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At one point in my story, the characters are addressed by a god. In the ensuing dialogue, this god has a more archaic way of speaking, but even so, I'm wondering if it might be a good idea to visually distinguish the god's speech from the other characters' speech. I think part of the reason is that since this is essentially a disembodied voice talking, I can't use the usual visual cues (gestures, facial expressions, etc) to highlight who is speaking.

I don't want to capitalize everything as I find long stretches of capitalized text hard to read, and I'm already using italics for thoughts and emphasis. Since the story is going to be published online, I can't rely on displaying the text in an actually different font, either.

However, I've played around with increasing the size a bit and I think it looks okay. But are there any reasons not to do this?

EDIT: Since it was raised in a comment and I didn't think about it before:

While the god's speech is usually on a separate line, occasionally it's interspersed with speech tags and descriptions. Would it be problematic to have different sizes in the same paragraph? (FWIW, in my current draft I'm using a difference of 2 size points.)

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    Do bigger fonts render correctly on e-readers? On mine, I set the font size. Not sure how that would interact with your "bigger font" setting. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 31 at 9:03
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    This is absolutely normal and common in graphic novels where speech is set off in bubbles. But it sounds like you're talking about straight out prose, yes? I'll point out that even in a Torah scroll (the first 5 books of the Bible, hand written in an exact and particular way), God's speech is stated as such but there is zero difference in formatting, font, etc. – Cyn says make Monica whole Aug 31 at 15:22
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    Note how the examples in the answers have requisites. E.g., center justified, or block quotes, etc. (or all-caps or bold; which is not a different font). - Do not use two separate fonts in-line. - At SE, you get one font with the option of five sizes, bold, italics, and no colors, because the goal is to be able to read it. - Playing with font size is one thing; with different fonts: 1995 will call and want their formatting back. – Mazura Aug 31 at 18:36
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    @Mazura: Bold or italics are a different fonts; it's usually a font from the same typeface as the surrounding medium/upright text. – Henning Makholm Sep 1 at 12:25
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    @Llewellyn Just saying that there isn't a tradition of using a separate font when a God speaks, even in a document put forward as the actual speech (as opposed to fiction). – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 1 at 16:12
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I have seen capitalised or text used for this purpose, but again, almost exclusively in light-hearted works. It comes across as fourth wall breaking, saying "Even the font thinks this character is powerful". If that's your purpose, then bold text is probably fine.

On the other hand, you certainly shouldn't feel like you have to do it. I've seen lots of books which include extended dialogue with disembodied voices. The most common approach I've seen is to make the disembodied voice into a minor character, with its own characterisation. The first time the voice speaks, give a couple of sentences describing how the characters hear the voice (e.g. it echoes throughout the cavern, or they hear a voice with no discernible source, or they become aware of the words without really hearing them, or the words are burned into their souls). You could also describe how the voice sounds (gentle, booming, deep, crystal clear, etc.). Then when context doesn't make clear who's speaking, you can say "The booming voice interrupted" or "the disembodied voice paused a moment before speaking" or "the with a laughing tone, the gentle voice said". You can add a lot of character to the speaker with these kinds of descriptors. A separate font is fine, but not necessary.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE, glad you found us. Please check out our tour and help center and consider choosing a unique name for yourself. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 2 at 14:48
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    Accepted. "Even the font thinks this character is powerful" convinced me. Given the genre and story content, I could easily have gotte away with using a different font. But I didn't want the effect you're describing. Also thanks for the suggestions on giving the voice personality. – Llewellyn Sep 10 at 7:48
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Visually distinguishing a character's dialogue is not a bad idea. Sir Terry Pratchett used this tool quite a lot. Most notably, his Death spoke in ALL CAPS, including small caps when needed. (Small caps make reading significantly easier than just all caps.) There was also a special font used for the Golems' speech in Feet of Clay, a character in The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents spoke in bold, and that's just off the top of my head.

In all those cases, Pratchett used the special fonts to illustrate the fact that the voice speaking is very much an inhuman voice. Which is also what you're trying to convey.

What I would check is whether different-sized fonts render correctly on e-readers, as well as on different browsers. Any environment that lets the user change font size - you'd have to make sure it interacts well with your "bigger font". I'm not tech-savvy enough to answer that issue.

To sum up, using some font effect to illustrate the inhumanity of a character's voice in text is perfectly fine. Using font size, specifically - make sure there are no technical issues.

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    Note, however, that Pratchett's works are comedies. If the OP is aiming for the comedic too, then fine. But the device might feel more out of place in a story that otherwise keeps a more serious tone. – Henning Makholm Sep 1 at 12:25
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    Also, there are scenes where you can only tell Death is there because of his capital letter speech. There are two more notable examples: Azrael only says one word (YES), but it takes a whole page. Also, The Great God Om (when becomes great again) speaks in chapters and verses. – Nyos Sep 2 at 1:42
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    In my UK corgi editions of Discworld books, Death's speech is rendered in Sᴍᴀʟʟ ᴄᴀᴘs rather than all caps, which @llewellyn may find more readable than straight-up capital letters. – Ty Hayes Sep 2 at 14:11
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    ...which is already mentioned in this answer anyway. I should have read more closely. At least I suppose my comment adds some value by demonstrating the small caps. – Ty Hayes Sep 2 at 14:33
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    @HenningMakholm Actually, I'd argue that a lot of Pratchett's books, while certainly containing humoristic elements, are at core not comedies. That said, I had a look at Reaper Man, and even that doesn't mix different font styles in the same line. – Llewellyn Sep 2 at 16:59
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Besides Death in the books of Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE (10 Doctors and a Professor omitted), there are lots of precedents for special font or alignment for various usages.

The Bible

In contrast to some modern prints (see below), the 42-line Gutenberg Bible in Latin of 1454 (part 1) (part 2) uses the same font for everything and no special printed lettering. The first letter of chapters also is either red or blue and often with some artistic scrollwork, all added later. The red annotations, chapter headers and other were added by hand later, using a separate document for the scribe. Note that besides those small annotations, the commentary is fully absent in this print, a break from many earlier, handwritten bibles (see below).

According to Christopher De Hamel: Eine Geschichte der Bibel, Berlin 2002, handwritten, commented bibles usually used red ink or red underlines for the actual bible-text and only black ink for the commentary, which was often an explanation of the archaic Latin. Another accepted version to denote the bible text was to put a special zig-zag like mark at the side of the quotes from the word of god or to put the bible quote in font of double the height while the commentary surrounded this. Some excerpts can be seen on the author's german page. So technically one could say "the word of god" (as in the bible text itself) had a special font in those 13th-century bibles.

Red Letter Editions only came up in 1899, and is especially popular with the King James Version in the US.

Other Authors

Douglas Noel Adams, also a writer of comedy, had one single notion of a god to the world in So long thanks for all the fish. Chapter 40 showed us this ingenious way to get a message from God to the people: He has the almost blind Marvin see the burning, house-sized capital letters through a telescope... and then spells it letter for letter to the reader. He never spells it out.

The first letter was a “w”, the second an “e”. Then there was a gap. An “a” followed, then a “p”, an “o” and an “l”. Marvin paused for a rest. After a few moments they resumed and let him see the “o”, the “g”, the “i”, the “s” and the “e”. The next two words were “for” and “the”. The last one was a long one, and Marvin needed another rest before he could tackle it. It started with an “i”, then “n” then a “c”. Next came an “o” and an “n”, followed by a “v”, an “e”, another “n” and an “i”. After a final pause, Marvin gathered his strength for the last stretch. He read the “e”, the “n”, the “c” and at last the final “e”, and staggered back into their arms.

Stephen King sometimes uses special alignment to make something noteworthy. For example, a center alignment has been used to demark what was written on pieces of paper in IT (especially in chapter "Part Four, July of 1958: Chapter 16, Eddie's Big Break"), italic was used heavily for thoughts of the current protagonist.

Also by Stephen King, The Stand. We can find the following in Chapter 53 (at least in my print): Once more, center alignment is used for a couple of papers, right alignment and italics for signatures, and as a special use he uses CAPITALS to declare what a note of paper (written in wonky capital letters) to Nadine said while the normal text - interspaced to the note - is used for the actions and what was to be seen at the same time. Again left-aligned italics are used throughout the book for thoughts.

Bram Stoker, Dracula. As an example of a book written in letters and diary entries, typography is used a lot. After a center-aligned, capital font header denoting the "source material", there are easily 2 types of setups used:

  • In letters, alignment is used to denote date and address (right-aligned italics), the addressee (left-aligned italics), body (column alignment) and sender (right-aligned italics) of the letters.
    • At times some parts in the body are put into italics, denoting a special style of writing
  • Diary entries are started with the italic date and sometimes time.
    • At times indented italics on a separate line are used: Johnathan Harker's entry for the 16th May has a Hamlet quote in this way. His 4th May entry has a quote from Burger's 'Leonore'
  • A couple of pieces of news and reports have another, slightly different typography.
  • It was common practice to print block quotes in italics, and to write the headers of letters that way. – Davislor Sep 1 at 9:13
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Many editions of the Bible print Jesus’ words in red ink (although generally not God’s). This is what people who call themselves “red-letter Christians” are referring to. Even those that don’t customarily translate the ineffable name of God as “LORD” in small-caps, and in a few cases, GOD in small caps (generally in phrases such as “the lord GOD”). Those would be the closest parallels in standard, formal English.

It’s common, though, for science-fiction to use a different font for some alien, robot or computer, to signify that the character has an extremely alien voice.

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    "many editions" is a purely modern thing - a Red Letter Edition. Historical bibles, especially Latin ones, used red to demark chapter/verse break, headers, and other stuff. They were also usually written without capitalization of deus – Trish Sep 1 at 18:49
  • @Trish Red-lettering the speech of Jesus is a modern custom, yes. It’s the most common form of special type for divine speech in English, and no less relevant for that. – Davislor Sep 1 at 19:01
  • @Trish Ancient manuscripts of the Bible wrote the divine name (the Tetragrammaton) in archaic paleo-Hebrew letters, even after the Hebrew alphabet had changed to the form still used today. Early manuscripts of the Septuagint wrote it in Hebrew letters even though the rest of the text was Greek, or sometimes wrote it with the Greek letters πιπι—which happen to resemble the shapes of the Hebrew letters but are pronounced nothing the same, presumably because the copyist did not know the Hebrew alphabet. Soferim sill have special rituals for writing it, but no longer use special letters in Hebrew. – Davislor Sep 1 at 19:09
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    @Trish The English custom of translating the Divine Name as “the LORD” in small caps originated in the King James version of the Bible; earlier translations did not do this. Martin Luther had previously translated it into German as “der HERR.” Latin translations varied: the Codex Amiatinus did not capitalize any names, while the Gutenberg Bible both capitalized and added a red stroke to the first letter of every sentence, but did not otherwise capitalize names. Modern Latin texts capitalize both Deus and Dominus. – Davislor Sep 1 at 19:40
  • @Trish On the other hand, nearly all Catholic Bibles until the middle of the twentieth century were translated from Latin, rather than the original languages, and did not follow this convention. The approved translations on the Vatican’s website do translate it as “the LORD.”. – Davislor Sep 1 at 19:58
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I think that, when formatted differently, a god's speech tends to be formatted with a font more convoluted than normal text. Perhaps to reflect that such a god is something on a higher level of complexity, is beyond normal. Also refinement and beauty. Fonts such as flourished script, or perhaps gothic.

Depending on your online publishing tool(s), you probably can set a font for your text. They probably work well with modern browsers, but as you say, you cannot rely on that working for everyone.

However, for web pages, in CSS, you can also set a generic font in the font-family property, such as serif, cursive, or fantasy. The safest bet would be to use sans-serif for normal text and serif for the god's text, although the impact is less than with more sophisticated fonts.

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I would strongly urge you to AVOID FORMATTING to convey meaning around the text or dialog in a novel. I would encourage using words to describe the text or dialog, and to convey your intended meaning or emphasis.

Special formatting may be difficult for persons with disabilities, or people using text-to-speech tools, or automated voice synthesis. The formatting may be dropped or not translated as intended. If this were an audio book, then possibly the narrator could break into a separate voice for this specially formatted text, but in many cases, there isn't the luxury to have a narrator available, and other programmatic processes may skip or misunderstand the formatting for your intended purpose.

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