Public Readings from A to Z – Part 7 – Character Voices

Welcome to part seven of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


We’re on the seventh installment of this series, and I’m only just now getting to character voices.

There’s a reason for that. Many people leap to the conclusion that since they can’t do a bunch of different accents and pitches, they’ll never be good at reading. But the truth is that character voices are really just the icing on the cake. All the stuff I’ve discussed in previous installments — picking your text, practicing it, attending to questions of pacing and intonation — are the cake itself. And you can have really tasty cake even if there’s no icing on it at all.

But if I want to give advice for readings, I should address this. So let’s dig into it.

I’m indebted to Mary Robinette Kowal for teaching me the variables you can play with to create different character voices. I could already do this a little bit before I talked to her, but I didn’t understand what sliders I was moving around to make it happen; she gave me the names for those sliders, and in so doing, made it possible for me to invent new “settings” besides the ones I already had. In short, the five things you can play with here are pitch, placement, pacing, accent, and attitude.

Let’s dispose of accent first, since I mentioned it already. Lots of people think this is important, but most of the time, it’s one of the least important variables . . . and also one of the easiest to screw up. Even if one of the characters in a scene is British and the rest are American, I’d rather just have the American author say “by the way, this character is British” than put on a bad imitation of a BBC announcer. (Multiply that by a thousand if it’s a majority-POC accent like Spanish or Chinese.) If you really, really need to use an accent, then visit something like the Speech Accent Archive and listen to samples, and search out instructional videos — from people who actually know what they’re doing, not some random dude on the Internet delivering an exaggerated movie rendition.

Next let’s look at pitch, as that’s the main variable people know to play with. Before you even get to the question of multiple character voices, it is a very good idea to create a slight difference between the pitch of your narration and the pitch of dialogue — yes, even if the story is in first person. Along with the pauses I mentioned before, this microscopic shift signals the beginning and ending of direct speech.

What if there are multiple speakers in the scene? At the simplest level, it helps if you pitch your voice up just a little for a female speaker and down for a male one. The point isn’t to “sound female” or “sound male” so much as it’s to give the audience a way distinguish one voice from the other. This is especially useful when a bit of dialogue starts without a tag to tell you who’s speaking. But don’t take it too far: go low, especially without enough air, and you’ll rapidly hit the vocal fry territory I mentioned before. Go too high, and you wind up in the falsetto register — I most often hear that from male authors who try too hard to make their female characters sound girly. Most of the time, you want to stay in what specialists call the modal register, which is essentially your natural range.

But obviously that range has limits. And what are you supposed to do if you have, say, three female characters in one scene? Or just a large number of speakers overall? That’s where the other variables come in.

Placement is hard for me to explain, because I don’t have the technical vocabulary for it, but it’s somewhat easier to illustrate: when you say someone has a nasal voice, you’re talking about placement. I’m not sure if breathiness is officially part of this tool, but it certainly works as another way to distinguish two speakers. You can also put your voice far up in the front of your mouth, or shove it far to the back. This is an aspect I’m still working on mastering myself, and it’s made more difficult by the fact that positioning and accent are actually linked: an RP British accent, for example, is very fronted, while a Midwestern American one is further back, and then some Slavic accents appear determined to sink your words halfway down your throat. But you can play around with this a bit, just by trying to visualize your voice being in a particular part of your head. It was very beneficial to me with the Lady Trent short story I read on tour, “From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review,” because that one’s done as a series of letters between Isabella and Mr. Benjamin Talbot — but the final letter is from a different man, and I needed the audience to hear that immediately. I was able to do that by pushing Talbot further back while also kind of closing my nose (he sounds a bit like he has a cold), while Penburgh is further forward but open-throated (video here):

Dear Sirs — I will beg your leave to respond to Mrs. Camherst through the medium of your pages


Dear Sirs — I was delighted to read last week’s leading article

There isn’t a huge difference in pitch between them, but when I do it right, you know before the first sentence ends that someone different is speaking.

Pacing we’ve already discussed to some extent, but don’t forget it’s a tool for characterization as well as general delivery. One individual may be (relatively) rapid-fire — don’t go so fast your audience can’t understand, unless the viewpoint character also doesn’t understand — while another has long, wandering pauses. The actor Christopher Walken is very distinctive in part because of his idiosyncratic pacing. (I’m told he literally goes through every script and removes the original punctuation, then writes in his own.) Along with this, consider how sharply the character does or does not enunciate: two people can speak at the same slow pace, but one of them draws their words out, while the other bites them off with silence in between.

And finally, you can think of attitude as being the character’s general mood or demeanor. We all know that a simple sentence like “What did you do?” can come across very differently depending on the mood of the speaker: curious, angry, resigned, and so forth. If you want a character to sound happy, try to make a happy face while you speak: eyes wide, cheeks lifted, and so forth. Furrowing your brow for an angry line will help you sound angrier. Obviously a given character may go through a range of emotions depending on the scene, but especially when reading only a short selection, thinking about the predominant attitude each character has gives you another tool for distinguishing them.

Remember — the primary goal here is to help the audience tell one speaker from another. You don’t have to be an Academy Award-winning actor to pull that off.


In the final two installments, we’ll look at the performance itself!