Capital Letters Are Magic
"The door was the way to... to...
The Door was The Way.
Capital letters were always the best way of dealing with things you didn't have a good answer to."
One of the hardest parts of making a fantasy or science fiction world can be names. Not just for people, but for metaphysical concepts, alien races or awe-inspiring devices/weapons. When writers don't want to make up a new word, they'll often take a short, evocative term and capitalize it. The practice is still so commonplace that J. R. R. Tolkien
(who was a language professor at a respected university) decided to use a trick of combining Capital Letters Are Magic with commonplace words from languages he'd made up for fun in his spare time
to create all of his fictional-but-now-well-known fantasy names. Here on this site
we get a lot of tropes this way as well, such as the The Load
and The Dragonnote
In universe, a character may comment on how they can "hear" the Capital Letters. Of course, this is easily explained as proper nouns have inflections, pauses, and emphasis that normal speech does not.
Ideally, this will give the concept a simple, descriptive name that doesn't sound too dopey. Unfortunately, this can cause hiccups
when they want to use the word in its usual sense, and often leads to eye-rolling from jaded fantasy fans.
Alongside ordinary words that take on special new meanings, neologisms are frequently capitalized as well. If fantasy characters talk about smeerps instead of Smeerps, then it may throw the reader off. (Even if these characters are Smeerp farmers who wouldn't think of the animals as "special", and who also ride horses instead of Horses.) Well-established fantasy concepts, such as dragons and vampires, don't get this treatment. It seems that lowercase words feel more orthodox and "official", and it's therefore incorrect for a fictional world to have a "new" one without the characters somehow noticing that something is different.
Brand Names Are Better
is another example of the effect. After the "magic" has gone away, you get Brand Name Takeover
. (The magical new power to copy papers is Xeroxing; years later, the everyday task of copying papers is xeroxing.)
This trope probably originates in the fact that up until sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century it was conventional in English to capitalise all
nouns, much as it still is in German. Hence capitalising random words makes them feel Old and Important.
Compare The Trope without a Title
and We Will Use WikiWords In The Future
(when two or more simple words are used in this way). Contrast Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp"
, which is putting fantastical names to common things. A popular alternative is Phantasy Spelling
, though such terms are often also capitalized. The most common way to make a name out of it is to spell it with a "the"
- The Dark Is Rising: Old Ones. The Light. The Dark.
- The Flood from Halo
- Also the Grunts, Jackals, Drones, Hunters, Engineers, Brutes, Elites, and Prophets, which all have non-English species names anywaynote
- The Forsaken and the Scourge from Warcraft
- The Eternals from Marvel Comics
- The Neverborn and the Primordials from Exalted, as well as the eponymous Exalted. Lunar and Solar castes also get a rather negative form of this treatment from the Immaculate Order, with titles such as the Deceivers, the Blasphemous, the Frenzied, etc...
- Older Than Print: The Fair Folk being from medieval European folklore.
- Gregory Maguire's Wicked makes an important distinction between animals and Animals.
- Likewise, capitalization serves to distinguish sentient hominids of Ringworld, such as Hanging People or Grass Giants, from non-sentient ones such as vampires. Subverted in that, while this convention is used in the (English) text of the last two novels, it's stated in-character that the trade-language of Ringworlders actually uses a prefix to tell them apart.
- The Forevers from Ayreon
- The Fallen
- The Thrones, the Dominions, the Powers, the Virtues
- The Powers That Be
- The Powers What Is
- Keys to the Kingdom has a lot of these: Denizens, Nithlings, Piper's Children, etc.
- DMFA has Beings, with sapient non-Being creatures being Creatures.
- The Endless
- And, in possibly the least creative example ever: The Race.
- The Chosen
- Originally, the Zerg and the Protoss, although they were knocked down to lowercase letters later on, because real-life species names aren't capitalized.
- Mass Effect: not most species, but the Protheans, the Collectors, and especially the Reapers.
- The Others from A Song of Ice and Fire. Renamed the White Walkers for the live action adaptation, presumably because they didn't think this trope would come across as clearly in speech.
- The Great Old Ones, the Outer Gods, the Elder Gods and the Elder Things
- Immortals and Aberrations from El Goonish Shive.
- The Shadows
- The Caster Chronicles: Caster, Mortal, Incubus, Dark, Light, Claimed...
- The Stormlight Archive: Ryshadim, Parshendi. Interestingly, the parshmen (mindless Parshendi, essentially) are not capitalized.
- By tradition, all sapient species in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (up to and including Humans, Depending on the Writer).
- The Homeward Bounders has Them, so dreaded that They are not only always given a capital letter, Their pronouns are italicised as well.