AS MOST EVERYONE KNOWS, THE ITALIC FONT is a slanted font used to offset or highlight particular symbols, words, or phrases. Italics can be used for emphasis, as in:
“Carmen knew that Pedro wasn’t the only assassin in town, but he was the best.”
Instead of using single quotation marks which look a bit clunky on the page (and remind the reader that he’s reading rather than immersing him in the story), italics are an elegant way to indicate a character’s thoughts. Note in the following example that a standard font is also used as emphasis within the italicized thought. (Please note I am bolding the words 'only' and 'is' to make them stand out. Normally, you would not.) :
Pedro isn’t the only assassin in town, Carmen thought, but he is the best.
Foreign words can also be italicized, as in:
Pedro was an asesino, that rare mix of artist and killer. He took great pride in his work.
The titles of books, songs, vessels (as in space or ocean-going ships), mathematical formulas, or variables are often italicized. For example:
The main drawback with boarding The Santa Ana and removing her of her captain was the ship’s schedule, Pedro considered. He could, a, make inquiries, but that would link him to future unpleasantness, or he could, b, forget the schedule and wait until the captain stepped ashore before the carrack left port. Neither option serves me, he thought.
Note in the above example that the first sentence looks as if it should be italicized, but since it isn’t a direct thought (the voice is actually that of the narrator’s rather than Pedro’s), only the title of the ship is italicized. As the last sentence could as easily be spoken aloud by Pedro, it is italicized because it is a direct thought.
I’ve used the above paragraph as an example only, because I wouldn’t actually use it in prose. It contains an anachronism, a type of logic fault (which I discussed earlier in the ABC's - A is for Anachronisms. I will discuss logic faults in more depth in a future post). Because the setting has been established as medieval (by the mention of a carrack, a type of medieval ship), it is unlikely that Pedro would list his options as a or b. Such a list is a modern invention.
Errors in using italics occur when the rules are misunderstood, or when italics are overused. Generally, you wouldn’t use italics to indicate a change in point of view, where one large block of text is told from the standpoint of one character, with a following large block of text italicized to indicate another. However, in all three of my books from my The Tattooed Witch trilogy, I do use italics to indicate whenever Alonso, a disembodied spirit, speaks to my main character Miriam in her head. Because she hears his voice as a thought, I use italics to indicate what he says.
In the olden days, On Spec Magazine would ask writers to indicate italics by underlining their italicized words, but we no longer require this, so italicize away. That said, if you’re unsure of when or where to use italics, it’s better to err on the side of using less rather than more.