What makes a good Narrator?
When it comes to audio books, I have only one destination, audible.com. They have an incredible collection of books to choose from. And since they are an Amazon company there are some very nice tie-ins with their Kindle platform. However, when it comes to the book’s narrator these tie-ins are not all that relevant. More than likely people who do not routinely listen to audio books will assume that a fantastic book will make a fantastic audio performance. I know I did, especially when I was younger; but this is not always the case. A bad narrator can devastate a great read while; conversely, a good narrative can transcend a poor narrative’s limitations.
However, more often than not, a book’s storyline will show its true merits, either good or bad, when it is read aloud. And, as with every rule, there are exceptions, and none is as glaring as an abridged audio book. So, for this discussion, we will assume that there exist no abridged texts anywhere in the world. What will take an excellent book to the next level? The simplest answer is an excellent narrator. Two examples of such narrators are Michael Kramer and Kate Reading who, among their other works, share the narration of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. They each have the capability on their own to make the words come alive in the minds of the listeners. Each is capable of delivering the results similar to that of a full cast unaided, which I believe to be an absolutely indispensable skill for any narrator.
Another attribute that I believe to be a requirement is that the narrator’s voice seems to fit the personality of the central character. Two perfect examples are James Marsters, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, and Nick Podehl. James Masters voice, at least the voice that naturally flows with his readings of The Dresden Files, just meshes with what I think the voice of Harry Dresden should be. While this natural voice is perfect for Dresden, Masters is able to voice the other main characters in such a way that feels natural. Where this guideline gets a little tricky to ‘enforce’ is in novels that do not utilize a 1st person narrative. Books such as The Name of the Wind utilize the omniscient observer narrator. But Nick Podehl, while narrating this book, manages to voice not only a good cast of characters but he also manages to identify with the central character latching onto him. While I do measure all narrators on this skill, it is not something I do in a measured or calculating way. They either have that skill or they do not. But the ones who do have it really have crafted something entertaining.
And, in my opinion, when it comes to a series, it is paramount to maintain a single narrator. With each passing book a single narrator grows with the performance, learning more about the characters he is giving voice to. This growth goes both ways; as the narrator grows with the specific characters, so does the fans’ fervor grow for the narrator. The Dresden Files from the first book, Storm Front, to the twelfth book, Changes, had James Masters voicing the characters. The thirteenth book was done by John Glover, who did a decent job, but he was not the official voice of the series, and the fans let Jim Butcher know about their displeasure.
I believe that these are the major requirements for a good narrator. I have found quite a few narrators whom I consider to be excellent and, by looking through their work, I have found other good stories I would not have found otherwise.