Audiobook Week: What Makes A Good Narrator?

28 06 2012

Who are your favorite narrators and why? What do you look for in a narrator? Have a preference between male or female narrators?

As someone who has listened to as many audiobooks as I have, you develop certain pet peeves. Yet, I’m attempting to stay positive for Audiobook week, so I am going to talk to flip it around a bit and call it my narrator pet preferences. I think this post will serve two purposes. First for listeners and fellow bloggers, when I do review an audiobook these are things I look for and the terms I apply to these aspects. Secondly, for narrators, when I critique your performance in a way that can be seen as negative. Typically it is because of one of these issues. Often times, I am not saying your performance is bad, but it could have been better for me as a listener if these things were achieved.

It should be noted that I am in no way an expert. I am a listener. Narrators have directors, producers, groupies and hanger-ons who probably give them better advice than me. So, take these bits of advice from a novice listener for what they are. When you are recording a book, ask your self, "What Would The Guilded Earlobe Do?" Then chide yourself for getting distracted.

1. Find A Distinctive Voice:

While this applies most to First person narration, it can also include third person as well. Most narrators have what I call a “default narrative voice.” This is the voice you typically hear when they are reading Third Person Prose. Yet, often, when reading first person tales, their default narrative voice doesn’t necessarily fit with the main character. This is when a good narrator creates a distinctive voice. Let’s face it, if your main character is a New York City early 1800’s roughabout, then he or she probably shouldn’t sound like a professional voce over artist. There are times when a narrator actually enhances the character development of a story by creating a distinctive character voice. There are some narrators who are simply amazing. If you have listened to Nnedi Okafor’s Who Fears Death you may be surprised to learn that Anne Flosnick is not a young African girl living in Post Apocalyptic Kenya, and neither is MacLeod Andrews, narrator of the wonderfully dark Sandman Slim series, a 90’s era punk who just escaped the darkest pits of hell.

2. Flavor

This is a term I use a lot when discussing the overall feel of an audiobook. When you eat chicken, you want the protein rich avian flesh substance to taste like chicken. When a book takes place in China 3000 years in the future, the audiobook shouldn’t feel like its taking place in The Valley in 2012. There are many ways to achieve flavor, through the proper use of accents, distinctive vocal styling, rhythm and pacing. I think this is one of those aspects of an audiobook that is part preparation and part instinct on the narrator. If you want examples of excellent use of flavor by narrators, check out Phil Gigante in Throne of the Crescent Moon and Cassandra Campbell in A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True.

3. Consistent Choices

Narrators need to make a lot of choices when narrating a book. Often times these choices are not just about what works best for a novel, but also what will highlight the narrator’s strengths and downplay their weaknesses. The most important pieces of advice I can give on this topic is, first, know yourself and second, stay consistent. If you are going to read a third person account that centers on a Irish character with an Irish accent, then you should continue that trend when voicing perspectives involving Chinese, Lithuanian or Venusian characters. I reviewed one audiobook where the narrator read the female characters dialogue with a female voice, but her internal monologue with a male voice. Don’t do this. It makes me sad and a bit confused. Two narrators that always make smart consistent choices are Bronson Pinchot and Katherine Kellgren.

4. Don’t Be Riddley Scott

I love action films. Heck, I love action. But when I watch action movies I like to see the action. I cannot stand Riddley Scott’s extreme closeups during action scenes that muddles the ability of the audience to follow what is going on. Narrators sometimes like to speed up their reading of action scenes, to increase the urgency and excitement. This is affective if done right, but some narrators lose control of the pace, and the action becomes muddled. Some narrators manage to slow down the pace of the action, yet still display the same sense of urgency that the speedier narrators are attempting. Two narrators that always help me visualize the action, no matter how intense, are Ray Porter and Hillary Huber.

5. Why You So Serious?

I tend to read a lot of science fiction. I love me some strange and weird characters.  Big tentacle monsters, fuzzy cat like sentient aliens, fallen angels, demons, creatures from Mazzugalh 5 in the Delta Quadrant, all these characters make me happy. What I really like is when I realize these characters are making the narrator happy too. I love when you can tell that a narrator is having fun. It comes out in their choices, in the wonderfully weird character they create. You guys might not know this, but we listeners can hear that sly smile on your lips. I love when a narrator just goes all out. If the script calls for over the top, go for it. Let’s face it, Oliver Wyman makes me laugh on a regular basis, whether he is voicing my favorite loveable serial killer Serge Storms, or the cast of crazy creatures in Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International. And, I challenge anyone to listen to Khristine Hvam’s narration in A Beautiful Friendship and not want a Tree Cat. It cannot be done! One little secret, when you are having fun, I’m more likely to have fun when writing my reviews, and my fun reviews tend to be my best and most popular reviews, even if they are about sexy dragons.

6. Know Who You Are

This topic is a bit more controversial. Well, controversial in the fact that it resulted in my only negative interaction with a narrator. Casting is quite important for the listener. Now, I understand that narrators have little if any control over casting, and they have families to raise and cats to feed so they can post funny pictures of them on the internet.  Yet, make smart choices when taking on a role. More often than not when you are miscast in a role, the casual listener will blame you. If you choose a role that doesn’t suit you, it probably will result in bad reviews, and more importantly, one bad listen may keep a consumer from buying future audiobooks you narrate. Nobody but internet trolls and snooty pipe smoking critics like bad reviews. Two narrators that make very wise decisions on what roes are appropriate to them are Wil Wheaton and Grover Gardner. And yes, I know one of the reasons this is is because they are able to make these decisions, but it’s still true.

I love narrators. I have done many things with narrators by my side. I like writing good reviews and praising your performances to the heavens and petitioning the government for a national narrator holiday. Today I talk a bit more about the relationship between narrators and the listeners in my review of Ken Scholes Lamentations. Make sure you check it out. There will be a test.

Don’t forget to check out all my narrator interviews this week. Today’s interview features the awesome Khristine Hvam.



7 responses

28 06 2012

I can understand why your “Know Who You Are” topic might be controversial but it is so very true and I hadn’t really thought about it before. I can only think of one time I listened to a new-to-me narrator in a book that didn’t match their style at all and then went on to try another book they narrated.

28 06 2012

Thanks for this thoughtful and well-articulated post. Although we can’t change the essentials of our instrument, I completely agree that it’s the narrators job to match the “voice” of the author in one’s narration.
I personally have sent back two books to publishers once I realized I was really wrong for the narration. It was a hard decision, and one I can’t afford to do often, but I know it was appreciated by the publisher.
I am inspired by your post to take more risks in my choices! Sometimes this can backfire – but what’s the fun in being safe?

28 06 2012

Thanks for your enriching comments. i especially like what you said about flavor and consistency. here are my own answers:

28 06 2012
Tanya Patrice

Absolutely true! I’m quite the novice, but in one book I listened o recently, the narrator’s voice was gruff, strong & manly – which I thought was a bad choice to play a whiny 17 year old kid. I kept getting distracted by the voice and it impacted my enjoyment of the book.

28 06 2012
DevourerofBooks (@DevourerofBooks)

You’re so right about our ability to hear that sly smile, I LOVE when I can hear that.

29 06 2012
Jennifer Conner (@LitHousewife)

This post is a gem, Bob. Your “Don’t Be Riddley Scott” advice is spot on. During those kinds of scenes, my mind is racing a million miles a minute. There is no need for the narrator to do the same thing. In fact, when the narrator paces them just right, they make it safe for me to have my own reactions because I know I won’t miss a thing – even when I want to (The Last Werewolf. Damn you, Robin Sachs! There was definitely things in there I wanted to miss!).

I also like your sly smile comment. Those experiences are the best. The audiobook that sticks in my mind is Paul Is Undead. I could tell very clearly that the author Alan Goldsher and Simon Vance were having as much fun with that book as I was even before all the Twitter fun. The opposite is also true, and led very well into your topic about knowing yourself. If the narrator doesn’t want to be there, why would I?

29 06 2012
hillary huber

such an insightful posting. you bring up an interesting point between first and third person – first person narrate obviously presents a character choice. but narrators mustn’t forget that third person narrative does as well… the omniscient narrator also has a point of view and while i always like to start from my neutral, natural voice, the essence of the story must come through in the third person character as much as the first. does this make sense??

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