Who Was That Tall Stranger with the Deep Voice?

In the world of audiobook production, narrating works 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 a competent narrator of nonfiction is also adept at fiction.

The reasons for the failure of very good nonfiction narrators to be competent 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, accents, and disposition.

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 intersperse narration in the classic sense of supplying explication of action and setting with characters who display emotions and personality traits. The term storyteller may be a more appropriate designation for audiobook fiction 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 just 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, though.

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 for vocalization of women characters that simply lightens the speech in an overall sense without overdoing the increase in pitch. Overall the baritone remains, though ideally the reader is less 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 the standard male character with no obvious vocal quirks, but a kind of Lone Ranger type of authority that shows 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.

I do not try to render foreign accents with precision. I find it better to suggest the accent of a French trapper, for instance by using a robust, even bellicose tonality rendered with bravado than to risk a poor version featuring a hackneyed attempt to effect a dialect.

All vocal styles in fiction are best when toned down enough not to produce caricature. And there are variations. For children, for example, I often use a bit of a plaintive tone that suggests vulnerability or innocence.

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 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 much a better outcome for my first attempt than I expected.

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