Voices in my Head

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.

Take Care
– S.


About Simon

Simon is an actor who found his way into audiobook narrating as a side-gig and seems to have made a success of it. With some training as an actor as a child (just a couple of hours a week, but it stuck) and 15 years working inside the BBC (ending up as one of the presenters/newsreaders on BBC Radio 4 in London) he found the ideal combination for an audiobook narrator. Found his way to California two decades ago and never left.

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5 Responses to Voices in my Head

  1. jessica hall November 13, 2017 at 3:03 am #

    looking forward to hearing Pinocchio. I am not at all worried that the voices will be silly. Your performances are always perfect. What might a glow worm have to say?.

    I wish you would record The Last Unicorn. Wouldnt that be great? Do you ever listen to audio books? Have you heard Lenny Henry read The Anansi Boys or Roy Dotrice read A Game of Thrones?

    I confess the cherishing a hope that they will ask you to record the whole series ASOIAF. I absolutely adore Roy Dotrice’s performance of the story so far, but even as I say that I harbor the wish that, for example, the Lannisters ALL spoke with a Welsh accent instead of just two of them and at that, only sometimes. Its not only Dickens and Holmes that are worthy of multiple available performances..

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jan Johnston November 11, 2017 at 6:19 am #

    I’m behind in my reading this week! Here’s my two bits on character voicing.

    I think there should be some distinction, of course, but I don’t really like it when a male or female narrator goes into falsetto or baritone to do opposite sex. Just a slight change in intonation is good enough for me! I can do the rest of the fantasizing on my own, thank you very much!

    i usually do not read children’s books, but… after this review, I’m going to have to get Pinocchio!

  3. Lisa Blackburn November 10, 2017 at 4:32 pm #

    Thanks for this wonderful post; I’ve always wondered how you researched and prepared the characterizations for each book, so it’s great to get an idea of the process. I wholeheartedly agree that characterizations enhance the experience for the listener; they add dimension and texture to the reading, and really bring the characters to life. I’ve particularly enjoyed your Dickens narrations. Some of the voices that stand out for me are the lawyer Mr. Jaggers in “Great Expectations,” whose sharp, interrogative tone makes every conversation a cross-examination; the cheerfully feeble “aged parent” of his clerk, Mr. Wemmick; and the gentle, loyal Joe. And in “David Copperfield,” the chilling tones of David’s cruel stepfather Mr. Murdstone, and the glib smoothness of his false friend Steerforth made those characters feel very real. (Almost too real, in the case of Murdstone. What a creep!) You did a marvelous Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, too! I think Dickens himself would agree. And in the wonderful Aubrey/Maturin series, your voices move with apparent effortlessness from quarterdeck to fo’c’sle to Admiralty—and to Boston!—giving each character a unique personality. Quite a tour de force! (I tried listening to another narrator of that series after the O’Brian estate withdrew the rights for the Blackstone recordings, but it was no use!) I’m currently listening to “The Wonderling” and am finding it delightful. So sorry to miss the reading at Book Soup!

  4. Deborah McCorkle November 9, 2017 at 8:37 pm #

    Whimsical wonderment.

  5. Barbara Harris November 9, 2017 at 5:01 pm #

    Again, Simon, your voice(s) are awesome and amazing. I’m in awe of how you do series, I.e. Girl With Dragon tattoo and the Inspector von Veeteran series. Having to remember all those different characters’ voices….to me it’s a real talent! I was so thankful you did the last Dragon tattoo book, (Girl Who Took an Eye for an Eye). Wouldn’t have been right any other way.

    I’m looking forward to listeners to The Wonderling!

    YOU take care!

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