2:45 pm EST, December 3, 2018

Audiobook narration: How the narrator can either make or break a book

One way to enjoy books is to listen to them. We take a closer look at the importance of audiobook narration and the nuances of voice acting within the craft.

When it comes to audiobook narration, the reader can either be transported to the world the author created, or they can come crashing back to reality with one misstep or mispronunciation. The narrators are there to help the reader suspend their disbelief and forget about the world around them, even if it’s just for an hour or two.

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It’s a heavy burden, to be the voice of a book and the only way to connect a listener to the source material. Telling stories aloud, such as oral history, goes back hundreds of years. Anyone who thinks that listening to audiobooks doesn’t count as reading doesn’t consider the fact that stories were originally passed down by word of mouth and not on paper.

This is why audiobook narration is so important. A narrator should heighten the experience for the reader, not inhibit it. Thinking back to the past, of epic poems read aloud and stories told around campfires at night to pass the time, the audience’s attention was rapt due to the performance. The same thing should be said about audiobook narration. It is a performance and voice acting is as diverse as any other kind of acting.

Audiobooks are a huge part of my life as a reader. I listen to audiobooks while I work. I’ve done it for almost 10 years, now, and I’ve gone through quite a few series. One that stands out the most to me is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale. It was the first series I listened to, bringing me into the world of audiobooks where I never turned back.

Some of my favorite series have amazing narrators, and I listen to them over and over out of comfort or when I hit a reading slump and I have no idea what to listen to next. The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stievfater is narrated by Will Paton, which is hands down one of my favorite audiobook series based on his accents and inflections based on who is speaking.

The Raven Cycle takes place in the mountains of Virginia and Will Paton does an amazing job differentiating the accents of the entire cast to the point where my roommate and I quote lines as he says them at each other. My favorite being his accents for Joseph Kavinsky and Adam Parrish.

Other favorites of mine are the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, the Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin narrated by Robin Miles, and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo narrated by a full cast.

six of crows

Six of Crows’ narration by Jay Snyder, Brandon Rubin, Fred Berman, Lauren Fortgang, Roger Clark, Elizabeth Evans, and Tristan Morris isn’t the only audiobook with a full cast, but is my favorite that I’ve listened to because of the way that the director went about it. Each main character, which there are six, has their own narrator for their point of view chapters. Not only does it make each character stand out more, but their narrator’s inflection during other characters’ lines is read based on how the point of view character feels about the one speaking.

For instance, Mattias doesn’t like Kaz, so whenever Kaz speaks in a chapter with Matthias’ point of view, Kaz sounds a lot harsher and meaner than he does in his own chapters. It’s brilliant and wonderful to listen to, and it gives even more depth to the series than there already is.

When it comes to enjoying an audiobook, the narrators can either make or break a book. If a narrator is good, they will heighten the experience of the listener, bringing them deeper into the world created where they forget they are even listening to a book at all. That being said, the opposite can also happen, where the reader is thrust out of their own imagination while listening because the narrator has broken the imaginary fourth wall somehow, making it difficult to connect the listener to the story.

For instance, it took me six months between listening to A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab and picking up a physical copy of A Gathering of Shadows because I couldn’t differentiate my (unfortunate) dislike of the narrator and if it was the plotline I disliked. Now, though, the Shades of Magic series is a favorite of mine because I gave it a second chance.

The same can be said for the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, whose narrator I didn’t like. My sister and I listened to Shadow and Bone on a road trip because she really liked reading it and I’d loved Six of Crows, but both of us found the narrator to be lacking. Unfortunately I haven’t had the time to go back and read it myself, so I’m not sure of my true feelings on this series.

On the other side of audiobook narration and making or breaking a book, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, which is narrated by Steven Crossley, is among the best narrations that I’ve listened to. It was a delight from start to finish with amazing inflections, accents, and overall voices that gave listening to it a sense of total immersion into the world Connie Willis created.

Sometimes audiobook narrations are done by actors, or celebrities who aren’t necessarily known for voice acting and narration. Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman was narrated by Armie Hammer, who plays Oliver in the movie adaptation. By Armie reading aloud the book, which is in the point of view of Elio and reads like that of a journal, brings about a feeling of intense intimacy which simply reading the novel doesn’t exude.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audiobook narration of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz was actually the first time I heard his voice, having not yet listened to In the Heights or Hamilton, so I was surprised at how soft spoken he was, which is perfect for both Aristotle and Dante. Lin brought a strong sense of emotion to his narration, which made me well up with tears throughout this coming of age novel about two boys coming to terms with their sexuality. I highly recommend this audiobook, if not the book in general if you haven’t gotten a chance to read or listen to it yet.

Neil Gaiman’s narration of some his own novels (such as Norse Mythology, Neverwhere, Stardust, and The Graveyard Book) makes listening more personal, bringing the listener deeper into the worlds he’s created.

By Neil reader his own book aloud, there is no mispronunciation of names which sometimes happens in audiobooks, especially if the narrator changes throughout a series and each has a different way of saying names. This happened in the Sword of Truth audiobooks by Terry Goodkind, which have five different narrators throughout the 12 book series.

When it comes to name pronunciation as a listener, it is important that the names remain consistent throughout because it pulls the listener out of the world. The different ways that the names Nicci and Cara were said, not to mention the differing accents used, were jarring when I listened from book to book.

Changing audiobook narrators mid series is understandable, but makes it hard for the listener because they grow used to how a character sounds or the tones that a narrator uses to differentiate who is speaking. Besides Sword of Truth switching narrators, Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books about Fitzchivalry Farseer are not only split into three separate trilogies despite them being about the same character, but there are three separate narrators as well.

Despite the Farseer trilogy, the Tawny Man trilogy, and the Fitz and the Fool trilogy all being from Fitzchivalry Farseer’s point of view, each is about a different time period in his life so it sort of makes sense that there are different narrators, but it would have been nice if it had remained consistent throughout the series. Elliot Hill, Paul Boehmer, and James Langton all did a good job as Fitzchivalry, but I’d have rather have listened to the same voice throughout.

That being said, with the length of Robin Hobb’s books alone, it’s no wonder there is more than one narrator. With the shortest being seventeen hours and the longest being almost forty along with the fact that there are twelve of them total, I’d be a little tired reading that much aloud myself.

I tend to listen to longer series because of the sheer amount of books I go through. The longer, the better, because I know I have time. Some of my favorite long series are Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson narrated by Michael Kramer, the Riyria Revelations by Michael Sullivan narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds, and the Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobb.

My favorite book series of all time is the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. For years, every year, I have re-listened to the books (I also re-read them every year as well). The audiobook narration that I started out with over 10 years ago was by Jeff Woodman. There is something about his voice that brings me plummeting into the world that Megan Whalen Turner so carefully cultivated. To me, Jeff Woodman is Eugenides. On Audible, though, the narration is by Steve West.

There is nothing wrong with his narration, except that he isn’t Jeff Woodman. When I’ve been listening to the same narrator for over 10 years, it’s difficult to shift gears and let another narrator take his place.

As of right now, buying Jeff Woodman’s narration of Queen’s Thief costs a pretty penny, but after some digging I’ve found his version on Overdrive for those who’d like to listen.

As readers and listeners, we all have our own likes and dislikes when it comes to not only plot, genre, and subject matter, but auditory opinions as well. Whereas I didn’t care for the narration of some books, others may have loved it. If anything, audiobook narration has a deeper hold over us because of the auditory input and it’s ability to make its way into our imagination.

We have more control over the shape that books take in our minds when we read them ourselves, but there is something captivating about listening to someone else read it that also leaves us room to dive deeper into our subconscious and make the fictional worlds our own in our minds.

Related: Natlie Dormer to narrate ‘Harry Potter: A History of Magic’ audiobook

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