In my novel, there's something that the characters refer to as "darkness". It symbolizes the bad thoughts of depressed/suicidal people.

A short silence. I imagined Joel nodding his head in the dark. "After an outing, you feel as if something has crept inside you. Something dark and murky, like crude oil. It travels gradually, silently, polluting every cell in your body. You can feel it. Eating you alive. And the worst part is, you're the only one who's aware of it. Yes, you can explain it to people, but just skin-deep. They can't help you. So you have no choice but to fight alone. Fight this darkness alone."

Perhaps this darkness, despite coming from the same source, varied depending on the person. Like when you press a drop of ink between two sheets of paper. Sometimes you get a butterfly. Sometimes a face. And other times a shape so amorphous it doesn't resemble anything at all.

Was this the darkness Joel had talked about?

How should I format this word? Italics? Capital? Should it be formatted differently when it is first mentioned?

  • 1
    Very Murakami-esque! Aug 5, 2015 at 16:32

9 Answers 9


Capitalize it: the Darkness. I believe Tolkien did this with the Ring. It's the common way in fantasy (and christian religion: some god versus God).

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    This is especially good when you're dealing with a force being personified/anthropomorphized.
    – Dan
    Aug 5, 2015 at 19:35

Capitalizing it is good, but coming up with another name for it is better. Churchill famously called it the Black Dog. Yours could be the Black Oil, or Dark Oil, or Devil's Touch, et cetera.


For this specific case, I don't see a reason to set it off. In fact, I would likely find emphasis-by-formatting distracting.

Here's why I don't think you need to do anything special:

You've already mentioned the darkness. You've described it in a vivid, visceral way. Then you immediately refer to it as "this darkness." Readers will know that you're referring to the special meaning that you've just described. The vivid expression, followed immediately by using that term, give it a great deal of weight in the reader's mind.

Later, when you repeat the word, that recalls the visceral description. The repetition gives the word all of the emphasis you need.

That said, if you don't format it specially, any non-special use of "darkness" may convey a meaning you do not intend. My advice for that: Find any non-special uses and reword those passages, either to use a different word, or to make clear from the context that the word is used in its normal sense.


Typically, italics indicate when a word is being used in a non-standard manner. This seems to me the best choice for the examples given. I could see capitalizing if it was being anthropomorphized or used as a title ("The Darkness"), but that doesn't seem to be the case here.

So you have no choice but to fight alone. Fight this darkness alone.

Perhaps this darkness, despite coming from the same source, varied for person to person.

Was this the darkness Joel had talked about?

(It's also worth noting that capitalizing nouns that are not proper nouns can feel old fashioned --this was once quite common in English, but does not match the modern style. If you are deliberately seeking a old-fashioned feel, it might be the right choice.)


I can see a case for leaving the word alone entirely, or for capitalizing it, depending upon your intent/vision.

If the darkness serves primarily as an abstract perception throughout your story (possibly not even serving as a key focal point - just another background element of the setting), then I'd forgo any special formatting. The descriptions and the reactions from your characters (great snippets, by the way) will continue to convey its special qualities on their own.

If, however, the Darkness effectively takes on a role as a primary character in your tale, then you should consider capitalizing it. This would be further justified if the Darkness starts exhibiting disease-like, or life-like qualities. These could run the gamut from actively targeting/spreading to those without apparent cause to feel such a depression, to interacting with characters and beginning to assume a tangible presence or malevolence. In these cases, you essentially have a proper noun.

There could even be a singular transitional event which takes place to signify the recognition of this character by the actual people (or primary character and/or narrator) in your story. After this point, the Darkness could be capitalized, reinforcing this recognition. This could be a bit messy if you are presenting multiple viewpoints or have to juggle preserving the mystery versus dealing with quotes from other people who may have already recognized it for what it is, but it's another potential tool in your toolbox.

Lastly, while they have their places, I'd recommend staying away from special formatting (bold, especially) simply because they are eye-magnets. They can be quite distracting and can unintentionally lead readers to jump straight to them, potentially missing crucial details in the surrounding context (or at least causing them to re-read passages).


I would probably use italics for this.

Another option you might want to consider is small caps. It makes words stand out as different, but not painfully so (like all-caps-plus-bold might).


Honestly, I think you're good with whatever style you choose, as long as you're consistent. As far as your options go:

  • Italics. Do not use if you need it for other things that are typically typeset in italics such as biological proper species names.
  • Capitalization. Only disadvantage can be that it comes with a certain level of personification. As in, the expectation that the 'Darkness' has a certain identity. To take the example of the Ring from Tolkien, the Ring is clearly shown with it's own will. By no means is this a solid rule, but it's definitely a trend that has developed in modern usages of capitalized terms.
  • Small caps (or technically petite caps). I like them, but they are pretty rare nowadays and might feel out of place (can't remember seeing them in a modern novel for ages).
  • Different font. Especially with a word like 'darkness' you can use a dark font to stylize that single word each time. Depending on the genre of the work it actually can give a pretty neat feel, although this is more commonly used to signify an entire class of things or the speech of a specific character.

Personally I think I would go with italics or petite caps if it's just a platonic concept, capitalization if it has it's own will or a different font if it's more than that (super natural for example), but I don't think there are any really wrong choices here.


Italicize it. Boldface makes it look like a title or graphic point. As suggested before, rename it with an adjective/noun combo. These suggestions entirely depend on how great a role this element will play in your story. If the entire story is all about "the darkness", don't draw emphasis to the words, try to reframe them i.e. "The darkness is looking over my shoulder" "going into the darkness". Use language rather than text design elements to make your statement.


I feel very strongly you should not use any style to set the darkness off. Let your writing create the feeling for the reader that the darkness is more than just a figurative incidental lack of light. Allow the reader to give the darkness an identity, or even a persona, on their own. It will become a much more powerful entity that way. I second Dale’s aversion to “emphasis-by-formatting” and Crumbs’ idea of having a transitional event whereafter the darkness become the Darkness (if your narrative goes way). Hope your writing is coming along well!

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