Vocal Characterization

In the world of audiobook production, narrating a work of fiction entails skills that differ from those required to narrate nonfiction. Good narrators may be excellent readers of fiction and pretty much just as good at interpreting nonfiction. It is less common, however, that that a competent narrator of nonfiction is also adept at fiction.

The reasons for the failure of very good nonfiction narrators to be adept in the fiction genre can be several. It may be that a voice that works well for history or  philosophy—the kind that might be associated with movie trailers, for example—draws too much attention to itself to work in fiction, where the narrator’s presence must give way to multi-faceted characters of various ages, genders, personalities, and dispositions.

Another reason may be that the fiction narrator always needs to make use of at least a modicum of acting skills. These are not easy to acquire and develop.

There is a distinction though between being a good stage actor where characters are fully drawn personae, and a book in which characters are more often suggested using subtle clues to differentiate one from another. And the narration must successfully blend the tasks of providing explication of action and setting one minute, and then making a segue to portraying an Indian warrior brandishing a tomahawk the next. The term storyteller may be a more appropriate designation for audiobook narrators than actor per se.

After working on non-fiction projects for three or four months, I decided that I’d like see if I could also get fiction projects. My first auditions were not successful. One author, whose book was told in the first person by the main character, told me that she liked my voice, but that it did not fit her visualization of the character she had created. Other rights holders just passed me over without comment.

I kept auditioning, however, and finally received an offer to narrate a western. There were two by the same author, and the rights holder said he thought my voice and reading style would suit both of them. (It is fairly common for authors with a series of books to try to get the same narrator for all of the books in a series.)

As I undertook the projects one at a time, I found the task of being a storyteller to be somewhat challenging. Listening to other westerns, I noticed that a rich baritone is often the vocal choice for westerns, so at least I had that going for me. Learning how to “suggest” the characters, was a steeper learning curve.

I sought advice from my fellow narrator, Carl Hausman, who had in fact done some westerns, and went to Audible to find westerns by seasoned narrators to see if I could discern their techniques.

I got some ideas, but putting them into practice goes beyond just understanding what others were doing.

Two things, in my opinion, make the process of defining characters particularly difficult: doing the voices of women and children, and differentiating characters of the same gender one from the other, especially in scenes where two or more characters engage in dialogue.

I had the most difficulty with women. (Not a new thing with me, by the way.) I had to suggest feminine vocal patterns and intonations (if there is any such thing) without resorting to the falsetto used by Eric Idle, for example, while wearing a dress in classic Monty Python skits. That doesn’t work when Indians are kidnapping the young wife of a pioneer settler.

I played around until I came up with a style that simply lightens the speech in an overall sense without overdoing the increase in pitch. Overall the baritone remains, though ideally the reader is not overly aware of it.

For male characters in dialog, I had two basic voices. One was what I called the Gabby Hayes effect, which is a toned down version of the grizzled 50s TV host for reruns of Hollywood B-level western films. The other was a standard male character with no obvious vocal quirks, but a kind of Lone Ranger type of authority that exudes common sense and a logical approach to problem solving.

Emotions are rendered as variations on some of these techniques. Anger is increased volume and some raising of pitch. Love is softer and often lowered pitch. Exasperation is rapid fire delivery in a lowered pitch, which is also a component of anger.

All this has to be toned down enough so as not to become caricature. And there are variations. For children, for example, I often add a bit of a plaintive tone that suggests innocence and vulnerability.

I don’t try to create foreign accents. For a French trapper, for example, I use a deep pitched bellicose baritone delivered with high energy and volume rather than ending up with a hackneyed version of a poorly rendered dialect.

In practice, developing and maintaining characters takes more prep time than nonfiction. It’s pretty hard to get through even short passages with out substantial rehearsal. Another problem arises when a character drops out of the action for a while and then reappears several chapters later. Now did I use Gabby Hayes for this guy? Was the young pioneer wife soft spoken and fragile, or was she a take-charge, no nonsense mother bear?

So how did my initial attempt at western fiction turn out? Not too bad, I’d have to say. After granting approval to put it up for sale, the publisher sent me a note to say he liked it very much and offered me four more projects. That’s a much better result than I expected.

Much obliged for the kind words, pardner. Reckon I’ll keep at it a mite longer.

About Philip Benoit

A producer/narrator of audiobooks and voice-over announcer, I currently have 15 titles listed for sale on Audible. A search of my name on Amazon will provide a list of those books as well as a listing of college-level textbooks that I have co-authored. "Modern Radio and Audio Production" is currently in its tenth edition.

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