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Portraying Lots Of  Characters?
Pull A 'Fast One' ... Keep It Simple

By Andy Bowyer
Voice Actor
November 29, 2011

Recently, when I wrapped up my first project for ACX (the Audiobook Creation Exchange) and learned that it passed muster with both the rights-holder and with Audible's quality control team, I have to say I was quite pleased.

And relieved! After all, having spent that much time on a project, no matter how confident I felt about the resultant audio quality, it was still nice to know it passed with flying colors. Whew!

After that, it's just a matter of time before it hits retail and I begin some very targeted promotional work. But that's another article for another day.
 
TALE OF TWO PROJECTS
 
Now as I work on another two projects (simultaneously), I realize that there's a comparison/contrast that must be made between the two.
 
One is a work that is presented in the first person. The second is presented in the third person.
 
There are stark differences between the two that transcend the narrative approach, and yet are so tied to it, that the difference is so subtle it could be missed.
 
A MATERIAL DIFFERENCE
 
And really, this difference could simply come down to the material itself.

Yet there's a sort of disconnect between the two approaches that begs to be noticed, and that is narrative voice.
 
For both of these productions, I'm using "my" voice as that of the narrator. To me, that seems intuitive enough on the surface.
 
As such, in the case of the first person narrative, the protagonist's voice is also "my" voice.
 
Of course that, in and of itself, presents subtle challenges.
 
IS IT OFF-LIMITS?
 
But for the third-person narrative, suddenly "my” voice is off-limits where applying it to any given character is concerned. Arguably.
 
After all, that's my choice and a rule that's made to be broken. I've listened to enough audiobooks to know that some narrators offer very little differentiation between characters and that the really good narrators can make it work.
 
But to me, storytelling needs to be a bit more dynamic than that.
 
IT'S MY CHOICE
 
Again: my choice. When I landed my first book narration gig by way of ACX, I immediately sent an email to my long-time "pen-pal” Jim Meskimen to share the news.
 
You probably know Jim from his incredible impressions, most notably his outstanding Richard III monologue viral video.
 
In my experience, Jim is not only insanely talented - I spotted this in the early 1990s - but an incredibly giving man and, dare I say, a good friend.
 
He's also narrated many audiobook titles and directed entire dramatizations that feature countless voices through his involvement with Stories from the Golden Age. In short, Mr. Meskimen knows his way around the realm of audiobooks.
 
SUCCINCT ADVICE
 
When I told Jim of my triumph in landing my first book gig, his reply was affirming and yet succinct.
 
I won't quote the entire message, but the primary bit that stuck with me.

He said, "Remember: Keep it simple."

"Simple," I thought. "Yeah, right. Simple."

For my first gig, which incidentally will not be my first to be released, the character voices all fell into place like the pieces of an age 4-8 jigsaw puzzle. Easy-peasy.
 
GETTING HARDER
 
But for the second, also by the way not the first that will be released, a third-person narrative with a dramatis personae that made my throat tighten up just at the thought of it, well, that was a completely different animal.

During the pre-read, I quickly found myself straining my brain for "voices." There are so many characters in this story!
 
It made me wonder how my audiobook role model, Jim Dale, was able to manage the Harry Potter series. Trust me, I've listened to all seven of those audiobooks more times than I can either count or should admit.
 
INSPIRING PERFORMANCE
 
But Mr. Dale's performance is so amazing, so easy to listen to. Well, I find it to be inspiring.
 
And I'll level with you: At times I've listened to those stories for the joy of the stories, and at others, in an effort to dissect his performance.
 
What is the "x-factor” that makes it resonate with me? Can I zero-in on how he did it? To this moment, the best I can offer is that he's just that good.
 
A THIRD STAR

Another one of my narrative heroes is the late, great, James Doohan, best known for his role as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott on the original Star Trek series and the subsequent movie franchise.
 
James narrated a handful of Star Trek audiobook adaptations.

I'll grant you, they were abridged and featured "enhanced sound effects and an original score," but that had no impact on the caliber of Mr. Doohan's incredible work.
 
His narratives were incredible and his characterizations were amazing. Now I'll grant you that he had a distinct advantage where many of the voices were concerned.
 
After all, he lived Star Trek in a personal and meaningful way for much of his life. It's natural that he should have a good take on the characters he was portraying.
 
NO IMITATIONS
 
But the funny thing is this: When he did Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock, he didn't try to imitate William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy.
 
He did his take on those characters. He did his take on all the characters. And it was:
 
Brilliant.
 
Effortless.
 
Simple.

When I realized this, and then went back and listened to Jim Dale's take on Harry Potter again - really listened - I realized something. 
 
WE'VE BEEN TRICKED
 
Mr. Dale, though a two-time Guinness World Record holder for his work on the Harry Potter series - for having created and recorded 146 separate character voices for a single book - actually pulled a "fast one" on us.
 
In some cases, if you really dig down into the performance, you'll realize that he wasn't really doing - in every case - a separate voice for some of the characters, but was presenting his own voice with a different attitude, or inflection, or just a slight lilt.

It was his voice, just a little different.
 
No over-the-top differentiation, no obvious change in dialect, but a simple attitude.
 
Simple.

Brilliant.

DO IT LIKE THE BEST
 
As I've delved hip-deep into work on what I believe to be my most challenging job to date (yes, the "third-person narrative" I spoke of earlier, just for clarification), I've taken a clue from each of those men. 
 
I've played it closer to the cuff, tried to present an attitude in some cases, more than a radically different voice than my own.
 
And so far? It's working for me.
 
And I couldn’t be more relieved.
 
"Remember: Keep it simple," Jim Meskimen told me.
 
SAGACIOUS ADVICE
 
More sage advice I have rarely, if in fact ever, received.
 
Thanks Jim. Or should I say, thanks "Jims"?
 
I'm putting on a hat right now, just so I can take it off and honestly say, "My hat's off to you all."

ABOUT ANDY ...
 
Andy Bowyer is a nose-to-the-grindstone voice actor who has been cheerfully "saying words" for a diverse clientele for over 20 years. He also participates as a member of the SaVoa Advisory Board, and plays a mean game of backgammon.

Web: www.abvoices.com
Facebook: http://facebook.com/abvoices
Email: abVoices@gmail.com

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Comments (6)
Jim Conlan
11/30/2011 at 6:04 PM
If another "Jim" can weigh in... You've just spoiled any chance you might have had to impress chicks: you are absolutely right that you don't need separate voices for all characters - especially minor ones. After all, who will remember? There are exceptions, though: I'm doing Moby Dick for Cherry Hill right now, and a single chapter features lines spoken by sailors identified as being from about 30 different countries. Of course, these are accents from about 150 years ago - so maybe nobody will challenge my pronunciation!
Elizabeth Holmes
11/30/2011 at 2:59 PM
Wow, Andy

This is *really* helpful. THANK YOU! I'm a big Jim Dale fan too. It's fascinating to review his work from this perspective.

For female versatility, let's not forget Golden Voice narrators Barbara Rosenblat and Davina Porter. I can tune in at just about any point in one of their audiobooks, and know who's talking. Their characterizations are always subtle, but distinct.

Best,
Elizabeth Holmes
Donna Postel
11/30/2011 at 12:40 PM
Well said, Andy! I love the way you found the common thread among your three 'mentors.' Keep on being Brilliant. Effortless. And Simple!
All the best to you,
Donna
Melanie Haynes
11/30/2011 at 9:54 AM
Very good information, Andy! Thanks!
http://www.melaniehaynes.com
Pearl Hewitt
11/30/2011 at 8:37 AM
Great article Andy,

Jim Dale has been an inspiration to me since the beginning and now, after reading your article I think I need to make a point of listening to your work, too.

Thank you. :)
Roy Wells
11/30/2011 at 7:22 AM
Great article, Andy. Thanks for taking the time to really lay all this out. We've got to let the reader (listener) picture the characters, while we as narrators need only give subtle hints as to their identities.
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