Posted On May 9, 2012 by Print This Post

The Importance of Unique Character Voice by Voiceover Artist Cris Dukehart

Anyone who closely followed the RU lectures last fall will recognize today’s guest. Cris Dukehart is a talented voiceover artist, but she’s also funny as all get-out and a super-nice gal. I told her if the voiceover gig didn’t work out for some reason that I thought she had a future as a writer. Today, she’s going to share with us what’s she’s recently learned about how a unique character voice can make or break the audiobook experience for the listener. Cris, along with the fab folks at Tantor Media, has also generously offered to give away a CD set of Shiloh Walker’s If You Hear Her, the first in Walker’s romantic suspense Ash Trilogy.  Yay!

Welcome back to RU, Cris!

Hello, RU!

Cris Dukehart here… audiobook gal.

Before we begin, I really must apologize;  I fear that I may be a bit rough around the edges…

For some time, you see, I have been recording Shiloh Walker’s Ash Trilogy,  three gripping romantic suspense audiobooks released by the marvelous folks over at Tantor Media and, now, four weeks later, I smell suspiciously of the green apple slices I use to de-goop my mouth, Throat Coat tea and Chapstick.   My head is wrapped unceremoniously in a bandana and I am rather concerned that my favorite mismatched socks, (one gray and white stripedy and one lime green and white polka dot, both, you will be pleased to hear, with happy hot pink toes and heels) have been on my feet so long that, once removed, they might run away from me of their own accord never to be seen again.

I am a vision… and absolute vision!

More disturbing than this, however, is that for at least part of the last four weeks, I have lived inside the head of a serial killer.   I have hunted young girls, their futures bright with promise, and I have brought them down in their prime.  I have played horrible, frightening games of cat and mouse, committed shocking acts of brutality, and I have done it all with an almost pleasant ambivalence.

I have lent my voice to a monster.

The concept of “voice” is a tricky thing.  It’s a chameleon among words, isn’t it?

It can mean the power of speech, an expression, an utterance or vocalization.

Merriam Webster suggests that a voice is also an opinion or a view, a vote or role, or even a mouthpiece or a champion.

Wikipedia defines an author’s voice… your voice… as “the literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author”.   It goes on to say that an author’s voice is “generally considered to be a combination of a writer’s use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).”  There are whole books devoted to this sort of voice; websites dedicated to it.  It’s a good thing to have apparently, a distinct author’s voice.  You may even have attended seminars and conferences on finding and developing yours.

But what if… for argument’s sake, they are all one and the same?

Every author has their own voice, by definition, a way of utilizing syntax and diction and punctuation.  But what happens when those words, that syntax and diction and punctuation are vocalized?  E.E. Cummings, for instance, was known for scattering words all over a page with little notice it seemed, to punctuation or capitalization.  In fact, some of his work appeared, at first glance, to make little sense… little sense, that is, until it was read out loud.   Mark Twain and Charles Dickens used dialect to such an extent that unless it is read aloud, it is often difficult to recognize the near phonetic spellings found within their dialog passages as English at all.

Now, I don’t know much about anything of importance, but it seems to me that when a book changes points of view within the story, the voice alters as well.  Though it may do so subtly, I’ve found that particularly in dialog, but also in description of scene and people, characters seem to use the author’s language in their own unique ways.

Because the point of view in Shiloh Walker’s Ash Trilogy changes, even within chapters, it seemed of particular importance to discern the different character’s voices.  Ms. Walker, (a spunky lass with a Kentucky twang of her own), was invaluable in this task.  She told me things about each character that had little, it would seem, to do with how they actually SOUND, but that mattered a great deal to how they were HEARD.

This was never more important than in zeroing in on the voice of the killer.

Within the text of the first book, “If You Hear Her”, we learn that the killer has a slow, deep, almost patient drawl.  We read that he is amused with his games, that he feels a sort of affection for his victims.  And that, for the most part, is the extent of his vocal description.

Enter Shiloh Walker.

From the first, Ms. Walker was clear… the killer’s parts should be read “without emotion”… he “is a monster”.  (It is only fair to report here, that only the first book was made available to me when I began recording.  I finished it a few days before speaking with Shiloh.  I was able, using AMAZING feats of restraint and prudence, to refrain for nearly 5 whole minutes into the conversation, from positively BEGGING her to tell me who the killer was.  In my defense *indignant sniff*, it was for entirely professional reasons that I needed to know.)

We then had the fun task of deciding who would be the vocal red herrings.  Who amongst the other characters, exhibited enough similarities in habit and personality to the killer to share vocal characteristics with him… we needed to be able to auditorily mislead the listener, just as they were mislead in the text.

Which takes me back to lending my voice to a monster.

Recording his parts with “no emotion” took on its own life… a flippant, bored, slightly pleased and entertained sound… a sound that over the course of the three books, began to reveal a cruelty and disdain for human life and a disturbing apathy that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

I developed a disturbing tendency, while recording his parts, to raise one hand in caress of a cold cheek or a flippant gesture… to mimic an indifferent half lidded stare.

Leaving my studio late one night, I walked casually through the inky black.  (This wouldn’t be of note at all except for the fact that I have, since childhood, had a wild fear of the dark.  I was (and still am) the gal who flees one lit space for another, dashing willy-nilly through the dark.  I have even been known to outrun my children in my flight, leaving their small selves to the mercy of the boogyman!) This particular evening, however, despite the unlit night, there was no sign of my usual dash from lighted interior, through scary monster-laden dark, to the car.

“How curious.” I puzzled. “What is THIS?”

For some time, as I drove, I pondered this new and unusual ennui for the dark until it occurred to me quite suddenly that there was a very simple reason why I wasn’t afraid of the monsters.  I wasn’t afraid because somewhere in my mind, I was the monster… I had indentified with the boogyman.

And while that scared me enough that I stopped on my way home and bought a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, it did occur to me that just maybe I had found the killer’s voice.   That perhaps in finding his voice, his story, Shiloh Walker’s story would do what we all want a good story to do… to transport us into the world of the book… into the world of the author.

In Shiloh Walker’s syntax, her diction, her development of character and use of punctuation…

In the casually apathetic vocalizations of horrors…

In analyzing the killer’s role… not just how he sounds, but how he is heard by others… In this, I hope, we find a monster… and in voice we most certainly find a champion.

***

RU Crew, have you ever listened to a book where the villain was given away (or well-concealed) by the narrator? Also, feel free to ask Cris questions about voiceover or how she purged Shiloh’s monster from her body. Don’t forget Cris and Tantor Media have generously offered to give away a CD set of Shiloh Walker’s If You Hear Her, the first in Walker’s romantic suspense Ash Trilogy. 

Don’t miss Friday’s lecture when editor Gina Bernal will return to teach us more about line editing!

***

Bio:

An award-winning storyteller and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Cris Dukehart has narrated books across genres, from romance, science fiction, and young adult to children’s literature, non-fiction and autobiography. Her voice can be heard around the world and across the Web.

You can read more about her misadventures on her blog:  www.crisdukehart.blogspot.com.

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Discussion

31 Responses to “The Importance of Unique Character Voice by Voiceover Artist Cris Dukehart”

  1. Hi Cris,

    Welcome back to RU! I adore audiobooks and love hearing you talk about the process. They’ve been such a life saver the last couple years. I listened to a Tami Hoag book a few years ago, where I didn’t know who the villain was until about a chapter before the big reveal. Thought the author and narrator did a great job of concealing the villain in that book.

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I will one day hear my villain’s voice stream through the speakers of my car…

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | May 9, 2012, 4:53 am
    • Good Morning, Tracey!

      Thanks bunches for the welcome and comment!

      Long before I ever recorded, the sound of any number of narrators could be heard streaming from my car’s speakers. We, my littlest miss and I, are really just a couple of first order audiophiles!

      Shiloh’s books were a particular challenge to record because the killer talks… Even taunts his victims. That meant that while he had to have a distinct voice, there needed to be other male characters that sounded enough like him that I wouldn’t give him away AUDIBLY before Shiloh gave him up within the story… Hopefully we managed!

      When I narrate, the characters of the book live in my head, sometimes, even, returning long after I’m done. I think I sort of BECOME, at least within the context of my little padded booth, a member of the story’s community… A weird skulking thing hanging about (not so different from real life ;) *giggle.snort* Scheming it all out in the Ash Trilogy, I almost felt that I was in his corner… actively helping him… Giving him shadows to hide in…

      (EWWWWW! *Shudder*)

      As for hearing your work… There are audio houses that work directly with authors to produce their stories rather than waiting for the publishers to take the lead… There’s more than one way to skin the cat!

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Cris

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 9, 2012, 6:45 am
  2. Hi Cris,

    I see ads for celebrity read audiobooks. These are usually classics. When I think of villians’ voices, I think of old cartoons. My favorite Snidely Whiplash from Dudley Do-Right.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | May 9, 2012, 6:26 am
    • Hey Mary Jo, thanks for stopping by!

      Yep, those celebrities sure have been big on the audiobook scene of late!

      I would imagine, and it’s just a stab in the dark, that they are given a short list of books to choose from and/or specifically request a certain title. There have always been celebrity read books, but Audible launched, earlier this spring, a whole series of books narrated by a slew of well-known voices (with their corresponding faces)!

      Villains have backstories too, doncha’ think… Pasts that help to create their true voice? I mean… They were somebody’s baby too! Perhaps poor Snidely was but a brilliantly talented knot-tieing boyscout with unfortunate nasal-voice creating allergies! ;)

      Have a great day Mary Jo!
      Cris

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 9, 2012, 7:14 am
  3. Morning Cris!

    Wonderful to have you back again. =) Okay, I demand the story of how you got the killer out of your system and are you now again afraid of the dark? =)

    I’ve listened to most of the Harry Potter books, but honestly never thought about how to present a villain vocally! I’ll have to go back and re-listen….

    My second question, because yes this fascinates me, is how would you vocally portray just the opposite? Someone like Stephanie Plum from Janet Evanovich’s books – fast and furious and oh so funny.

    Thanks for coming back to RU! =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 9, 2012, 7:37 am
    • Hi Carrie! It’s great to be back!

      Wouldn’t it be exciting if I could report some sort of dance or a shampoo or something that vacated the villain from my noggin? “Wash that man right outta’ my hair”?

      Truthfully, though, it’s nothing so exciting… I just… closed the book on him. Literally. I decided, about midway through, (once I realized how involved I was becoming in him) that when the story was over, so too was he.

      Then, I finished my Cherry Garcia and sunk into a lactose induced coma ;)

      I’ve since chatted with other, more experienced folks, narrators far more practiced in this sort of thing and have found that it is quite common… not just among narrators, but within acting in general.

      As far as voicing a Stephanie Plum, in part, a successful audiobok is made in stages… one of them is in casting. Both of the narrators cast in the Stephanie Plum series, CJ Critt and Lorelei King have a husk and depth to their voices (a sound I positively COVET with eyeballs PEA GREEN with envy).

      Their voices lend themselves to sarcasm and that fast and furious thing… and were I to voice such a character… and in book three, NIA, the heroine is a deeper voice Miss with a Virginian drawl… I’d attempt to infuse my voice with a bit more depth and grit (though when we’re talking about a main character voice, I think it’s best to stay as close to your natural voice as possible… in part because it’s easier on the vocal chords when you have a ton of character dialog… but also… because you begin from a TRUE place… your own sound… and spin off from there).

      In addition, the novels themselves are larger than life… which allows more animated and diverse character voices… the Harry Potter books and that marvelous Jim Dale fall into that larger than life category as well! Those are always fun audiobooks to hear!

      oh… and yep… just last night I flipped the hall light off and ran as if the hounds were at my poor heels, catapulting myself from the threshold of my bedroom onto my bed (to avoid the under bed monster hand, doncha’ know?!?). giggle… I am SUCH a goober ;)

      Thanks for popping by to “see” me!

      Best,
      Cris

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 9, 2012, 8:53 am
  4. Cris –

    Do you know how happy I am to have you back to RU? Of course you do because I’ve told you repeatedly!

    With all the villain-ish type voice training/modification on Shiloh’s book, how long did it take you to record the entire thing?

    I would think you get paid per project. Is this the case?

    No donuts at my house this morning, but I’m thinking about making biscuits ;-).

    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 9, 2012, 7:50 am
    • Kelsey Browning, you marvelous YOU!

      I am just tickled to be back! Thanks for inviting me!

      The plumber has come and gone… and the electrician to boot… (being a grown up really DOES frost my donuts!)

      Recording typically takes between 1.5 and 2 hours per recorded hour… so if a book is 10 hours in listening length, it likely took between 15 and 20 hours of recording time.

      That said, book three of this particular series, IF YOU KNOW HER, became more intense and graphic as the focus drifted closer to the killer and as he began to grow careless… to make mistakes. I did find myself breaking more often, especially after his scenes… I’d call a girlfriend or take a stroll or pop out of the little padded room to throw a frisbee with the pooch or snuggle with my littlest Miss.

      In addition, once I got into book two, one particular character seemed to be leaning into “red herring” territory… so I made him a fish and went back, rerecording his dialog passages to sound more similar to the killer…

      Narrators, (at least the ones I know), get paid per finished hour (and that rate varies with experience and reviews). The research and reading time prior to recording is part of the schtick, and unless the book requires an exceptional amount of research, isn’t an additional payday. Fortunately, I LURVE the research part… my academic background is in forensics… so I don’t mind in the least!

      oh…. and BISCUITS!!! Count me IN!

      C

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 9, 2012, 9:13 am
  5. This is absolutely fascinating! Half the things you’ve mentioned here never even occurred to me, because I’m more a visual person than an “audio” person.

    Shiloh is amazing, isn’t she? I don’t often listen to audio books but I’m going to have to make an exception in this case. I’m really intrigued to hear what you’ve done with this.

    Thanks for a really eye-opening – or should I say EAR-opening – post!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | May 9, 2012, 8:40 am
    • Hey there Becke!

      Thanks oodles for stopping in!

      Once, a long long (LONG) time ago, I audited a creative writing class that was being given at the university I attended. A bunch of those folks, far more gifted than yours truly, had participated in a writing workshop out of Iowa…

      I will always remember how they would leave the room to stand in the hallway and read their work aloud to themselves.

      I asked once… novice me… why they did such a thing.

      One gal, a tolerant lass, reported that THIS was how the reader would hear their story… not as it was heard in the writer’s HEAD, but how it read from the paper.

      Shiloh is a great gal… AND she told me who the killer was after I’d only been able to read the first book… BEGRUDGINGLY… and with much laughter in her twang… but she told me! Bless her!

      Thanks for stopping by Becke!
      Cris

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 9, 2012, 9:20 am
  6. Hi Cris. Welcome back! From the author perspective, I completely get what you mean about becoming the monster. The narrator who did my last book (somehow!) captured the essence of my characters. I thought it was amazing because I’d never had a conversation with her, yet when I heard her reading Michael’s lines, I nearly cried. She’d become Michael.

    I think, prior to hearing my own work read by someone else, I’d never really paid much attention to it because I hadn’t written the characters. I didn’t know what they should sound like because I didn’t have their voices in my head. I just went with what the narrator did.

    Now when I listen to audio books, I always wonder if that’s what the author had in mind for the character. :)

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | May 9, 2012, 11:54 am
    • I am so glad that you had an amazing experience with your narrator… I know she’d be positively silly with pleasure to hear it… really… that’s just every narrator’s DREAM email!

      I have to tell you… even if I’m NOT the narrator, I always wonder if that’s what the author had in mind TOO!

      Great to hear from you! I’ll keep an ear out for your stories!

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 9, 2012, 6:43 pm
  7. Hi Cris!

    Do you read the entire book before you start recording? A killer with a normal voice is scarier because he could be anyone. Definitely keeps the reader/listener captivated in the story.

    Thanks for joining us again!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 9, 2012, 4:20 pm
    • Hey there, Jennifer!

      I DO read through the entire story before I begin to narrate… I read it and take notes on every character… what they look like, how they sound, any habits they might have… as well as noting any words, phrases or concepts that I might need to Google (either because I need to pronounce them… or know about them… or because I’m just a research dork… *snort*).

      And THIS killer’s everyday voice certainly put a crimp in MY french fry!!! I was absolutely freaked OUT with MYSELF by the end!

      Thanks oodles for stopping by!
      Cris

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 9, 2012, 6:48 pm
  8. Cris –

    Although we may still have more folks pop by tonight, I just wanted to say thanks so much for hanging out with us at RU today!

    Hugs,
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 9, 2012, 10:00 pm
    • Kelsey, I was so honored to be invited back!

      I just think that you and the rest of the RU folks are the bee’s very own knees!

      Thanks for hosting me!!!
      Best of everything,
      Cris

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 9, 2012, 10:10 pm
      • You know…I’ve always wanted to see a bee’s knees. Wondering if I should use a microscope? Magnifying glass? Regardless, I would want to me super-duper careful – I don’t like stings :-).

        K-

        Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 9, 2012, 10:35 pm
        • Dear Bee’s Knees at Romance U,

          Bee’s do in fact have knees!

          Their little legs are jointed and although their front legs are used largely for cleaning their antennae of pollen, that pollen is then pressed int balls and stored on any number of tiny hairs on their… You guessed it! Their KNEES!

          So the statement may be referring to the wealth of golden pollen… A veritable treasure trove… found on… The BEE’S very own KNEES!

          (Rolling eyes at my own silly self… I am *snort* a positive WEALTH of useless information!)

          Signed BEE-yond help in PA ;)

          Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 10, 2012, 4:50 am
  9. Before we get too carried away with the Patron Saint of Audiobooks and Beekeepers or campanologists as they are technically know. I’d like to point that she will take advantage of an elderly and frail man’s moribund state in sub-zero temperatures to vanquish him at Checkers.

    (Editorial Balance)

    Posted by Philip Banks | May 10, 2012, 9:41 am
  10. I meant to come by here last week and was like THIIIIISSS close to finishing a book and my brain went dead to everything else, but…ah. Yay!!! I creeped you out, Cris!

    yay!!!

    :)

    Posted by Shiloh Walker | May 14, 2012, 10:57 am
    • SHILOH! It’s lovely that you stopped by… and I so TOTALLY get deadlines!

      Funny thing to report…

      This weekend I received a telephone call from my sister…
      It went something like this:

      She: “I have a question about your latest audiobook.” (she says this as if she’s in a classroom setting)

      Me: “mmmhmmm…” (I was preoccupied)

      She: “So, the points of view change through the story…”

      Me: “mmmhmmmm.” (did I mention I was preoccupied?)

      She: “I need to know who the person is that’s… um… like… going around killing all the young girls.” (this last she says quickly… running it all together as if it is one long word)

      Me: *awkward pause*

      She: “Hello? Did you hear me?”

      Me: “mmmhmmmm.”

      She: “Well?”

      Me: “Books two and three are available for order from Tantor now… and will be out on Audible shortly, I’m sure.”

      She: “But…. I AM YOUR SISTER! I have to know NOW!”

      Me: “I love you. Gotta’ go… I’m in the middle of…”

      She: “NO!!!!!!! You MUST TELL ME!”

      Me: “I will… in book three. Love you.”

      She: “ARRRRRGHHHHHH! Love you too.”

      giggle.

      and yep…
      you so TOTALLY CREEPED ME OUT!

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 14, 2012, 11:11 am
  11. Hi, Cris!
    I LOVED If You Hear Her ~ it was my first listen w/ you as narrator, and you’ve been added to my ‘list’. I tend to not only buy authors I like, but pick books by narrators. You did an amazing job w/ this book ~ just got book 2 this morning, and can’t wait to dive in!
    I totally love when a narrator does awesome voice ~ and lol, I’ve so been gotten by the red herring! I have to say that Tany Eby w/ the Rizzoli & Isles books is probably the best I can think of at… but I have a list of narrators which I <3 the most because they totally convey the 'feel' of the book, and the essence of the killer or bad guy.
    AWESOME post! I'm so totally addicted to audio books now!

    Posted by Melissa B | May 14, 2012, 11:05 am
    • Oh, HOORAY! I am just near SILLY with pleasure to hear that you enjoyed “If You Hear Her” and even sillier (if that’s possible) to hear that you’ve been caught up in the suspense of the story!!! Isn’t Shiloh just MARVELOUS at CREEPING US OUT?!?!

      Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!

      Melissa, I simply cannot tell you how you have made my DAY!!!

      I TOO have a list of narrators that grab me… every single time! It is not unusual to find me driving about aimlessly… just to continue a good story! I am a positively SHAMELESS audiophile!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and dropping a line!

      Best!
      Cris

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 14, 2012, 11:21 am
  12. How fascinating to hear the mega-preparations that a Reader has to do…
    For some reason, I’ve only ever heard Artemis Fowl and Skulduggery Pleasant in audio. (on a side note: it just struck me that both authors are Irish. Coincidence??) and both the Readers (Nathaniel Parker & Rupert Degas respectively) are perfect voices for these books.

    If the giveaway is open internationally, I would love to hear your voice replace the voices-in-my-head for Ms. Shiloh’s Ash trilogy.

    Posted by Pallavi Subramanian | May 14, 2012, 12:02 pm
    • Hello Pallavi!

      I don’t know about international availability… I can certainly check with Tantor… I DO know that Artemis Fowl was BRILLIANTLY narrated!

      I agree WHOLEHEARTEDLY!

      Audiobook narration is an amazing job and is, for sure, considered the MARATHON of voiceover… but for me?!?

      I just cannot imagine having it any other way!

      Reading books for a living?
      Talking to myself all day long in my own little padded room (how my youngest describes what I do)?
      Having an opportunity to be part of the larger picture that is the story?

      I am a blessed, Miss, for certain!

      Thanks just oodles for stopping by!
      Cris Dukehart

      Posted by Cris Dukehart | May 14, 2012, 12:46 pm
  13. Voice over artists are very important as far as dialogues are concerned. There are many dialogues that are best delivered by an voice over artist specially in horror movies where different sort of scary sounds are required.

    Posted by Gracey spurek | August 1, 2014, 2:57 am

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