character voice

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?