Anyone can read a book aloud using their normal voice. But one of the pleasures, and challenges, of audiobook narration is coming up with distinctive voices for each character—what Dickens called “doing the Police in different voices.” When done right, these voices enliven the narrative and make it easier for audiences to follow since they can instantly tell who’s speaking. Skilled voice actors convey enormous amounts of information through speech.
Crafting unique voices is especially impressive when one considers just how many characters there are in some of our most beloved novels. The Dickens novel quoted above has at least 36, at a conservative estimate, and others more than that. The Harry Potter books forced Jim Dale to come up with 134 different voices, I’m told, and A Game of Thrones took 224 (though complaints about characters switching accents midway through the books suggest there may be a ceiling). How do narrators keep all these voices straight?
Every narrator has their preferred system. Still, most make extensive notes before entering the studio. (Narrators have all heard about unprepared readers learning about a character’s foreign accent on p. 632.) Doing your homework ensures that characters speak in an appropriate accent. “I’d never randomly give someone a Birmingham accent if it wasn’t in there,” says Tania Rodrigues, who has narrated works by Kiran Desai, David Mitchell, Arundhati Roy, Kamila Shamsie, Jeanette Winterson, and numerous others. Like many narrators, she turns the novel into a script: “For fiction, I’ll mark up all the characters’ speeches, so it becomes like a script for me.” Overlaying the script with colored highlights makes it is easy to tell at a glance who is speaking. “I colour code them so when you’ve got conversations you know who’s speaking when,” explains Tania. The pages of her script are certainly more dazzling than the average book’s pages. So what does an audiobook narrator’s script actually look like?
Here’s a case where showing is definitely better than telling. Tania has generously agreed to share one of her scripts with the Audiobook History blog. See for yourself how a veteran narrator navigates her way through a crowded cast of characters in the following excerpt taken from Judith Eagle’s The Secret Starling:
Credit: The quotations above were taken from Tim Dowling, “‘Your Throat Hurts. Your Brain Hurts’: The Secret Life of the Audiobook Star,” Guardian (November 16, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/16/throat-hurts-brain-hurts-secret-life-of-audiobook-stars-tim-dowling?CMP=share_btn_tw.