What makes a good audiobook narrator?

By Friday, June 22, 2018 , , ,

I’m a devoted audiobook listener, but also fairly picky about what books I’ll listen to instead of reading visually. And I’m sure most audiobook fans would agree that perhaps the most important component of a good audiobook is the narrator. Even if it’s a great book, a bad narrator can ruin the experience. So, what’s needed in a narrator to make a good book become a really fabulous audiobook? Here are a few ideas I’ve settled on. What are yours? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments! 

Knowing and Enjoying the Text 
It’s easy to tell if a narrator isn’t enjoying or immersed in the story they’re reading. The voice will often be flat, monotone, or just feel detached from the story. The person reading to you is a large part of what will pull you in and help you really sink into a story, so if they’re not totally into it, there’s a good chance you won’t be either. Knowledge of the text is also important for an audiobook narrator. With a thorough understanding of the story and characters, a narrator will more accurately represent each character’s personality, the author’s intent, and any other subtleties that are important for a reader to notice. 

Not Distracting from the Story 
The best audiobook narrators know how to make the reader forget they’re present, because they make the story that engaging. Voice nuance is vital for a narrator, but some can really overdo it. Nothing’s worse than feeling like I’m being yelled at or not being able to decipher what the narrator’s actual voice sounds like because they sound too formal the whole time. 

Character Voices 
I’d imagine this has to be the trickiest and most demanding part of audio narration, as some books have so many characters to voice. But giving each character a distinct voice is a vitally important part of making the listening experience fun and memorable. The best audiobooks I’ve listened to have nailed this aspect perfectly. The voice variations for each character are usually different enough to give them all a personality and to make it easy to determine who is speaking, but they’re also slight enough so that the narrator doesn’t sound too artificial or forced. It has to be exhausting. And I just have to say that Jim Dale, narrator of all seven Harry Potter books, wins the all-time prize for this. He gave every single character in that series a unique voice and never slipped up once. There had to be 700 or more voices total. It’s incredible. 

Tone Matching the Story 
This is an important part of conveying the mood of the story and the direction of the drama. It may seem obvious, but if something scary happens, the narrator needs to let the listener hear fear in his voice. If a serious or disturbing situation arises, the narrator should adopt a grave tone. There’s a very fine line between this and becoming that distraction mentioned above, but tone is everything when it comes to showing where the story is going.

So what do you look for in audiobook narration? I'd love to hear your thoughts! To conclude, I'll leave a few of my favorite narrators for you:

  • As already mentioned, Jim Dale's narration of the Harry Potter series
  • Dan Stevens, particularly his narration of Murder on the Orient Express
  • Oliver J. Hembrough's narration of the Poldark series
What are your favorites?

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