What are the rules about capitalisation? You’ve written a novel in which one of the characters is generally known by a nickname, rather than any normal given name. Perhaps it’s a female character who manufactures love potions, and she’s known in the village as the Witch. Or perhaps it’s a male character and he is known as the Captain, because, although not officially entitled to the rank in any kind of military, he has emerged as a natural leader. So should it be Witch, as I’ve written it, or witch? And Captain, or captain?
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it started to be the case that only proper nouns were ever capitalised (prior to that, rules were a little more lax). A captain was always just a captain, unless you were addressing him by full name and rank, Captain James. A witch is not a proper noun so would never be capitalised, unless it was the Wicked Witch of the North, when essentially “Witch” forms part of a larger proper name. However, times have moved on and in modern novels, particularly in some genres like fantasy or science fiction, you’ll often come across ordinary nouns that are used as nicknames being capitalised. George Martin commonly does this in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, more commonly known as the Game of Thrones. Tyrion Lannister, one of the main characters whose fortunes ebb and flow throughout the epic, is known pretty much throughout the first half of the series as the Hand, short for Hand of the King. Another character is called the Hound.
In both of these cases, the argument for capitalisation is fairly easy. They are nouns that, if not capitalised when relating to the character, could lead to confusion. “The hand took her hands in his hands.” “The hound chopped the wolf’s head off.” These sentences look baffling unless the Hand and the Hound are both capitalised. But what about situations like the Witch or Captain, mentioned above? “Let’s take him to the captain” makes perfect sense. “The witch lives in the last cottage on the lane leading to the moors” is also perfectly understandable. The modern truth is that it can be regarded as a style choice. If the Witch is a significant character in the book, then it might suit the story to treat her name as always capitalised. Capitalisation of Captain gives a certain gravitas to his name, which might suit the narrative if everyone looks up to him as a leader. On the other hand, if witches are plentiful in your fantasy world, and the particular witch who lives in the last cottage is not of any enduring significance, then it would probably be better to leave her title all lower case, and if the character known as the captain is not always in charge, then his title is also probably better lowercase.
I deal with the issue of capitalisation in my book, Self-editing for Self-publishers, at some length, covering those tricky situations with Mom and mom, and my lord and my Lord. I came up with three guidelines to judge whether a name should be capitalised or not:
- Is the title consistent? Is the character always, or nearly always, referred to by this title?
- Is the title specific? Is it only this character that is referred to by this title?
- Is it ubiquitous? Does everyone refer to the character by the same nickname?
If the title fulfills all three requirements (at least to people who know them well), then it’s pretty safe to say that it should be capitalised. If it fails one or more requirements, then it should probably be left as lowercase. However, if it might result in confusion on the part of the reader (see the Hand, above) then clarity trumps all other considerations.
For more info on capitalisation, check out the book, Self-editing for self-publishers.