Voices and accents for your audiobook – how to choose the right narrator

5936204848_a498d5ee50_bRight now, my voice actor Sandy is in her recording booth, speaking like a bod. Lifeform Three, my second novel, is currently in production as an audiobook, so this week I went to an event in London hosted by ACX and the Alliance of Independent Authors. Audible president Jason Ojalvo and author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn were speaking, and they had some interesting points on the business of choosing and working with a voice actor. (For an introduction to how to work with ACX, including auditioning actors, look at this post.)

Male or female
So a female author or a male main character must need a certain gender of voice actor, right? (And if you’re crossing the gender divide, how do you choose?)

Actually, it’s less of a cut-and-dried rule than you’d think. Jason said he’d often had authors who’d specified they wanted a female voice, then when a male actor had auditioned it had been the perfect match – even in genres like romance, whose readership are very definite in their expectations.

Jason made the point that the book – or the author’s work in audio – might have a voice that’s independent of the voice of the author or the character; it is its own identity. We’ll come back to this.

Accents
When I originally looked for a voice actor, I specified a British accent, but as many of you probably know, the narrator I chose is from the US. Initially I got a lot of US actors auditioning because I was one of the guinea-pig authors when ACX launched in the UK – they hadn’t yet got a bank of UK actors to choose from. So I heard a smorgasbord of attempts to ‘do British’, some convincing and some not. But I soon realised it didn’t matter after a few minutes anyway. The accent was irrelevant. The interpretation of the book went deeper than a voice’s characteristic twang, or lack of it. What was actually important was the voice actor’s understanding of the work.

And Sandy, regardless of the flavour of her English, was the most in tune with the novel. She also liked a lot of books that I liked. I picked her.

ojalvoSame voice for all your books?
Jason said if you have a series, listeners expect the same voice throughout or it breaks the story world. Authors of standalone books, obviously, might search for new narrators each time. I’m happy with Sandy for both my novels even though they are different in tone – because she works well with my style and outlook.

Joanna has two series, so she cast a narrator for each. Funnily enough, we might have ended up with the same one, as the narrator for her dark crime series was one of the auditioners for My Memories of a Future Life! Small world.

Hunting for narrators
You’re not limited to only the voice actors who approach you – and indeed, many authors don’t find an ideal match that way. Jason encouraged authors to hunt around the ACX narrator profiles, listen to their samples and invite them to audition for yours. Or some authors do what I did – if you know a voice actor who’d be perfect, introduce them to the system.

Working with unfamiliar accents
Joanna, like me, is British, and ended up working with an American narrator. Once into the recording process she found there were pronunciations that were alien to her Brit-tuned ears but natural to the US narrator. What to do about them? Tomayto or tomahhto?

Before recordings start, you need to discuss this, and also tricky pronunciations such as character or place names. Sandy and I talked about it. I suspected there would be many more variations than I’d have be able to think of. If I’d decided ‘leisure’ couldn’t be ‘leesure’, I’d have then, for the sake of consistency, had to pull her up on words I never dreamed had a US difference until I heard them.

And the difference goes further than isolated words – sentence emphasis is also radically different. US English stresses the adjective in a phrase like ‘lying on a sticky mat’. UK English stresses the noun (UK: ‘on a sticky mat’, US: ‘on a sticky mat’).

jo

Joanna Penn, author entrepreneur

I didn’t want to stilt my narrator with unnecessary strictures so I asked her to pronounce her usual way. I’m glad, because there were hundreds of differences. Hundreds. It would have been madness. In any case, that didn’t matter. So long as the interpretation of the line was true, the emotion understood, the accent was irrelevant.

Joanna had also come to this conclusion, saying there’s a lot we need to leave to the narrator’s judgement and style. She intervened in place name pronunciations, but allowed everything else to go with the actor’s natural style and emphasis.

Having said that, an audiobook is a creative relationship. The voice actor is expecting you to guide them on  interpretation. Sandy and I spent several emails discussing how the bod characters in Lifeform Three should sound and what their individual characteristics were. I sent her short recordings of how they seemed in my own head as I wrote them, which she turned into polished performances. It was quite a feat for her – sometimes she had four or five characters in one scene and had to inhabit all those minds, as well as switching to thoughtful narration. For me it was easy because I wrote them. For her, it was mind-and-tongue gymnastics.

You can probably see why questions of ‘leesure’ versus ‘lezzure’ cease to be important. Forget them.

Don’t expect a drama performance
Jason pointed out that the audiobook isn’t a stage or film performance. It’s a reading – a quieter, more subtle business. Characters’ accents don’t need to be full-on impersonations, they are a hint. Passages of emotion don’t have to be performed, merely rendered so they bring to life what is already in the prose.

In prose, the writer has already done the job on the page. The voice actor is converting that into sound. It’s intimate; it’s not slaughtering the back row. It’s murmuring in your ears.

The voice that is the best conduit for your work
Ultimately, the best narrator is the right person to inhabit the book and bring it alive, from its lightest moments to its darkest corners. If you’re weighing up possible narrators, be prepared to revise what you imagined. If you thought the narrator should be British or male, but the more true interpretation, the one that gives you goosebumps, is US and female, that actor is the one to choose. The differences will vanish as soon as the listener gets into the story. After a minute or two, they won’t notice.

Since I released My Memories of a Future Life, some people have asked me why I chose an American, and indeed have mentioned it in reviews. Then they report that they got immersed. Your best narrator is the person who can inhabit the book, who can become its voice in the reader’s head and make them forget everything else.

You can find the finished audiobook here (US) and here (UK). And you can find out more about My Memories of a Future Life here.

mmaudioheads bigger

Thanks for the pic Michael Mol
Any tips or questions to add? Have you made an audiobook? If you listen to a lot of audiobooks, do you have any feedback on what makes a good narrator? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by Michael W. Perry on October 6, 2014 - 1:37 pm

    I listen to a lot of audio books and I agree. In most cases, it matters little what sex the reader is or any modest level of accent. What matters is that they’re easy to understand and can make enough distinction between characters to make them recognizable. Beyond that, it matters most that they understand the tale and tell it with appropriate intonations like a good story teller. It should never be a flat monotone.

    The exception would be for a first-person narrative. There it matters to have a narrator who fits the person telling the tale. For instance, a first-person narrative told by a Civil War soldier from the South shouldn’t be narrated by a woman with a posh English accent.

    ——-

    Aside: Authors seeking to give their characters particular accents would do well to look at the excellent selection of accent videos on Youtube. They’re fascinating and often hilarious.

    ——–

    One other factor. I recently listened to a book in which an otherwise good narrator had a quirky way of pronouncing one common word (I forget which). It was unusual enough and happened often enough that it became a distraction. That’s not good. Narration should be a quirk-free zone.

    Narration is like acting. A good actor disappears and you see the role they are play. In the same fashion, a good narrator disappears and you hear the tale itself.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 7, 2014 - 12:00 pm

      Hi Michael! Good points here. A skilled narrator will disappear, just like a skilled writer. We’re only aware of being engaged by the material, not the medium it’s being transmitted by.
      And thanks for those tips about the Youtube videos – never thought to look there for accenting experience. You obviously have a bit of a hobby there…

  2. #3 by Julie Holmes, author on October 6, 2014 - 1:52 pm

    Excellent post. Another thing for authors to remember is to make sure the voice actor knows how to pronounce local words such as city and town names. I just listened to one of Tami Hoag’s novels as an audiobook. The book was set in Minnesota, my home state, and I know Tami Hoag is a Minnesota author, though she no longer lives here. The voice actor mispronounced more than one town, making me cringe. I lost a little respect for the actor. She did a wonderful job, but someone along the way should have made sure the pronunciation of the local terms was accurate.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 7, 2014 - 12:01 pm

      Hi Julie – yes, place names were one of the instances where discussion and intervention was definitely needed. Foreign words too. If a pronunciation has variations, that’s one thing. But if it is done wrong, as you say, it pulls you out of the feeling of safety. You feel you can’t trust the actor. Just like factual errors in a story.

  3. #5 by philipparees on October 6, 2014 - 3:22 pm

    I have recently made two recordings, one a story set in South Africa with not only the necessary accent but circa 1950, so the dialogue needed to convey a different world in black/white relationship, hesitancy, aggression etc. I did not feel confident in farming it out to American reader who could not be expected to know any of that, and there was no money available to pay for it. The other is for a poetic portrait of the sixties and set in the Southern states with many characters, male and female, and dialect distinctions, Brooklyn and ‘Miama’ and elderly Jewish immigrant, each of whom have longish passages exclusively in those voices. I have a voice long past its sell-by date. I know the accents could have been much improved for the latter, but whether the poetic rhythms would have been better I’m not sure. They run in my head automatically where a reader would have had to manage both rhythm and accent(s).

    I wonder what a professional producer (with a budget) would have done instead? I am far from sure whether to try and proceed with Audible or whose opinion to trust. I’d be interested in views from others with similar complexities to consider, and how they solved them?

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 7, 2014 - 12:04 pm

      Hi Philippa! Your project certainly sounds like it has special challenges. I thought mine was difficult because of the story nuances, but the degrees of information in your dialogue create even more difficulty. As usual, you push the boundaries. I’d be interested to see an answer to your queries too.

      • #7 by philipparees on October 7, 2014 - 12:36 pm

        I hope there will be some suggestions Roz. It is so difficult getting far enough aware from the familiar ‘take’ to acknowledge a different one may be just as valid. I gather that Audible is not keen on added sound or short intervals of bridging music to break things up a little. On that note commiserations!

        • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 8, 2014 - 7:47 am

          I’m glad you mentioned music, Philippa, as this was also discussed. Actually, it’s not a rule made by Audible. It’s a general convention for audiobooks. Again, they’re not deemed to need any devices to break up the text. The text is what they’re all about.

  4. #9 by kareninglis on October 6, 2014 - 11:49 pm

    Thanks for such a thorough post, Roz – it’s especially useful as I missed the start of the meeting. And I love the piece of advice about reading not being a stage or film performance – it’s so true. I did once hear a reader doing this in an audio book and it really irritated as it got in the way of the story. I can think of nothing worse than someone trying to steal the thunder in this way

    I’ve already experimented with audio when recording the narration for my picture book app of Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep- and the just released eBook version which is in iBooks. The latter includes both narration and word highlighting. I’ve a mega blog post coming out on that in the next few days in case there are any picture book authors reading here.

    Creating Audio books out of The Secret Lake and Eeek! The Runaway Alien have been on my to-do list for the last year – and when the time comes I may yet opt to record The Secret Lake myself – watch this space!

    One thought I’ve had (and borne out by comments about my app) is that a US audience loves an English accent. This might be something to consider if you end up with two equally good narrators – one from the US and one from the UK. Though whether it would affect sales/recommendations I’m not so sure!

    Thanks again for a great post.

    K

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 7, 2014 - 12:09 pm

      Hi Karen – glad to have filled in the gaps for you! I’ll be very interested to see your piece on narration as I’m wondering about recording my own version of Nail Your Novel. Unlike my novels, it’s clearly in my voice with my personality, so narrating it myself makes sense. So I’m collecting any wisdom I can about the process.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. #11 by writeanne Anne Stormont on October 7, 2014 - 2:29 pm

    Roz, another very useful post. As an author of two novels, I’ve been considering ‘going audio’ with my second one. I’ve read up about it – including your introductory post, but wasn’t sure if it would work with my book. This is because I have two first person narrators, one female and one male and both are Scots (in the case of the female, highland Scots). However, this post goes some way to reassuring me it still might work. Thanks. I’ll investigate some more.

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 8, 2014 - 7:49 am

      Two first-person narrators? Of different genders? Tricky, but you’re probably still okay doing it as one actor with two slightly different tones.

    • #13 by writeanne Anne Stormont on October 9, 2014 - 2:11 pm

      Yes, I don’t believe in making things easy for myself. But what you say is encouraging. Thanks.

  6. #14 by Teddi Deppner on October 9, 2014 - 4:20 am

    Fantastic post, Roz. Glad I popped over to read it, even though I’m a way off from needing a voice actor for my yet-unpublished books.

    In some ways, your post even gave me some reminders about techniques for my own reading aloud. I sometimes get so into the scenes I’m reading that I end up hoarse from the shouting or whatnot. But really, I don’t need to go “all out” like that — just a hint of the screaming without the screaming itself would be sufficient.🙂

    For the curious, I’m currently reading aloud the Lord of the Rings to my children. I had such fun reading “The Hobbit” to them on our recent 2-day train trip across the U.S. — several people in neighboring seats got hooked into the story and told me they loved my storytelling. It reminded me that it might be fun to consider offering voice acting services professionally. Or at the very least, recording my own stories.

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