PLEASE STOP USING INITIAL CAPS AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR CREATIVITY

I know for sure that as a reader of fantasy, and to a slightly lesser degree, science fiction, you have run across a common word with an initial cap used to convey some special emphasis, or just general “specialness,” and used not in place of but as a proper name. Maybe you’ve committed this sin in your own writing.

This is not good. It’s not good worldbuilding, and it’s not good writing.

Okay—it’s not the end of the world, but . . . yeah . . . it kinda is.

For me, at least, it’s the end of your unique world, because when you do this, especially when you do this most of the time, and there are some of you—and you know who you are—who do this almost all the time, I stop living in your world and start seeing your writing. Or worse, I start seeing the lack of attention paid to the worldbuilding.

If you can do a match case search for anything on this list and find it in your work in progress, this is your wake up call, your challenge to build just a little bit more world in that particular spot. And this is not at all a complete list:

the Council

the Wizard

the School

the Hero

the Villain

the Throne

the Sword

the Dragon

the Tower

the Forest

the City

the Temple

the Doctor (except for that English guy)

the Ranger (J.R.R. got that one, you can’t have it back)

the Kleenex… wait, that one you actually need!

Kleenex is a brand name—always look up brand names and type them the same as you see on that brand’s official web site.

As for the others, and especially with successful examples like the Doctor and the Ranger sort of making me look like a jerk here, I get what you’re going for. This isn’t just a tower, it’s the Tower. But then, if it’s that important to the people who built it, why didn’t they name it? Here’s a picture of a very famous building:

The Building rises up over the City.

Note that it isn’t called the Building.

In pretty much every case, I caution you to fall back on an existing rule of grammar and syntax before you make up one of your own, and only make up a new rule if it really means something to you. So just as military ranks you’ve created, like spearmaster, should follow the same rules as existing military ranks like captain:

“Where is Spearmaster Galen?” Bronwyn asked, having not seen the spearmaster since leaving the Tower for the Breakfast.

“He went fishing with the swordcaptains,” the custodian replied. “You’ll find him down by the Lake.”

So should everything else:

“Where is Spearmaster Galen?” Bronwyn asked, having not seen the spearmaster since leaving the tower for breakfast.

“He went fishing with the swordcaptains,” the custodian replied. “You’ll find him down by the lake.”

But if the tower is a particularly special tower, and there’s more than one lake . . .

“Where is Spearmaster Galen?” Bronwyn asked, having not seen the spearmaster since leaving the Tower of Seven Spears for breakfast.

“He went fishing with the swordcaptains,” the custodian replied. “You’ll find him down by Zargrandis Lake.”

Now these have become proper nouns.

Just like the Empire State Building or the Mall of America, it’s the Tower of Seven Spears. And note that the article before it is not capitalized in the middle of a sentence, so it’s the Tower of Seven Spears and not The Tower of Seven Spears.

And woe be onto thee who forces an editor to fix every instance of The Council, even if it’s The Council of Twelve, which makes it a particular (proper noun) council.

And just like we name lakes Lake Michigan or even Crystal Lake in the real world, the Lake becomes Zargrandis Lake in my fantasy world.

I just made up the name Zargrandis on the spot, by the way. He was a famous mapmaker who was the first to start coloring in lakes with blue paint, or so I’ve just now decided. I Googled the word Zargrandis because you should do that with every name you just make up in case it means “eat shit and die” in Swahili or something. All I got was an ice cream shop in Surabaya, Indonesia that leaves off the s at the end, so I’m good. They’re on Foursquare.

Let’s face it, a good 90% of fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding comes down to naming stuff.

Naming characters, naming cities, naming continents, naming mountain ranges, and so on. Ed Greenwood didn’t invent the concept of a continent, but when he created an imaginary one of his own, he named it Faerûn, not the Continent. J.K. Rowling didn’t invent the idea of a boarding school, but when she created one she named it Hogwarts, not the Boarding School.

People name stuff. And okay, not every name is particularly creative. The biggest city in America is named after a much smaller city in England—the Puritans not necessarily known for wild flights of fancy, I guess—especially since it used to be named after a city in the Netherlands before the British colonists got all British and renamed it. But see? There’s a little story behind the name of that city. It’s not just the City.

America is full of hyper literal place names like Death Valley or Boring, Oregon or Volcano, Hawaii. But most of the time we name places after some kind of feeling we want to convey, like the town of Fertile, Iowa, which probably is; or Pyongyang (Peaceful Land), North Korea, which definitely isn’t.

We also like to name places after significant historical figures, like the city of Lafayette, Indiana, named for the French general who fought for the newly-independent Americans in the Revolutionary War; or the state of Washington, where I live, which is named for a character in the popular 1970s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter.

I’d like to live in a town called Malice because I’m a big fan of the Jam, but I live in Sammamish, which is a native Lushoostseed word that, according to Wikipedia, means “meander dwellers, or willow people,” which is just kinda weird. But whatever inspired that, at least it isn’t called the Town or worse, the Suburb.

See where I’m going with this?

How to name places, much less people, is a bigger subject that I don’t want to blow through here, but at least let’s start with not simply hitting a generic word with an initial cap—at least not past the placeholder phase.

Both the Editor and the Reader will appreciate it.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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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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12 Responses to PLEASE STOP USING INITIAL CAPS AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR CREATIVITY

  1. T.L. Branson says:

    I hate naming things. I agonize over it. But I see how it is crucial. I got a kick out of your examples. Especially the Swahili joke. But that seriously brings up a question in my mind. Have you written anything on creating languages and words and things?

    In trying to come up with words from another language for a character to revert to when they’re angry, I basically use existing words and tweak them. However, I have no idea if I’m butchering the language doing this or if it would be easily noticed by a person of that language who then might get angry with me for doing so.

    I very rarely make up things off the top of my head. I’m just not that creative. I’m not J.R.R. Tolkien. And I know J.K. Rowling tweaked Latin, but even her words seems legitimate/real. When I create words off of existing languages it looks like garbage. Or maybe it’s just because it’s foreign to me and it’ll grow on me over time. Perhaps Rowling’s words are okay because the world has gotten used to them? Who knows.

  2. This has been the most asked but least answered question here at FAH–and it’s long overdue that I get into naming things, creating words, etc. I promise that will happen in the very near future!

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  5. Selene says:

    Very interesting! So let’s say I’ve got a city with a city guard in it, would that be capitalized or not? I’m thinking from your post that the answer depends on whether it’s a proper name? So if the characters in slang use “City Guard” to mean “Her Majesty’s Glorious Foobarian City Guard” it’d be capitalized? Or even if it’s just named the “City Guard” (as opposed to other parts of the army)? Or would naming it “City Guard” be a big no-no ala “The Wizard” and “The Tower”?

    Another instance I’ve been pondering lately whether to capitalize is invented swords of a specific kind. To make a real-word example, “katana” is a specific kind of sword to people in the west, but in reality (I think) it’s really just Japanese for sword. So the Japanese (if they used the latin alphabet) wouldn’t capitalize it or anything. And neither do we capitalize it in English of course. But, my conundrum, I’m writing the book in English, but everyone in it are “Japanese” and thus understood to be speaking “Japanese” (really my invented language). Using the “foreign” word thus seems strange. I’m not using it for anything else, am I? I’m calling a dog a dog and a chair a chair and so forth.

    So, how can I then best distinguish these weapons? Giving them a name seems a bit odd for the reasons above. I’d happily settled down on capitalization as a good middle ground (“Long Sword” sort of), but now after reading your article, I’m thinking that might not be a good idea. I suppose I might just call everything “long sword”, and fiddle in some description here and there, though it does remove my handy shorthand for the type of weapon…

  6. For the city guard, fall back on the same rule you’d use for a similar real world organization, say, the Chicago Police:

    “I need a police officer now!” the victim shouted.
    A policeman ran up and said, “Hi, sir, I’m Officer Jones of the Chicago Police Department, how can I help?”
    “But wait,” the victim replied, “this is Milwaukee–are you from the wrong police department?”

    OR:

    “I need a city guard now!” the victim shouted.
    A city guardsman ran up and said, “Hi, sir, I’m Guardsman Jones of the King’s Landing City Guard, how can I help?”
    “But wait,” the victim replied, “this is Winterfell–are you from the wrong city guard?”

    Same rules, different world.

  7. Next question:

    For “foreign” words, even if the language is invented, “translate” *everything*, so if the Elvish word for sword is labala, you’d still use the word sword to describe the weapon an elf is carrying in the same way you’re “translating” the Elvish words for things like chair, wall, mountain, etc.

    BUT, as is the case with katana, which isn’t just a sword but a particular kind of sword that’s different from other kinds of swords like a scimitar or a flamberge, then it’s entirely appropriate to use the foreign (or invented) word in order to differentiate that specific type of sword from other specific types of swords.

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  9. Selene says:

    Great, thanks Philip!

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