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tl;dr : I need a way to emphasise the names of special skills without it becoming annoying or it overlapping with the formatting already present in the story.


I'm writing a story in an RPG-like setting (Role Playing Game). As is a staple in the genre, characters are assigned job-classes and corresponding skills they can use. When battling against monsters or other players they use them like so

"Fireball!"
Fire conjured itself from X's staff, enveloping the goblin and reducing him to ashes.

and

He brought his mace down with overwhelming force, but before it could make contact the weapon was forced back with a loud metallic screech.
"Stand Behind Me!"
A knight appeared between the two, his shield deflecting the attack with ease.

In the second example the knight isn't actually telling the person he's protecting to stand behind him, he is calling out the name of the skill "Stand Behind Me" as an invocation of sorts. I expect the reader to pick up on this because of moments like in the first example, italics signing the use of a skill.

Skills are a fairly important part in the story, since who can use which skill is set in stone. The knight isn't particularly fast, but the next time he miraculously jumps in front of someone just in time to block an attack, the reader shouldn't be surprised. The knight has a special ability that allows him to do just that, after all. In battle, however, skills tend to be used in quick succession, so rather than repeat over and over that the knight is using his special skill whenever he safes someone I found it neater and clearer to have some kind of formatting rule to sign that I'm talking about a skill.

However, this poses a problem when writing sentences like

"Et tu?"

or

"I don't care."

In these examples italics are used to sign the words being in a foreign language or emphasising someone's speech. Like how it is normally used. Of course there aren't any skills in the story called "I Don't Care", but it's confusing nonetheless because I established using italics as skill activation already. Were you to remove the italics from the first sentence the reader might become confused at the foreign words, were you to remove it in the second sentence the phrase loses its impact.

As such I've been searching for some other way to show the characters using skills. I have tried using bold text, but this became very annoying very fast, especially during fight scenes where one skill is used after another. Underlining it felt strange. As if I were trying to make a hyperlink.

Is there a good way to do this?

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  • You are asking the wrong question. The question you should be asking is how will the reader recognize what emphasized text means. And the fact of the matter is that outside the long established conventions, they won't. If you want the reader to know something, tell them. – user16226 Apr 19 '18 at 18:11
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There are a couple of ways that you could utilize, but changing the style often comes with problems. Some of these problems you have already encountered:

  • bold text is very nice to draw attention to something, but it's the kind of attention that draws the eyes of the reader across the whole page - be careful about using this too often; it's nice to emphasize something or to use it for one or two really powerful (think Endboss) spells, but you probably shouldn't use it every single time
  • italics are a nice way to show a difference while not being as invasive as bold text; the problem is that italics are sometimes used for different things like you already outlined, which might confuse a reader
  • underlining text is another possibility, but especially in these times of e-books you should be careful to not make your text look like a Hyperlink or explanation; this is rarely used and distracts quite a bit; if you have Hyperlinks in addition to underlining skills things will get complicated and confusing for the reader really fast

Other ways to emphasize stuff could be:

  • use a different font, such as a Monospace font; Monospace is not as nice to read for most people, but they allow you to have a simple way of showing that something is different; by writing your skills in a Monospace font it will be very easy for readers to see that something is different, even if it's the first time they encounter it as a change in font is used very rarely in fictinal writing
  • use a catch phrase to show that what follows is a skill; it could be that you just spell the word "Skill" like "Skill: Stand Behind Me" or abbreviated to an "S"; this is pretty easy and after using this one or two times nobody will be confused; it does add a bit of extra stuff to read and to remember when writing though and it's not necessarily the nicest thing to read; in an RPG context it might not be such a big problem though
  • use other kinds of brackets/ quotation marks/... such as Guillemets ("« Stand Behind Me »") or simply an additional hyphen ("- Stand Behind Me -"); in these cases you could also remove the normal quotation marks to make it more obvious that this is not something that is spoken if you don't have spoken incantations; just be careful, different countries use different kinds of brackets/quotation marks and it might lead to weird results depending on your target audience
  • CAPSLOCK is normally used to indicate someone screaming or for example describing how an advertisement is written in big letters; it could be used to indicate that something is different as long as you don't use it in one of those other contexts, but it draws quite a bit of attention - not as much as bold text, but more than italics
  • lowercaps looks a bit like typos at first, but if you continually use it your readers will quickly pick up on it (thanks to Kevin for the suggestion)
  • CamelCaps looks probably quite weird for every non-programmer, but would be an effective way to establish your incantations in contrast to normal speech
  • write it in the middle of the line to establish a difference from everything else that is being said; this draws a lot of attention and can get boring fast if you are regularly using skills; but if they are something rare and special it could be useful; just be aware of the draw attention across the whole page effect similar to bold text
  • use a different size if you want to make sure that it's different from the surrounding speech; this is similar to capslock, but not quite as invasive if you are only increasing the font size by one or two points (can also be used with smaller/lowercase, but that would make a skill less special, so I'd recommend against it)
  • use a different language if all your communication will be in English and the target audience is only in English-speaking countries you could choose for example German spells; just be careful that German fans might find Fan-translations and find you spells a bit weird; you could of course try to create your own language snippets (no need for a complete language) and offer a "translation" the first time and in a glossary at the back; as long as the snippets are sufficiently different your readers will know what your protagonist has just cast after maybe two or three times; it's of course more work, a bit harder on the reader and might potentially limit your reader base
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  • Hrm... what about small caps? Terry Pratchett made great use of that for Death's speech. – Kevin Apr 19 '18 at 16:47
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The convention is thus that whenever you put something in quotes every reader will think that this is spoken aloud.

If you want someone to use a skill, you have to say that they do so.

For example, if in your novel someone is riding a bike (which is a skill), you say that the person rides a bike. Similarly, if someone is supposed to cast the fireball spell, you write that they cast the fireball spell.

If you put the word "fireball" in quotes, then the reader assumes that this is the incantation used for the spell (or that the characters talk to themselves, naming what they do: "Riding a bike! La la la..."), not the skill of casting that spell.

If you want to distinguish spoken spells from other verbal utterances, the convention is to either use Latin (think of Harry Potter) or to have the characters say that they are using a spell ("I curse you to ...") or have the narrator say so (Angrily, John invoked the fireball spell: "Fireball!").

Do not use italics or boldface or a different font in direct speech. People cannot talk in italics or boldface or in different fonts. Most readers will think that words in italics or boldface are emphasized or louder, they will not connect this to using a special skill.

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    They are saying it aloud, though. Sorry for being unclear. Think of old Japanese shonen manga where the protagonist screams the name of his special move as he executes it. Using latin would work, but would also detract from the RPG-like vibe I'm trying to create: most RPGs have their skill names in English. – Not A Vampire Apr 19 '18 at 12:20
  • @NotAVampire I see. Then you can do the same you do when you want the reader to know that an utterance is spoken quietly (Quietly John said: "...") or with some emotion ("...," John wailed.), you just say that the utterance is a spell: Angrily, John invoked the fireball spell: "Fireball!" – user29032 Apr 19 '18 at 12:59

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