Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Dragons, Sorcerers, and
Mis-Capitalized Words:
How to Properly Critique a Work of Fantasy

By Courtney Keene
©2004, Courtney Keene


Our heroes warily approached the edge of the Forest, Sel'vyln with the Wand of Might in hand, and Fintos trudging behind, her chain-mail clanking noisily with each step.

"Would you stop that?" said he, raising his Torch to illuminate her dirt-covered face.

"Stop wot?"

She loved to see him cringe at her poor use of the Language, and her eyes lit up to see him fulfill her wish once more.

You're in the middle of a critique circle with several eager participants, and you're faced with the challenge of giving feedback for that. Your first comment might be: well, that's positively horrible!

And while you may be right, the nagging necessity comes in deciding what, exactly, makes it loathsome and terrible to digest. Perhaps it’s the fact that words are unnecessarily capitalized too many times, or perhaps it's the odd spelling of the names. Maybe it's even the dialogue: lengthy, over-written, and littered with inserts such as "said he", "admonished she", and all such other nonsense.

Again, you are partially right, but when you receive a manuscript categorized as fantasy and you are charged with the daunting task of critiquing it, there are a few mainstream no-no's that are tolerable, if not acceptable, for fantasy literature.

Case of the Randomly Capitalized Word

"There was a roar and a great confusion of noise. Fires leaped up and licked the roof. The fire grew to a great tumult, and the Mountain shook."

-  J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

Random capitalization is by no means a new trend. First published in 1954, the beloved epic fantasy tale The Lord of the Rings helped shape fantasy as it is today -- random capitalization and all. Out of context, it might seem to a primarily mainstream reader that the word 'Mountain' should in fact be converted to 'mountain,' as there is no proper name listed, and one can assume there is no proper place simply called Mountain. However, the Mountain in question refers to the looming Mount Doom, the cataclysmic boiling point of the story, the place where it all began, and it all ends. If that doesn't call for capitalization, I don't know what does.

Most fantasy tales use the logic of the example presented above. A word may be capitalized because it is part of a proper name, it bears significant importance, or it is another name for a person, place, or thing. In the example at the beginning of the article, the words "Forest", "Torch", and "Language" were randomly capitalized with no explanation as to their origin or feat. In its own way, each could refer to something else. "Forest" could be referring to "The Dreaded Forest." "Torch" could be a shortening of the name "The One Torch", and "Language" could be a reference to the old tongue, held in such high regard by the society that it deserves random capitalization.

However, clearly You can See how silly It makes a Sentence seem when Every Other Word is Capitalized. I could justify each capitalized word if I truly wished, but in this case, and in the case of the aforementioned example, the capitalization has reached a frivolous extreme. Generally, if, in your head, you keep having to change the inflection of the tone in which you're reading, there are far too many capitalized words. Ask the author why they are capitalized, and if she cannot give an elaborate, earth-shattering reason for their importance, the capitalization needs to go.

Terribly Confusing Names of Nvelwhlshnyn'ka

Every character has to have a name, even if it's "Hey, you!" But in many works of fantasy, the majority of names are not nice, clean, 'easy to look up in a baby names book' names. Names can reflect language, culture, history, society, and sometimes even the character of the person in question. This is why Conan the Barbarian was not named Larry the Barbarian, though I hear it was greatly debated. While Larry is a fine name, it just does not say 'wild warrior' like Conan does.

So what really is in a name? Quite a lot, actually. The name of a character often symbolizes her entire existence in the story. Instead of having to say 'that one short guy who carried some all-powerful ring to a mountain to save the world,' we can simply say 'Frodo Baggins' and anyone familiar with the story will recall the grand events of his epic quest, though it is presented to readers as a harmless, innocent name; hardly imposing at all.

When you are critiquing a work of fantasy, pay close attention to the names. There are many generators on the 'net, a few of which I have used, that provide random fantasy names. But randomly generated names are just that: random, and generated, and often-times lacking crucial vowels. A name like Nyhlknihgt, while very fantastical indeed, has only two vowels in it (and who knows whether one is silent or not!), making it very difficult to read. Readers must re-read it  every time it occurs, because there is no way the brain can digest and store all of those consonants and not be utterly confused. This slows them down, and if they haven't put the story aside after the first ten times it was used, they will end up calling the character 'Bob' for ease of memory.

If long, complicated names are given shorter nicknames, it is easier on the reader, but you can't expect someone to take a main character seriously when his name is Snfklexcvnbn the Third, Sun for short. If you catch a writer doing this, advise him that it's best not to include the character's given name at all, but rather a short line à la Dragonheart, explaining how one could not possibly hope to pronounce the main character's name in the common tongue.

Also be wary of the dreaded apostrophe. I have honestly seen names that look like 'K'ng A'th'r.' It looks silly, doesn't it? Why not just include the vowels and be done with it? One would think cliché fantasy writers have an aversion to all vowels. Apostrophes are often included because something has been taken out, usually a vowel. You will also notice this in stories written using some dialects, when sounds present in the standard dialect are dropped. However, unless there is a strict reason for their being in place, advise the writer not to use apostrophes extensively. In a name, they confuse the reader about the name's real pronunciaton. Just be aware that some people creating fantasy cultures do make excellent use of the apostrophe to differentiate them from all other cultures. This, however, must be justified. Writing a fantastical story doesn't give you free license to make up things as it pleases you with no plausible reason.

Woe Be the Dialogue, Verily

While lengthy description was certainly one of Tolkien's favorite devices, there's no question that use of dialogue and dialect shapes a fantasy world. If every member of a fantastical society spoke the common tongue perfectly, with the experience of an educated noble, there would be no need for social castes. Just as in the real world, the way a character speaks reflects his personality, intelligence, current state of emotion, and position on the subject at hand. Without differences in speech, conversation would be flat and boring, and taste like cardboard when chewed upon.

A mistake many new writers make is in not realizing that a pompous, educated noble is going to speak in an entirely different manner than a peasant. When evaluating the dialogue in a piece, first check whether it flows nicely and is not confusing. Then take a closer look at the characters speaking, and see if their words match their personality, origin, and social status as portrayed thus far. If things fail to match up, give the writer the benefit of the doubt and ask if she realized that the dialogue of the character didn't match his background. If it was indeed an oversight, urge the author to make a short character sheet describing the character's personality and status in the world in relation to other characters. If that does not help, suggest that she participate in a few quick and simple exercises, such as an interview with a character in which the character must answer realistically and coherently. I've even gone so far as to read my dialogue aloud, record it, and play it back to judge what I hear.

Most of us have no problem talking with one another for vastly long periods of time, but if you think about it, how many times have you been on the phone and also doing something else? Speech very rarely encompasses all of our brain, and when it senses idle territory approaching the brain craves multi-tasking. The same should hold true for fictional characters. A merchant will not walk up to a customer and simply talk to him without moving at all. Realistically, he is going to gesture toward his wares, make friendly eye contact, and move around his stall to draw the customer into purchasing something.

"I can find meat." Beneath a fall of black hair, Bronn's dark eyes regarded Tyrion suspiciously. "I should leave you here with your fool's fire. If I took your horse, I'd have twice the chance to make it through. What would you do then, dwarf?"

"Die, most like." Tyrion stooped to get another stick.

 - George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones

In the above excerpt from George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, the characters are not just standing idly as they speak, but are in fact engaging in realistic actions for their situation. It is important to have a keen eye for balance, however. Not every bout of speech should be followed with an action, large or small. In fact, in cases where the writer is trying to build tension in speech, quickly exchanged bits of dialogue are a preferred way to speed up readers and make them understand the urgency of the debate.

 

When critiquing a work of fantasy, it is beneficial to keep an open mind to certain fantastical quirks. However, while reading anything from high fantasy to urban fantasy, always keep a firm grip on the components that make a story truly worth reading. If a writer hasn't formed a compelling story that will keep the attention of readers, then it doesn't matter that she's capitalized every other word, unnecessarily elongated consonant-filled names, and horribly butchered the laws of dialogue. Even if her name is M'st'r o' F'nt'sy.

Outside Sources, Listed By Order of Citation:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien (republished by Del Rey Fantasy) ISBN: 0-345-33973-8

Dragonheart, directed by Rob Cohen and produced by 1996 Universal Pictures. ISBN: 0-7832-1915-6

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra) ISBN: 0-553-57340-3