorn" after she transforms.
  • In the Two Idiots series, Keith is usually referred to as "The Bluenette", while Daddy Dearest is sometimes called "The Ex-Rockstar".

  • Around the World in Eighty Days: Aouda is a young Indian beauty, who is rescued from a suttee by Mr Fogg and his companions. She travels with them because she's in danger of being forced into the ceremony again. The narrator later refers to her as "the young woman" a lot.
  • Artemis Fowl: Artemis is often referred to as the "Irish youth".
  • In Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Bon-Bon" Pierre Bon-Bon, a French restaurant owner-turned-metaphysical philosopher, has a conversation with the Devil. When he is not called by name, Bon-Bon is variously referred to as "our hero", "the metaphysician", "the philosopher" and "the restaurateur"; the Devil (when he is not called thusly) is alternately spoken of as "his Majesty", "the visitor", and "the gentleman" (there are only two characters in the story). The entire story is written in a markedly verbose and florid style, apparently in ironical intent.
  • The Dark Tower: Roland Deschain is often referred to as simply "the gunslinger" (in the first book his true name isn't even used until several chapters in). Justified, as in his world "gunslinger" is an honored rank, and he is also the last.
  • The Expanse: "the big man smiled amiably" at least once per chapter Amos appeared in
  • Exaggerated in Goblin Slayer: every character is referred to only by a descriptor, typically their character class. For example, the two main characters are Goblin Slayer and Priestess, and they're joined by party members High Elf Archer, Dwarf Shaman, and Lizard Priest.
  • The Jenkinsverse: Since the 'verse is a collaboration between a number of authors, this varies from story to story. The main "Deathworlders" story is pretty bad about it, but even the best side stories can get into it.
  • Martin McGrath wrote a series of Flash Fictions for Focus magazine, each inspired by different writing mistakes from the Turkey City Lexicon. For the entry about Burly Detective Syndrome, he wrote this bit of pulp sci-fi, starring Harvey Hampton, who's only referred to once by name. For the rest of the story, he's "the space-toughened astronaut", "the hotshot space-jockey", "the broad-shouldered rocket-wrangler", "the slick-faced space-pilot", "the quick-thinking flyboy", and "the strong-willed steersman".
  • In The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian, characters are almost exclusively referred to by descriptors rather than names. The two main characters of the framing story are simply called "the professional writer" and "the blood donor". This gets rather confusing in a sub-story in which most characters are writers of some sort, featuring an editor named Old Hep and another writer, who are acquaintances of The Professional Writer. The narrative in this section switches between talking about "the female novelist" and "the professional writer". This may be something of a translation effect, as this aversion to using given names is a feature of the Chinese language.
  • Happens often in A Practical Guide to Evil, i.e. when Amadeus is called "the green-eyed man" or Masego "Warlock's son". At one point, when describing Catherine, it gets ridiculous when she (after numerous other epithets and appellations are used) is called "the woman who once was a girl" - way to identify someone.
  • In Russian scientific works on literature, it is the norm to use descriptions instead of repeating a writer's name. They say "Pushkin" once, then they say "Alexander Sergeyevich," "the poet," "the author of Eugene Onegin," "the sun of Russian poetry," etс. Everyone does this, from big-name scholars like Yuri Lotman to beginner scientists in their obligatory articles. You'll hardly know this from English translations though: translators are advised to pluck the fluff out and stick by just "Pushkin."
  • Silverwing doesn't use this for most characters, but the narration can't seem to stop referring to Zephyr as "the albino bat" rather than just using his name.
  • Star Island keeps padding out scene-opening paragraphs by referring to "the former Cheryl Bunterman," even though most of the characters know her only by her Stage Name of Cherry Pye. Towards the end of the novel, it starts calling her "the former Cheryl Gail Bunterman."
  • Starship's Mage: The author does this a lot, combined with lots of viewpoint characters and even more side characters, which can make dialogue confusing.

    Web Comics 
  • Parodied in Problem Sleuth, where nearly all relevant humans are identified like that as part of the comic's Film Noir setting. The boys get names like "Pickle Inspector" and "Churlish Toff", girls are referred to as "Nervous Broad" and "Hysterical Dame", even the main villain is just known as "Mobster Kingpin" in the narration. The only main character exempt from this is Madame Murel.

    Web Original 
  • Parodied by How to Write Badly Well in "Refuse to Give Names to Characters."
    "Well make them quickly," interrupted a tall man with shining eyes. This was not the same tall man with glinting eyes who had so far been conducting the conversation, but a new, even taller man with eyes that shone rather than glinted, who had just disembarked behind the two figures already standing on the dock.
  • SCP Foundation: the forest we don't know did anything hence we can't name is an extradimensional forest where dangerous and mind-screwy things happen if you ever refer to the mysterious woods or any individual inhabitants by name. It's all too easy for visitors in to break this rule by accident while visiting the Scottish forest: for the purposes of the curse, any descriptor used more than once also counts as a name. So containment for the Onomatopia Oaks requires everyone (and even the SCP documentation) to give that dangerous place a different epithet every time they refer to it.
    Variations must be made in these descriptions each time a subject is described. Descriptions may be color coded for clarity, and florid language may be used for the sake of nomenclative diversity.
  • The Turkey City Lexicon is the Trope Namer. Their complete description of the phenomenon:
    "Burly Detective" Syndrome: This useful term is taken from SF's cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne's proper name, preferring such euphemisms as "the burly detective" or "the red-headed sleuth." This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as "vertiginous." Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.
  • The Twitter feeds Second Mentions and Knobbly Monsters collect examples of the UK media falling into this.

Alternative Title(s): No Names No Pronouns, The Adjective Person Epithet, Nameless Epithets