When you read, do you hear voices in your head?

One of the reasons I enjoy audiobooks so much, aside from their role in alleviating my commuting boredom, is due to the interpretation given to the text by a good reader/narrator. Often actors and performers, these good narrators not only give texture and inflection to the narrative, but also tend to put on voices to distinguish all the characters.

One rather memorable series — Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy — even used individual actors for all the dialogue, separate from the narrator.

It occurred to me today, as I listened to a narrator put on a high squeaky voice for a talking cat, use jaded disingenuous intonations for a shady politician, and adopt various other different voices for a cast of larger-than-life characters, that maybe — if the author describes the voice of a character as deep, or croaky, or a ‘light tenor’, or husky, or sultry etc — some readers fill in these blanks for themselves in their heads?

I don’t, you see.

When I read, I ‘hear’ very little variation in tone, unless the dialogue is written in a specific way that is very evocative of, say, a blustery Englishman who used to hunt elephants in Africa. In such cases I may adopt an archetypal voice in my head for that character.

Otherwise, I have this single inner voice that is ‘man’ and another that is ‘woman’… These voices speak with neutral accents and are largely unremarkable.

This highlights how important it is for authors to work on their characters’ dialogue and make sure characters speak with individual voices to help them come alive in the reader’s mind — or inner ear. For readers like me, it’s simply not enough to state what they sound like once and expect me to fill in the gaps. (For example, I would never imagine a squeaky voice in my head, no matter how many times I was reminded.)

The question of accent I also find interesting. I guess I would assume most readers would ‘hear’ characters speak in an accent close to their own, unless the dialogue was very well written to suggest otherwise. Even if you tell me a novel is set in the USA, I’m going to hear a neutral Australian accent in my head (not a really broad one).

Given this, I find it fascinating when you look at two of the more recent grand fantasy epics on our screens — the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Game of Thrones Series.

In the case of LOTR, the cast comprised actors from the USA, UK, NZ and Australia (and probably elsewhere), yet all spoke with pseudo-English accents (mostly). Why was this? And then the same thing with Game of Thrones. Is a pseudo-English accent the accepted accent for epic fantasy? Why? Is it because they’re largely derived from the European medieval archetype?

I confess I would probably find it jarring to hear US accents in both those productions, but then I’m not American. To me, the pseudo-English/neutral accents seemed very fitting.

All this has me intrigued and I’m really interested to have some discussion here on this blog. Do you ‘hear’ different voices and accents in your head when you read? How much variation do you ‘hear’ and does it come naturally or do you have to work at it?


12 thoughts on “When you read, do you hear voices in your head?

  1. Both.
    I think.
    Some voices are distinctive, while some are generic “girl” or “boy”. But I’ve never really paid attention. And for what it’s worth, the pseudo-English accent they used in LOTR was perfect from an American’s perspective, as well. Maybe because Tolkien was British, so I’ve always imagined the books that way?


    1. I’ve never really paid attention either — until now. Sounds like we may be similar…

      I’m inclined to think people identify LOTR with pseudo-English accent more because of the connection with British/European history than author nationality, but that’s my take. I guess Game of Thrones continues in a sort of epic fantasy tradition… (because otherwise how would you explain the accent treatment in the TV series?).


  2. I think because I’ve spent the last 20+ years reading stories to kids, I do hear different voices in my head when I read to myself. I always do my best to capture the distinct voices in a story when I read aloud to kids, and while I’m sure I’m terrible at it, my kids don’t seem to mind too much.

    I was wondering the same thing about the British accent being used in the epic fantasy genre. I’ve also wondered why American-made films with characters from foreign countries always have a British accent regardless of which country they are from. It’s like American film makers believe that the general populations can only accept or understand a foreigner having a British accent. That said, I love the British accents in LOTR and in The Hobbit. Haven’t seen Game of Thrones yet to weigh in on that, but given my love of the accent, I’m sure I’ll be good with it. 😉

    Lastly, I appreciate the reminder for writers to be very clear in their writing when it comes to how the characters sound when speaking. It’s as important as how they look when providing descriptions.


    1. You must have lucky kids, Tami. I’m far too self conscious to put on voices when I read to kids (mainly nieces and nephews), which I do fairly often. Maybe it’s because I don’t really hear the voices in my head… maybe it’s all related!? (I did attempt an American accent for narration recently, when reading a story for the fifth time in a row, just to keep myself interested… and don’t ask me what type!)

      I hadn’t really noticed the trend you mention re American-made films and accents. But I DO know very very few non-Australian actors do a convincing Australian accent! Whenever I hear one attempted, I wince and then wonder why they didn’t just cast one of the hundreds of Australian actors currently hanging around Hollywood. 😉


  3. I hear voices in great variation. I think I read slower because of it and it drives me a bit mad sometimes, but I can’t help it. Then again, I even give my animals tones and accents ~ so, I suppose I’m just wired like that. Interesting to think about ~ I guess I figured everyone read that way. Hmm…


    1. Well, there you go! Do you just hear them naturally, or do you actively create them? I wonder if this gives you an advantage when writing dialogue…? Now I really feel like I’m missing out 🙂


      1. I just hear them naturally ~ it may help me with dialog ~ I do hear them. It’s weird ~ I really never gave it a second thought before, probably because I break into random accents when I speak. Yeah, I’m kind of off my rocker..


  4. It’s an interesting thought. For me I hear generic male/female but with a bit more variation; old, young, cheerful, melacholic etc if the character is written to give that clearly enough. I don’t hear ‘reedy’ or ‘bass’ or any of those sort of descriptors that authors put in though. If something has a disctinct accent in the way the dialogue is written then I’ll hear a more distinct voice.
    I have a suspicion that, just like reading for kids, you hear voices if you’ve got a bit of the actor in you. When I read animal characters I tend to hear more distinct voices, I think because I visualise them more strongly. Like I’m doing voiceover for an animation.


  5. (I couldn’t hit reply, so I’m replying down here) ~~waving~~

    I like to think I can do Australian! Especially if I’ve been watching lots of Steve Erwin or Finding Nemo with the munchkins.

    You’re right, clearly I am going to have to do a vlog. Ooooo, this could be fun!


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