Audiobook narration is a huge genre for any voice-over artist. It’s interesting and fun and I, personally, love getting to read longer narrations – getting paid to tell stories? DREAM. COME. TRUE. I mean, I read for fun on my downtime anyway, making it part of my job is just icing on the cake.
But reading for an audiobook is a wee bit more complicated than reading yourself to sleep at night. It’s a performance for an audience, a way to bring the book to life off the page and it’s a serious responsibility to the work the author has created. An 800-page fantasy novel with 50+ characters can be extremely challenging if you’re not following any sort of organized method to keep your characters consistent.
If you’re headed into the audiobook narration world unawares or without a plan, you might be tempted to give up on the whole genre after your first project if you don’t have a positive experience. I urge you to give it another chance – work smarter, not harder. Get a plan together and don’t shy away from the challenge. Creating characters is not only super fun, but a real selling point to authors – they want someone to breathe life into their books, not read them like a robot.
You’ve got the acting chops AND the voice-over experience. It’s time to act like a boss and get paid to tell stories.
Get a Character List
I always ask authors for a complete character list before I start any long narration. I need to know who’s related to who, relevant back story and character origin information, gender, and age. These are non-negotiable. If an author is hesitant to provide this, stress kindly that knowing this ahead of time will ensure you’re able to create consistent characters for their listeners to enjoy the book. It will improve the overall quality and, in turn, sales.
Next, print out the list and keep it handy with a pencil when you record. I don’t typically print out longer manuscripts (gotta save the trees!), but I always print out the list so I can reference it easily while reading the manuscript from my phone or tablet in the booth. Every time a new character appears in the text, I create the voice on the spot and jot down a few notes I can refer to later to keep the voice consistent later on.
Before we get into specifics, remember that first and foremost you’re creating a character-based who the author has created. Use the character’s personality and temperament as the ultimate guide for how they sound — your acting skills are incredibly important here and should guide you above all.
But if you’re needing nitty-gritty specifics for creating unique voices for each character, here are the top things I make sure to take notes on and differentiate from voice to voice.
Does the character speak with a high, low or medium pitch? Varying these among your characters (especially your main protagonists and antagonists) helps them sound different immediately to a listener’s ear, which makes it easier to follow the story even before the text tells them who’s speaking.
How do they speak? Roughly? Lightly? Crisp and clear? Occasionally an author will write something about the character’s voice the first time they speak in the story. Always take note of this and incorporate it into how you create the character’s voice.
Does the character have an accent? Obviously, this is incredibly important, and you need to keep it consistent. A few accents peppered throughout a novel are both fun to narrate and great for audiences to recognize the voices easily. Plus, it’s always a fun acting challenge to learn a new accent for a project!
How quickly does a character speak? If they’re a nervous sort of character, maybe they say everything a bit faster than the people around them. If they’re a bit older maybe they speak a bit slower.
Having all of this information at your fingertips will help immensely in keeping characters consistent.
Character Audio Roster or Album
If you have an extremely large cast of characters (cough, the previously mentioned fantasy novel, cough) you may want to call in the big guns and create an audio character roster or save individual character samples. For books with less than 20 characters, the list with my notes is usually sufficient for me to create recognizable and unique character voices, but recently I had a project that was too much for even that.
I worked with my producer to create an exhaustive character reference MP3 that I could listen to when I needed to recreate a character from 300 pages ago. This isn’t my typical method, but it was extremely helpful for that particular project – you might want to use it at some point too.
Or perhaps, instead of scanning through one mp3 as needed, you may want to create a “Character Album” with 15-30 second snippets of each character as separate tracks. That way you can reference them easily when you need a quick refresher.
Whatever method you choose will save you a lot of time and frustration. So when you’re in the throes of a long narration, cursing yourself for signing up for this ridiculously long project with such extensive editing, or confusing pronunciations, or funny names, or just too many darn characters, remind yourself how fun your job truly is. You get to read professionally! You’re telling stories and creating characters – it is truly the best job in the world. Stay organized, find the joy in creating each and every voice, and bring that story to life like the enthusiastic, consummate professional, gosh-darn amazing voice-over artist that you are.