Being every character in an audiobook isn't just a challenge -- it's a dream come true
One of the best things about being an audiobook narrator is how people react when they find out what I do.
“Wow! That must be so cool!” says my questioner. I affirm. Then he or she ordinarily says something nice about my voice, as if it should have been clear from my resonant baritone when I ordered my gin & tonic that no other occupation made sense.
The really perceptive – usually habitual audiobook listeners – then ask, “How can you possibly keep all those characters straight? And the voices and accents and changing on the fly in the middle of dialogue?” I cite careful reading, preparation, annotation, total involvement in the story and any number of other conscientious-sounding practices.
What I really want to say is, “Easy. I’ve been doing it since I was 3.”
I don’t say that. It would come off as a little too flashy. But there’s a lot of truth in it. Like many kids, I played entire dramas in my head (and in the back yard), speaking and doing and emoting every character’s wants, whims, and wiles. War movies, Westerns, even musicals were part of the one-kid Repertory Theatre of Ridgefield Avenue.
This comes naturally to anyone lucky enough to have a parent who was willing, in the space of the 15 minutes before bedtime, to deepen his voice for the bears or squeak it up a bit for Goldilocks. My Dad didn’t even mind when I went all Little Scorsese on him and ordered an extra take of the broken chairs scene, this time with a bit more pathos. Let’s linger a bit and let Goldie’s angst – y’know – emerge organically…
Of course, wall-to-wall role-playing and seamless character-switching is part of the currency of single (and in some cases, even dual) audiobook narration, and it would be disrespectful to my colleagues to suggest that it’s an easy thing. It’s not – rather, it’s something that’s challenging, but that we can’t wait to tackle. To convincingly tell a story so that the listener never needs to think about who is talking, but can instead abandon himself to the story, is a major accomplishment. It feels good to get it right.
Sometimes that means distinctive voice characterizations and accents. More often, it involves subtlety and a commitment to consistency throughout the book. Vocal mannerisms matter almost more than the sound of the voice of a particular character. I’ll never forget my first Audio Publishers Association Conference, in which a famous narrator gave her first law of men acting women’s voices: “It’s not about pitch.” Keeping that in mind, I have pitched up some women’s voices when it seemed appropriate for the character, but never relied on pitch alone to convey the entire person. Conversely, I have pitched down quite a few women characters – their total personality made it come out that way. And it worked.
But the chief reason I (and so many of my colleagues) have been able to accomplish this key task of storytelling is that I’ve had good mentors, and I have followed their advice. The keystone of preparing any book, for me, has been to cast each character in my mind as a specific person. Johnny Heller, narrator of more than 700 books and my first teacher (whose advice I still seek whenever I can), espouses this approach. Every character, whether she has two lines or 2,000, is associated in my mind with a person I know or have seen, or perhaps a famous actor or other celebrity. It can be an old friend; it can be a person I saw on the subway. The character doesn’t necessarily behave exactly like his avatar. But thinking about that model for the character puts me in mind of one or more attributes that will automatically have me vocally interpreting the character -- sound, pace, accent, age, you name it – consistently with the author’s truth.
For me, casting a book is the hardest part of preparation. And of course, it’s the most important. I always schedule extra time so I can get it right. When I do, narration – including managing whole gaggles of characters – is a huge pleasure.
My hope is that the listener enjoys it even more than I do. If they’re going to give me the opportunity to do something I have loved to do since I was a small child, I owe them that much.