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Narrating Fiction: The Voice Isn't Everything

It’s understandable that, when you are narrating a work of fiction, you want to make the characters distinct. Sometimes, in the course of back-and-forth dialogue, it can get pretty confusing for a listener to keep track of who’s talking. So the narrator naturally thinks first about distinctions of voice – pitch, tone, enunciation, and so on. There may be subtleties of accent as well, not to mention vocal quirks – if you really want to get creative.

I don’t disagree with the importance of vocal distinctions. But I don’t think that’s where the narrator should start. I think the real distinctions between characters are in their personalities. And great differentiation can occur in this area, regardless of how distinctive the vocal qualities are.

The “Character of the Character”

Listen to a sample from some of the more popular audio-book narrators, and you may be surprised at how they approach characters. In some cases you may hear relatively little vocal distinction. Instead, they seem to brilliantly capture the “character of the character.” Some characters speak boldly, some hesitantly. Some speak haughtily, others timidly, others matter-of-fact (-ly?). Even apart from differences in pitch and tone, a child may have a lot more energy in speaking than her parent. And an older person may not really “sound” old, but they may be inclined to talk more slowly, more deliberately, perhaps even more whimsically.

Start with the Personalities

So when I work with someone who is new to narration, my advice is to first approach the story from the personalities of the characters. Is this one basically an optimist or a pessimist? Is that one angry all the time? Is she a control-freak? Is he a submissive wimp? Are these two brothers constantly bickering with each other? Is the older guy frustrated or hopeful or resigned? Look for clues in the author’s description of the character. (Hint: you might need to read ahead a bit to find full information.)

Starting with these personality traits will guide you in choosing an actual voice for the characters. They will also help you when the characters interact; because we all know that people act differently depending on whom they’re interacting with.

I hope that this is especially encouraging news to those who would be fiction narrators, but aren’t sure they have the vocal range for it. You may not need it.

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