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Getting to know characters

So you’ve been hired to read a great new title by an audiobook publisher.  Of course, the first step is to read through the book beforehand.  And before you know it, PRESTO!  You’ve just met a slew of brand new characters.  There’s nothing better than rich, memorable characters in a book.  Over the course of a long audiobook, recorded across multiple sessions and days, it’s critical that the narrator continue to honor the choices that were made when we first “met” the character in the text.  In a title I narrated recently, Sharon Ewell Foster’s The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses, I had many characters of all different ages, races, nationalities – even time periods!

As a voice actor, you’ll be making many choices about these characters that will enable you to portray them when it comes down to performing in the booth.  In some books, you may have a lot of characters – dozens or more – and they may reappear in the text at any time!  You have to be ready to “bring them back onstage” for your listener.

Today I’d like to share a fun little trick I sometimes use to not only develop characters initially, but also to help me recall the choices I made for them when they suddenly reappear 200 pages later!  I call it “Character Sheeting.”

It’s fun and easy!  It’s done as part of your initial reading and study of the text, before recording begins.  And it’s worth it – it’s a whole lot easier to tell a story about a group of characters when you actually know them first!  Here’s how it works.

When you begin your initial read-through, have some blank sheets of paper handy.  I just grab some sheets out of my printer.  Also, keep some pens, pencils, markers, crayons, and the like nearby.  As soon as you “meet” a new character in the book, take a sheet of paper and write his/her/its name at the top in big, bold letters.

Then, study the clues that the author has given you about the character.  (Hopefully, your author has provided many – but if not, this is a great way to get creative!)  Next, simply begin doodling on the paper about the character.  Maybe you want to render a little sketch of the character.  Make the character sheet into a collage of everything the character is about.  Things like:

  • What 5 items would they want if stranded on a desert island?
  • What is a hobby that they always wanted to try, but never have?
  • How would they answer these questions?
  • What is their very favorite article of clothing?
  • Do they have a favorite sport?
  • On a scale of 1 -10, how would they rate their childhood?
  • And so on…

Once you have your characters “sheeted,” make voice acting choices for them based on what you now know about them.  Using your personal toolkit, you should have no problem creating unique, memorable performances.  (Here is a link to one of the best teachers on this topic I have ever encountered.)  What’s more, if a character does pop back into view after a long absence, you can simply glance at that character’s sheet and POOF… they are back in you mind in vivid color – helping you to maintain performance consistency throughout the audiobook.

Some additional notes:

  • Don’t over-act the characters.  Let your listener discover parts of the character for themselves in their own imagination.
  • Don’t leave yourself out – as the narrator, you too are part of the magic in the mind of the audiobook listener.  Make sure that you include some “you!”
  • Remember that characters – like real people – can change!  They can be affected by events that happen to them.  Allow them to evolve with the story when appropriate!
  • Respect the author’s choices first!  If your author has written a 15 page comprehensive description of a character, then honor those choices.  They are there for a reason.

Most of all, remember that you have been tasked with telling a story.  So tell it!  Happy narrating!

 

 

 

  • Thanks for sharing this helpful tool, John. How did you come up with this technique? It reminds me of the way Victor Hugo developed his characters.

    Have you ever had to ask an author to provide more of a character’s backstory?

    Paul Strikwerda

    August 9, 2011

  • Thanks, Paul. Actually, it’s just a little thing I made up when I worked in the theatre. I was cast as the Captain in The Sound of Music one summer, and I was working with a wonderful actor and teacher named Doug Parker on the character. In early rehearsals, he observed some parts of my performance that weren’t really believable of a retired naval captain. He told me to back up to square one and really focus on “knowing” Captain von Trapp before I got into the business of playing him. So I did, and part of it was assembling a little informal collage about him.

    Once I did this, my mannerisms and behavior on stage was so much more natural, and it showed in the performances once the show opened. So perhaps that’s where I got it.

    And on the author question, not typically. I did collaborate with an author on name pronunciations, but I’ve never had to ask an author for more character background. I’ve always had plenty of clues to get me going (at least so far.)

    Nice to hear from you, Paul! Take care!

    -jm

    John McLain

    August 9, 2011

  • Thanks for this wonderful article. Might I suggest you change the color scheme of your blog though? It’s a little difficult on the eyes to read dark text on an alpha channel background with a pattern behind it. Just a suggestion.

    Joe

    August 10, 2011

  • Thanks for the suggestion, Joe – forwarding to my web guy to see what we can come up with. Much obliged!

    -jm

    John McLain

    August 10, 2011

  • New writers are often encouraged to do all sorts of things to get to know their characters too. One is a nine question interview.

    This sort of exercise has always made me cringe because I’ve never been the type of writer to think of my characters as living outside my story. To interview them implied that they could somehow answer in ways I wouldn’t expect or be able to predict and that just didn’t seem right to me. However, I’ve succumbed to this rainbow-unicorny technique twice when I couldn’t come up with anything else to write and the results were astonishingly good. Embarrassingly satisfying.

    http://1000days.douglasblaine.com/tag/interview/page/2/

    I’m not sure I’m ready to break out the crayons and doodle, but I’m no longer as dismissive as I was before with these sorts of things.

    I find it rather cool that this can be so handy for voice acting as well. I wonder if it’s the simple act of creating something concrete which makes it such a powerful tool in reminding you how to voice that 200 page old character again.

    Douglas

    August 10, 2011

  • I think you’re right about the “concreteness” of the exercise being key. I love to watch kids play with action figures, a la the “Toy Story” films. As they play pretend with these toys, they often take on rich and very real personalities in the imagination of the player. As actors, that’s really what we are doing at the core, after all. Simply playing pretend.

    So perhaps my character sheets are simply two-dimensional action figures – concrete toys that I can use to create “real” personalities within my imagination. Then, as a voice actor, I apply these attributes to different vocal techniques like pitch, mouth work, and others to ultimately play the character.

    Great perspective, Douglas. Thanks so much for sharing!

    -jm

    John McLain

    August 10, 2011

  • […] Getting to know characters « John McLain Voiceovers […]

  • You’re a juggernaut. Great info from a wonderful talent. Thanks John –

    Perry

    Perry Norton

    August 27, 2011

  • High praise, coming from you Perry! Nice to hear from you again! Thanks so much!

    -jm

    John McLain

    August 27, 2011

  • Hey John I really like this. As others noted it’s similar to the advice you get in writing manuals when you’re trying to flush out characters you create. Clustering is a similar technique that might work as well, just start with the character’s name or a few broad characteristics in a circle and then free-associate, attaching circles to circles. Maybe if the more ordered way of answering and questions isn’t bearing fruit at the moment.

    Like the video blog!

    Luke Smith

    Luke Smith

    August 27, 2011

  • Love that technique, Luke – “free-association” is very powerful. Great to hear from you, Luke!

    -jm

    John McLain

    August 27, 2011

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