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Capitalization in a text has been something heavily debated in the writing community due to its nature as being preference based, and finding a hard set answer is fairly difficult. However, should capitalization be used for emphasis as part of a character's tone?

Assume a character is based purely around a definite, harsh and painful to listen to voice, in a situation where simple text would seem too mundane. Take these examples:

"DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU'VE DONE?"

Versus

The androgynous voice grew harsh, as if scraping his mind. "Do you understand what you've done?"

If the character solely speaks in a tone that is harsh, would it be viable to use capitalization as emphasis or should you resort to describing it beforehand and using normal text?

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You cannot directly represent the voice of a character in fiction.

Assume you used all caps to represent a "harsh and painful to listen to voice". What then would normal capitalization mean? That all other voices sound pleasant? Or that they all sound the same?

If you want a character to have a special voice, you describe their voice.

Just as whispering isn't represented by smaller or lighter letters but by describing that a character whispers –

"Bla bla," John whispered.

– the character of the voice is described in the surrounding text and not emulated through typography:

"Bla bla," John said, his harsh voice painful to listen to.

  • Thanks! As a designer its a bit weird to not emphasize emotions, volume, etc. through typography and this helps! – Kyle Li Jan 29 '17 at 9:40
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    You certainly could represent volume, emotion and so on through typography, but there is no convention for that and readers won't necessarily understand what you are doing. As an example, look at later issues of the comic Cerebus for someone trying to express voice in lettering. But that only works because a comic already communicates visually. Body text in fiction writing is not visual, usually, but abstract. It works best when the font remains unobtrusive and almost imperceptible. – user5645 Jan 29 '17 at 9:46
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All caps has come to mean shouting. You can have a voice which is harsh but not loud. So no, I wouldn't use all caps to mean something which is difficult to listen to. Describe it as "harsh" and let your readers imagine what that sounds like.

  • What if the character is purely shouting, and thats part of the character's tone? – Kyle Li Jan 28 '17 at 11:43
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    "Purely shouting" is different from "harsh." A character can be harsh and loud, or harsh and quiet. If the character is always shouting, then you can put that person's dialogue in all caps, but I would then be judicious about how often that person speaks, because it's visually exhausting. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 28 '17 at 13:44
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    @KyleLi Another option would be to use all caps pnly on some words or phrases. If we shout a sentence, there are often phrases that become louder than the rest of the sentence – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 31 '17 at 5:47
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Neither of the above. You can't act a scene in prose. Nor can you describe your way into a reaction. What you have to do to get the reader to have a reaction to events it to set them up properly so that they have the reaction you are looking for when the plain words are delivered.

If you want "Do you understand what you have done" to fall with great portent and gravitas upon the reader's mind, then you need to have spent the previous couple of pages setting things up so that we know exactly who the players are and exactly what the tension is between them, and exactly what the stakes are so that when the words, "Do you understand what you have done" are uttered, we only need to hear them to know how they are delivered and how the person they are spoken to receives them.

In literature, we have no actors, no sets, not lights, no music, no sound effects. We only have words. And the way we create effects with words is through carefully constructing the scene so that the moment of payoff is triggered by a few simple words. Because it must always be triggered, never created by a crescendo of light and sound, because we don't have these things. The effect is all in the setup.

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