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Audiobook Narrator: Get To Know
Characters With This Simple Method

By John McLain
Voice Actor

So you've been hired to read a great new title by an audiobook publisher.
Of course, the first step is to read through the book beforehand.
And before you know it, presto! You'll meet a slew of brand new characters.
There’s nothing better than rich, memorable characters in a book.
Over the course of a long audiobook, recorded across multiple sessions and days, it's critical that the narrator continue to honor the choices that were made when we first "met" the character in the text.
In a title I narrated recently, Sharon Ewell Foster's The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses, I had many characters of all different ages, races, nationalities - even time periods.

As a voice actor, you'll be making many choices about these characters that will enable you to portray them when it comes to performing in the booth.
In some books, you may have a lot of characters - dozens or more - and they may reappear in the text at any time. You have to be ready to "bring them back onstage" for your listener.

Here's a fun little trick I sometimes use to not only develop characters initially, but also to help me recall the choices I made for them when they suddenly reappear 200 pages later.
I call it character sheeting.
It's fun and easy. It's done as part of your initial reading and study of the text, before recording begins.
And it's worth it. It's a whole lot easier to tell a story about a group of characters when you actually know them first!
Here's how it works.
When you begin your initial read-through, have some blank sheets of paper handy. I just grab some sheets out of my printer.
Also, keep some pens, pencils, markers, crayons, and the like nearby.
As soon as you "meet" a new character in the book, take a sheet of paper and write his/her/its name at the top in big, bold letters.

Then, study the clues that the author has given you about the character.
Hopefully, your author has provided many, but if not, this is a great way to get creative.
Next, simply begin doodling on the paper about the character.
Maybe you want to render a little sketch of the character.
Make the character sheet into a collage of everything the character is about.
Take note of things like:
  • What five items would they want if stranded on a desert island?
  • What is a hobby that they always wanted to try, but never have?
  • How would they answer these questions?
  • What is their very favorite article of clothing?
  • Do they have a favorite sport?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how would they rate their childhood? And so on.
Once you have your characters "sheeted," make voice acting choices for them based on what you now know about them.
Using your personal toolkit, you should have no problem creating unique, memorable performances.
What's more, if a character does pop back into view after a long absence, you can simply glance at that character’s sheet and poof, they are back in you mind in vivid color, helping you to maintain performance consistency throughout the audiobook.
Some additional notes:
1. Don't over-act the characters. Let your listener discover parts of the character for themselves in their own imagination.
2. Don't leave yourself out. As the narrator, you too are part of the magic in the mind of the audiobook listener. Make sure that you include some "you."
3. Remember that characters, like real people, can change. They can be affected by events that happen to them. Allow them to evolve with the story when appropriate.
Respect the author's choices first.
If your author has written a 15-page comprehensive description of a character, then honor those choices. They are there for a reason.

Most of all, remember that you have been tasked with telling a story. So tell it!

Happy narrating.
John McLain has been a full-time professional voice actor for two years, following a successful career in broadcasting spanning almost two decades. He is also a stage actor and life-long garage musician and songwriter. Most recently he narrated audiobook titles for Oasis Audio and Steerforth Press, and voiced commercially for Sonic and Mercedes-Benz. He and his wife Jan live in Phoenix.
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Comments (2)
Paul J. Warwick
10/24/2011 at 9:09 AM
Thank you for the tip. I'll use it on my next project, to truly "flesh" out the voices.
Pearl Hewitt
10/24/2011 at 2:42 AM
Hi John,

Great little article. I really like the idea of a sheet for each character. I usually have just one sheet that they are all listed on but I think I prefer your idea better.

I read mystery and suspense stories for Houston Turning Sight Into Sound Radio ( ) every week. The one hour show usually consists of short stories but they are often drawn from one book, such as Sherlock Holmes or Poirot. Now and again I do get characters that appear from time to time in more than one story.

As soon as I meet a new character in the story I write down his characteristics, the author's description and I also describe how I'm using my face or mouth to create that voice. For example, my Sherlock Holmes has a tenor voice, a floppy top lip and rolls his r's when speaking, as well as blinking a lot and always has a facial expression that he's in deep thought. Then I record a line from the book, using this voice and save it labeled as Sherlock Holmes.

That proved very useful recently because I had read a Sherlock Holmes book in 2009 and then started a new book of Holmes short stories again this year. It had been so long since I had read that character I couldn't remember how I'd portrayed him, so I looked back through my files, took a listen and looked at my notes. I instantly resurrected the character. I thought this was important especially when reading for my reading-impaired listeners. They would have remembered what my character sounded like and I was pleased to be able to provide continuity for them.

Let us have more of your pearls of wisdom in the future and thanks very much for your article.

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