The average fantasy author has a lot of worldbuilding to juggle. Be careful that you’re expending your creative energies wisely. Put your creativity and passion into the story and characters, not the grammar and usage. This is where the craft (the rules, the nuts and bolts) separates from the art (the clever turn of phrase, the perfectly crafted character).

There are a few major style guides, but most are highly specialized. For long-form fiction the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), which is a book every author must own, is pretty much our only guide, and warts and all, it’s all the style guide you’ll ever need.

It can be a dense book—intimidating for anyone—and as such it’s most useful if you know the limitations of your own knowledge of the craft. If you’re “pretty sure” something is correct, or “think you remember the rule,” go here and check. You might be right, or you might learn something, either way it’s a win for your writing.

As an editor I see certain mistakes made so many times I’ve actually put together a “Common Comments” file so I can copy and paste in a description of the same edits I make in one manuscript after another. In this open-ended series of posts, we’ll look at some of those common mistakes and go to the Chicago Manual of Style for answers.

Let’s start with initial caps—whether the first letter of a word is capitalized or not—in terms of ranks and titles.

Fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding is principally about naming things. Your medieval fantasy world may be run by a feudal system. That you can pull right out of history and drop it into a place and time that never existed, with names for nations and ranks and titles all your own.

If you decide your military is run by a firstlance and not a general, terrific—you’re creating a world of your own and I love it. But there’s a difference between creating your own names for things and creating your own rules of grammar and usage. So even if you can’t find the word firstlance in the Chicago Manual of Style, the rule is still there. If a firstlance is like a general (or a captain or an admiral . . . whatever) then find the rule for general and adopt it for firstlance.

I see some version of this all the time:

The Firstlance ran up the stairs when he heard the Queen cry out in terror.

According to Chicago, this should read:

The firstlance ran up the stairs when he heard the queen cry out in terror.

See section 8.23 “Military titles” for firstlance, and section 8.22 “Titles of sovereigns and other rulers” for queen.

I’ll boil it down to this:

A title/rank used in the generic, as in the above example, is in all lowercase.

A title/rank used in place of a name gets the initial cap:

“Don’t worry, Firstlance,” the queen said, “it was just a spider.”

A rank/title used with a name also gets the initial cap:

“The empire must never know that Queen Bronwyn is afraid of spiders,” the firstlance  whispered to Thirdlance Galen.

You might wonder why this matters, and who will notice. How many of your readers sit with your book in one hand and the Chicago Manual of Style in the other? If I’m your editor, I’ll do that, but otherwise you’re right: no one’s checking. But even if the overwhelming majority of your readers will never be able to spot this error, the fact that something about your book is different, that something somehow feels wrong . . . that they will pick up on. You most likely won’t get an Amazon review that says, “She screwed up all the initial caps of ranks and titles, so this book sucked,” but you might just get “the writing just somehow seemed amateurish” and frankly, the former is a better review.

Your readers will sense that something is wrong, something is different or archaic, or just . . . off. And this will be just as true if you decide that you don’t like the rule and want those caps because, somehow, to you they look more important, or whatever moves you.

Go ahead and make up your own rules, but don’t say I didn’t warn you that if no one can pick up on why you broke the existing rule, no matter your intent it will come across as a mistake. And why do that? What does that do for you, for your book, or for your readers?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, over and over: There is no way to “perfect” creative writing. Rules are made to be broken, bent, redefined, played for laughs . . . you tell me. But I’ve also said before and will say again: There’s a difference between purposely breaking a rule for creative or dramatic effect and not knowing the rule in the first place. Ignorance of the law is no excuse . . .

You get what I mean.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Selene says:

    Great post! What if they’re signing a letter, would that be with a capital letter? For example:

    [content of letter]

    Galen, Thirdlance of the queen’s guard

    • Philip Athans says:

      In this case it’s okay to write it as:

      Galen, Thirdlance of the Queen’s Guard

      This is especially true if the Queen’s Guard is the proper name of an organization.

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