Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Writing Fantasy Races

I purposely chose to use my favorite fantasy races in my book, well aware that there is a rabid group of writers/readers out there that never wants to see another elf or dwarf in a book again. I respect those readers' opinions, but I wish they would in return respect the fact that there are many readers who absolutely love reading about the standard fantasy races and want to read more about them. So, elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons, goblins, and even orcs populate my book. This is exactly what I love most, so if you are tired of such races, well my book is simply not written for you.
What I really wish to discuss is an odd problem I encountered while writing the book -- whether or not to capitalize the race names when they are used. I had never thought about it before. When I started typing out the story, I initially used capitals, not even really thinking about it. It was no problem to use 'Elf' and 'Dwarf' as I typed, but I initially hit a snag when I first needed to use the term for the human races. Would I always capitalize 'Man'? I thought it was no big deal and simply did so for a while, but I began to encounter things I hadn't thought about.

I turned to Tolkien to try to resolve the issue. He only confused me more, since he was not entirely consistent in his usage. For the most part, he capitalized race names whenever they were used in their broad form, but he did not use capitals when the usage was personal. So, if he was referring to the dwarf Gimli, it would not be capitalized, but he would use the word Dwarves when referring to the race in general.

Okay, so I began doing this in my book, only to run into snags. I had one sentence where an elf was referred to personally but there was also a generic usage of Elves within the same sentence. So, if I went with Tolkien, I would have had the same term in one sentence with one capitalized and one not. I could just see a literary agent looking at my text and dismissing me as an idiot!

So, I dropped it all and decided to go with all lower case for races! It isn't a perfect solution, because I always run into critters who wonder why nothing is capitalized, but honestly it is the simplest solution that I could find.


  1. I agree, I think only Tolkien is able to get away with something like that. You make a valid point about not capitalising 'Man' though, I'd never thought about that. It's also interesting that I wouldn't have thought about capitalising 'trolls' 'fairies' or 'dragons' since they aren't a similar species to humans.

  2. I can't get enough elves, dwarves, goblins and the like, so keep it up. As for the capitalization, I think going with the consistent approach is best. I wonder if the Chicago Manual of Style has anything to say about this subject?

  3. I wonder how RA Salvatore handles it? I'd think if it was a specific race - Dark Elves - it would be capitalized.

  4. Here's what I'd do... because, you know... I'm bossy and all... It seems the capitalization would go with the racial equivalent of 'Mankind' but there is also the 'proper noun' angle. Dwarf Gimli, but Gimli was a dwarf--in the first, Dwarf is part of the identity, in the second, it is a mere descriptor.

    To further mess with your prose, if you separate: He invited the dwarf, Gimli. So it is only capitalized as part of a proper noun (which the equivalent of Mankind would also be)

    That said, this is NOT something editors are going to agree on, and when you get one, they will have their OWN ideas on the matter, so I think all you REALLY NEED is internal consistency.

  5. I know what you mean. In my novel, I had the problem with titles, such as Queen, Priestess, etc. I decided to have them all capitalized, but if it ever gets picked up an editor might change it all when I have something like "the Queen" to "the queen." I think Hart Johnson is right, though. Just be consistent in whatever you decide to do.

  6. See, that's why I ended up going with all lower case!

    Hart, that's the exact opposite of the way Tolkien does it. It is funny how no one agrees on this issue.

  7. And I'm sure your editor will sort it out, when it gets to that point. After all, one house may have a different preference from another.

    I've been thinking of using a traditional fantasy race for an MG novel, so I'm glad to hear there are some people that still love them! Also: I think these kinds of things are ever-new for kids and those who make them their own.

  8. umm... i got a little lost. lowercase it is! (that seems easiest:) )

  9. that is a very interesting problem. Your solution is best. The only other solution would to be to put the word in all caps followed by an !. But then you have to find creative reasons to always have them shouting the race names.

  10. This confuses me as well. For my made-up race I used capitals, but for other races I use lower case. I think I should stick to one or the other, it's just that using capitals for a race makes the race stand out more and seem more grand. Like (although I don't have them in my novel) Vampire instead of vampire. One jumps out while the other doesn't. I suppose that if you're writing from a dwarf's point of view, you could go with capitalized D, because they're proud and consider themselves superior, but write all other races with a lower case.

    This is probably just one of those decisions a writer has to make and then stay consistent throughout.

  11. I am also about to place my work on Authonomy also, but I have encountered "exactly" to the "T" - the same problems you have in regard the races.

    In fact, I even went about settling the conundrum in precisely the same way, looking at Tolkien, only to be even more confused.

    In fact, the issues developed in the same stages as your own. Do you start placing Men in capitals, Human Beings - in capitals looks a little silly in that context. Yet, Trolls, Orcs and even Dwarves and Elves, seems to work to me.

    Further on Tolkien, yes strictly speaking you are supposed to capatilize ethnic groups and races but on reading Tolkien I noted that on one occasions he even placed City with a capital "C" and this was not in the context of the City of Belgario <<< made up name, sounds like place where they would have a penchant for wearing sombrero's, ponchos and smoking large cigars but all that aside, it does seem at times that Tolkien operates on a whim and a way!

    Okay, so I began doing this in my book, only to run into snags. I had one sentence where an elf was referred to personally but there was also a generic usage of Elves within the same sentence.

    It is just, and I understand your concerns to a literary agent thinking you are an idiot in regard this, but strictly speaking you are right. I settled on this for my synopsis, which I am about to place on Authonomy soon please see link: http://www.quirkyclaus.com/The_Tallest_Dwarf_Comic_Fantasy_Books.htm
    but yes, it is confusing. I understand also, that you have proferred the simplest solution but is it the best...? I am still pondering this question myself.

    Further I am reading on punctuation now, and here they stipulate that should place ethnic groups and races with a capital. So if you were to say Chinaman, then surely the same goes for Dwarf?

    I am garnering support for my launch on Authonomy people, so any help would be appreciated?

    But I am still not settled on a means of working for the rest of the book. As I said, I found using capitals visually more effective.