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.
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
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
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
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
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
- George R. R. Martin's A Game of
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
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
directed by Rob Cohen and produced by 1996 Universal Pictures. ISBN:
A Game of Thrones,
by George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra) ISBN: 0-553-57340-3