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Acting for Narration

Updated: Jan 21

First Things First​

In the first article, I kept things general as more of an overview of the different things I think are important for narrators to know and focus on. But there's certainly more to talk about when discussing how to become an audiobook narrator. Sure, you know the heading, but I never told you how to pilot the vessel, so the boat goes nowhere. I'm going to try, and the key word here is try, to give you more actionable information from here on out.

It's Where You've Been, Not Where You're From

White drag queen standing in front of a make-up statio

People come to this sphere from all walks of life. I started as a classically trained singer, moved into chemistry, left the country to teach English in South Korea, and met some key friends there that helped me get started in this industry.


Wherever you are here from, welcome! You are the sum of your knowledge, beliefs, and experiences, and all of that is valuable and beautiful. Don't leave out parts of yourself because you think they won't be helpful. Bring your whole self into the process, and trust that the process will highlight the parts of you that connect with the character. The more of yourself you put into your characters, the easier it is to make them more realistic and the more you have to play with in the scene.

Consider getting involved in your local acting community. An acting community can help you work on your skills while also helping you build connections to the different kind of work you are hoping to get into. On top of which, if you want feedback on where you're at in your journey or help with improving specific skills, they will likely be willing to help you or know someone who could. What skills should you be working on? I'm glad you asked.

Acting for Narrators​

Young ginger girl reading a book to a black boy, indian boy, and two white girls

When thinking about using techniques like acting as a narrator, it's important to know, in every fiber of your being, that when you are reading, you are playing a character. If you're narrating an autobiography, you are playing the author. If you're the narrator for a novel, you are playing a storyteller, plus all the subsequent characters that come up over the course of the book.

The reason this frame of reference is important, is that for the people you are portraying to feel real (this definitely includes the narrators and authors), they need to feel like they existed before you started speaking. People are made up of the life they lived and the past they had before you met. This past gives a person nuance and complexity.

When your audience meets your character, you don't want to give them time to question their realness. You want them to be drawn in, enraptured by the beautiful web you spin for them as soon as they hear your voice. This takes a few different things.

 

1. Ground the Character

It is important to remember that, if the character is not one you sound believable portraying, the audience is likely to lose any semblance of immersion the moment they hear your voice. When you're reading a book, however, you can't just ask the author to take that character out for you. They're part of the story, so they need to be in it, and they need to feel real.

Sandy wasteland

Real is a relative term, especially in the world of narration. In a post-apocalyptic world filled with sand-swimming, killer clownfish, the baseline is going to be a bit different than 1990s-era rural Idaho. Figure out what the context of your story is, then build the characters' world out in your mind. How would you react if killer clownfish were a run of the mill encounter for you? What would be abnormal and striking to your character?

Grounding the character requires figuring out what their typical environment looks like. In some ways, it is very similar to the world building that an author would do to prepare for writing their story, however, it is equally important for you to do, so that you can figure out exactly what emotions fit the context. Build the world. If you have a mind palace within which you can keep the world picture-perfect, do that. If you need to take notes to help yourself remember the details, then do that too. Whatever helps you remember the greater context of the story when narrating.


Three black professionals discussing a business plan

It's important to note that grounding the character isn't only important when you are in a fantastical setting. It's just as important when reading a business or self-help book.  Knowing what world the author comes from will help you figure out what their day to day looks like. Who are they addressing? What is the book's target outcome? Remember, your narrator is just as much of a character portrayal as any other.

2. Make Choices

The actors reading this know this phrase well. In a nutshell, it means figure out what kind of experiences would have led the character to this point in their life (The moment we meet them as an audience member), then fill in the potential gaps with decisions you have made about their past.

Actor performing the "Alas poor Yorick" speech from Hamlet

For example, let's say you're playing a young person named Romeo who is at this very moment in love with another person named Rosaline. The author has made it clear that this Romeo fellow has a similar social stature to Rosaline, but their families are currently embroiled in a blood feud. What the author has not told us, is why Romeo and Rosaline's families are mad at each other in the first place, or why Romeo is into someone from a family he was raised to despise.

 

These are examples of places you should make choices. You shouldn't decide that Romeo doesn't actually like Rosaline, because the author has already made it clear Romeo does.  Nor can you decide that Romeo is a poor commoner, as Romeo is explicitly nobility. However, you can decide that Romeo's great-great-grandparent tossed a banana peel out of the window, which Rosaline's great-great-great-grandparent slipped on, fell into the local river, and was subsequently drowned.

This would be what I call a fun choice. Not in the sense that I find casual death funny, but because it doesn't give you any emotional information. It's unlikely that Romeo knows this, so you wouldn't have much to use for your acting.

Asian woman climbing a cliff over the ocean

A more useable choice might be that Romeo is addicted to danger, and is driven to pursue moments where that need is fulfilled. This would give you a chance to look through the script for places that you funnel that intention into. And when you do, the audience is going to feel it, because it comes from a real place. It would be even better if you yourself are addicted to danger (I mean, not necessarily for your emotional or physical health), because then you would know what drives a person to pursue that addiction and could more easily identify moments where that need is present.


Basically, try to root the text in a real desire or drive, and then connect that to needs and wants you've really experienced. The more specific the choices, the more grounded in reality you make the character, and the more real that character feels to the audience.

3. Construct your Characters

Asian girl constructing a robot

So, you understand choice-making. You have the greater context of the book locked in your mind. Now you need to build your characters. In a larger narrative, it will be important to figure out who your characters are and what relationships they have with the other members of the story. It is a very good idea to have all of this written down somewhere, especially if there is a large cast of characters.

Regardless of how many characters make up the story, you need to ask yourself the following questions (and yes, you need to do this for every character):

Young latinx woman asking, "Who even am I?"
  • Who am I? 

    • Knowing your characters' background can give you a lot of ideas to work with. For example, a smoker would have a huskier voice. By contrast, an accountant might be more monotone with over-pronounced words. Just make sure that the choices you make here are in line with your author's vision. 

  • When am I?

    • You will likely have covered this in the grounding step, however there are definitely times when a specific character's timeline doesn't line up with the primary narrative. Make sure you are tracking this so that you can line up the narrative context appropriately.​

  • Where am I?

    • Get specific with this. If the context is real-world, use real world accents to ground the character. This is a good time to ask your author where their characters are from and what kind of accent they should have. Oftentimes, in fantasy settings, authors have very specific​ ideas for how different regions of their world speak. Make sure you know where characters hail from in-world, so that you can voice them correctly and consistently.​



A young black boy planning total chess-board domination
  • What do I want and why do I want it?

    • This could be general, like, "I'd like to gain more power," or more specific, like "I wish for the world to know just how awesome the three-toed sloth is so that they will do their best to protect it from extinction." The more specific this is, the more realistic the character will feel.

Make sure that, throughout all of these steps, the intentions of the character are at the forefront of your mind. Generally speaking, people want something when they speak. It may be to elicit a reaction, get something valuable, or even help the person they are speaking to. Characters don't always have to want something selfish, but the majority of the time, they do want something. This something can change by the line, so be certain you're paying attention to it.

This may feel like a lot, but remember, a lot of these will be quick and general, as non-reoccurring characters may only have a line or so. Just make sure you've thought about it so that you can create nuanced and believable characters.

As an aside, if you're ever having trouble building the differences between characters, check out this awesome video by Darren McStay of Improve Your Voice.

4. Acting is Reacting

Young black boy looking at his cake thinking, "Holy sh** is this for me?? Wait, am I allowed to say sh**? Clearly not, they keep censoring it"

This a phrase that's thrown around a lot in the acting world. Basically, acting should not happen in a vacuum. You should listen to what the other actor or character is saying in the scene and respond to it. Otherwise, you sound incredibly confusing, for one, and will likely come across as rehearsed, instead of believable.​

The same is true in a narration context, except that you are likely going to be playing both characters. So, you need to make sure that you hear what the first character is saying with the second or third character's ear. If you don't, the audience will feel it. Instead of hearing a conversation between two people, you will just sound like a person in a booth reading a story aloud. While you are just a person in a booth reading a story aloud, it's your job to help the audience forget that. That takes reaction.

Look for specific words or ideas that are important to the character listening. How does this affect their, "What do I want and why do I want it?" How does it affect the intention they use when responding? Use these answers to educate your subsequent reaction so that you can portray the character's intentions accurately.

That's a Wrap

Acting takes work. You need to take time to develop characters that are nuanced and believable so that your story is engaging. As a beginning voice actor or narrator, this can be difficult, but as you practice different techniques, it will become increasingly second nature to you. And this will make the stories you read more enjoyable.

"Ah yes, this is what it means to be a serious actor," a middle-aged white actor thinks as he stands in front of his class holding a mediocre script

Speaking of joy, have fun with this process! There are a lot of steps, but if you derive happiness and pride in the work, you are much more likely to help the audience have fun listening. Now get out there and start voicing some characters!

I do my best to read every comment posted, so if you have an idea about any new topics of discussion or have questions about the article, definitely post them below and I'll do my best to get to them quickly!

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