Mother reading to her young daughter while resting on a hammockA short time ago we took a look at how you can differentiate between characters in a script when reading an audiobook or multi-character project.

In today’s VOX Daily, guest blogger John McLain offers his perspective on how you can get to know the characters featured in a book before you start the recording process.

Getting To Know Characters

By John McLain
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 Character Sheeting 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?
  • 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!

About John McLain

John McLainIt all began in a small brick house on five acres in Oklahoma. Listening to his dad pick an old Spanish guitar, John McLain’s passion for performing was built in. After college, he got married and moved to Texas and found himself neck-deep in radio. He also began to perform in the theatre; shows like The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Amahl & The Night Visitors and My Fair Lady He’s also studied improvisational theatre. It seemed natural that his broadcasting and theatre acting backgrounds should one day join forces. As a voiceover actor, John McLain believes his voice is an instrument to be used like a paintbrush – building powerful images in the mind and heart of the listener. His goal is always to find the inner voice of the copywriter with all its color and emotion, and transmit it to the heart of the audience.

© Chutka


  1. John,
    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge of characters. Like YOU, I have also jotted down notes on my ‘characters’ in the childrens audio books I’ve done(for Scholastic books). The difference? My notes were simply about how I DELIVERED that character….NOT about his characteristics or personality. I write down things like “high-pitched, nasal, similar to pee wee herman” and things like that to remind me of how my character SOUNDED.
    Your insights just gave me more ammo! Thanks again!


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