Styling spaceship names and planets: italics and capitalisation tips for SFF writers

Updated: Nov 18

Many science-fiction and fantasy writers overuse italics and capitalisation in their work. In this short blog post, I’ll cover basic style guidelines and explain why this happens.


Key points:

  • Science-fiction and fantasy authors often overuse capitalisation and italics as they want to mark out new elements of their world as different. It's a kind of mental scaffolding in the writing process. However, in the final version, this is often unnecessary and can break reader immersion in the text.

  • If you’re following the Chicago Manual of Style, you should italicise the names of spaceships (see examples below), just as you would boats, submarines etc. In astronomical contexts, space objects are capitalised (e.g. Alpha Centauri) with a few exceptions (the solar system, Halley’s comet). As for the Sun, Moon, and Earth – that depends on the context of your story and the important thing is to be consistent.

Why do SFF authors often overuse capitals and italics?


There are few hard rules in fiction editing, but there are guiding principles and tendencies to watch out for.


One tendency is for authors to overuse capitalisation and italics in their books. This especially applies to terms the author has invented themself. Here’s an example I made up:


The crew had nutrient stew, and then burple balls for dessert. Alex hadn’t figured out his Big Mission yet, but they still had six months on the Zeta-Arc before they would return from the far reaches of the Milky Way to land on the Moon – a great vantage point from which to see the chaos currently unfolding on Earth.

A good SFF text will sprinkle in worldbuilding elements that mark the context out as different from one we are more familiar with. That way, we know we aren’t on Earth in the 2020s. One great way of doing this is to invent objects (anything from books to food and drink to weapons and drugs) that are different in the imaginary world.


When marking things out as different in non-fiction contexts, italics are often used. This is standard practice for non-English words not found in mainstream dictionaries – although there is currently some resistance to this practice as unnecessarily exoticising.


Now, in science-fiction and fantasy writing, these concepts are new and unusual to the reader and writer, but they should be habitual – and certainly not foreign – elements to the characters in the story. By marking them out as different, we draw the reader’s attention to them. Occasionally, that’s the intention – if so, fine!


But oftentimes, these are elements that we want the reader to pass over and come to see as habitual elements of that world. Italics can break reader immersion in the story. By just reading them and not drawing undue attention to them, we can also encourage the reader to slip into this imaginary world.


The use of such italics and capitals make sense when drafting, as the writer is building and creating this imaginary world. But its use is more a piece of scaffolding than something that needs to be visible in the final, polished product.


The same goes for the sometimes unnecessary use of capitals, as discussed here. These are often ‘Pooh caps’ or ‘Transcendental caps,’ used to convey a Very Big Idea. These can be used sparingly for literary effect. The Chicago Manual of Style calls them Capitals for Emphasis.


For some things, however, italics or capitals should be used:


Spaceship names


Spaceships should be treated like regular ships, submarines, and other craft. In Chicago style, the name is italicised, including any numbers or letters after it, but excluding prefixes that refer to the producer or set in which the spacecraft belongs:


USS Starship Enterprise

Ark m8

Astronomical objects


Almost all astronomical objects are capitalised in Chicago style:


Alpha Centauri

the Big Dipper

the Milky Way

Jupiter

Saturn


There are some exceptions:

Halley’s comet

the solar system


What about the sun, moon, and earth?


This is where things get a bit more complicated! In non-fiction astronomical texts, these are usually capitalised, while in non-scientific texts, they are usually lowercase.


But science-fiction books often use these terms in quasi-astronomical contexts. If your story includes other moons, then using the Moon for ‘our’ moon can be a good call to make to reduce ambiguity.


e.g. We caught the shuttle from Deimos, one of Mars’s moons, to the Moon.


If there is another planet in the story and that planet’s name is capitalised, then it makes sense to capitalise Earth for consistency


e.g. the Jupiter colony and the Earth colony.


At the end of the day, consistency in usage is what matters here, and it’s perfectly OK to use capitals when referring to a more astronomical context.


For example, when characters are on Earth, they may refer to ‘the sun setting late in the afternoon,’ but then they may ‘use the Sun as a gravitational slingshot to reach the Luyten 726–8 binary star system.’



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Andrew Hodges, PhD is a copyeditor and developmental editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.


He is an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.


You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!


Photo by David Menidrey on Unsplash

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