Let’s chat about character voices!
I’m told I have a knack for incorporating a goodly range of character voices in those books I narrate that need them, and I was thinking about this as I passed the halfway mark in my narration of Pinocchio (with an endless stream of weird and wonderful creatures).
It also happens to be on my mind today because I’m doing a reading with Mira Bartók, the author of a lovely little book called The Wonderling (an Earphone Award winner from a few months back), at Book Soup in Los Angeles (on Sunset) tomorrow evening (Nov 10th)… drop by if you’re in the area, it’s at 7pm. Mira loves the voices I gave her characters (the hero is a fox with one ear) and I’m going to have to refresh my memory as to which voice I gave to which character.
I can remember when I started narrating back at the Talking Book Service of the RNIB in London in the early eighties where there were two viewpoints on how to narrate a book. One side was adamant that you simply read the words and did not attempt to do ANY characterizations. “Just the facts, ma’am”… I was on the other side 🙂
I grew up in Britain in the 60s when there were the most amazing radio comedy shows and I played around with my own tape recorder doing silly voices in the company of friends. It’s impossible for me not to go there if the opportunity arises. I mean, how can you not give full voice to the characters in Dickens’ novels? I don’t mean over-the-top exaggerations (unless called for) I mean taking on board the physical characteristics of any particular character and allowing those to influence how you think the voice might sound. I loved Dickens because he almost invariably spent a paragraph describing the person physically (size, shape, how they moved, their mood or personality) even before they opened their mouths. Then there were the names – in Dickens’ books if the gentleman is named Mr Jolly he’s not going to sound bored and unhappy (though that’s not going to hold when an author is being ironic, of course).
Not all authors provide us with so many clues and many times narrators have to rely on other indicators: How the character fits into the story, how they interact with other characters – are there any mentions of how they sound (bombastic, meek, monotonal)? Which brings up the greatest bugbear amongst narrators and is the single most important reason to read as much of the book in advance as possible before recording: We meet MacAllister early on in the book and maybe the author describes him as having a strong accent (without saying what) so you think, hmmm, that’s a good Scottish name, let’s go with that and you give him the full ‘Trainspotting’ treatment (that’s a movie where the dialogue is so deeply Scottish as to be nearly incoherent at times). But then, in the final chapter, Mr. MacAllister leaves to visit his family home in Ireland… Ooops. I think every narrator has fallen into this or a similar trap at some point (usually very early on) in their career.
Dealing with human characters is a delicate matter and so much depends on the style of the book. Some greater leeway is allowed in, say, a Trollope, as compared to a modern mystery novel. Sometimes it’s all about the pacing and less about the tonal differences. At a minimum I do think you need to do enough to allow the listener to differentiate between two people speaking… I remember one scene in a Trollope novel where the father of the house was around the dining table with his wife and five daughters and they all had things to say. Dad was easy – mum wasn’t so bad – but the 5 daughters? I basically had their names listed in front of me in order of age and made the oldest sound more mature than the next oldest and so on down the line… with some adjustment depending on how they were saying things that might indicate their underlying personality. I remember talking about this in front of an audience in Berkeley a few years ago with my colleague Cassandra Carpenter and she said ‘If you think that’s tough, try riding in the back of a truck with 17 Italian soldiers…’ There was giggling.
Which brings me back to Pinocchio and The Wonderling. The non-human characters in novels are still ‘people’ and deserve to be voiced authentically – but the reins are off! So far in Pinocchio, apart from P himself and the humans around him, I have voiced: a talking cricket; a chick; a fox; a cat; a falcon; a crow; an owl; a parrot; a gorilla; a glow worm; a weasel; a pigeon; a dolphin; a crab; a dog; a snail. As I said, that’s apart from numerous interactions he has with villagers and schoolboys and so on and so on. And I’m not finished yet!
I do ask myself sometimes if a particular choice is working… or whether I am just doing a ‘silly voice’ – but as long as it feels authentic and I connect it to both the emotion required and the situation in the story, it’s not going to be far wrong.