Saturday, August 9, 2014

Hearing Voices

This week The Guardian asks the following questions:

  • Do you ever hear characters’ voices when you are reading? If so, how often?
  • Do you have visual or other sensory experiences of characters when reading?
  • How easy do you find it to imagine a character’s voice when reading? How vivid are these voices when you read?

Here are my answers:

Yes, I hear characters' voices when I'm reading - all the time.  In fact it isn't a reading experience for me if I can't hear voices, including the narrator's voice.  I even hear a voice (not my own) when I'm reading non-fiction.  I have a very definitive idea of what each character sounds like.  I think this might be why I don't particularly like to listen to books being read, hearing someone else's voice detracts from the experience for me.

I have only miminam visual experiences of characters when reading.  If it is important for a plot point (and it has to be REALLY important) I will have a specific idea of hair color, eye color or other physical characteristics.  But in general I have only a vague idea of what a character looks like - a big man or a small man, a tall woman or a short woman, etc.  In my mind they are fairly generic.  I think that's why I never get very worked up about actors who are cast to play parts in adaptations of books - I figure wigs and contacts and makeup can do a lot.  But I'm constantly surprised if they don't SOUND like how I imagined the character sounding.

I just watched the first episode of the new Outlander television series based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon.  I read the first Outlander book long ago - so long ago that I have a hard time remembering it.  And after the first few books, I gave up on the series.   But I remembered really liking the first novel.  Watching the series I was having a hard time getting into the character of Claire but once Jamie was on the scene I thought - oh ,yes, he's a good Jaime.  After it was over, I realized that the actor playing Jaime sounded exactly as I imagined Jaime would sound whereas the actress playing Claire had a much more .... unemotional .... voice than I imagined Claire having.  (And that was a real problem for me since there was so much voice-over of her thoughts.)  Maybe if I see more episodes she'll grow on me. 

Another good example is The Game of Thrones.  When I read The Game of Thrones, the first novel in George R.R. Martin's epic series, I heard Tyrion with a specific American accent.  I read enough fantasy novels that are set in quasi-British settings that I usually hear the characters with British accents, but I heard Tyrion with an American accent.  So when I heard Peter Dinklage's interpretation of the character with his (somewhat) British accent, I thought "huh".  I got used to it after a while because he was so good.  But I wondered if I would continue to hear HIM when I read later books.  I found that I didn't.  "My" Tyrion still has an American accent when I read.

What I've found interesting is that when I tell people this, they don't seem to truly understand that the voice in my head has nothing to do with my visual impression.  I searched my recollection to figure out who "my" Tyrion sounded like and I finally came up with Robert Reich, the former US Secretary of Labor.  When I tell people that, they pause and then say "Well, I guess that makes sense because he is kind of little."   Which I find both annoying and somewhat hilarious.  I mean, I don't see Robert Reich when I read about Tyrion.  I have a somewhat generic idea of a dwarf man in my head.  These days I may even see Peter Dinklage more often or not.  But I still hear a voice similar to Robert Reich's.  But it seems that some people can't even imagine choosing a voice for a character that is not connected with their physical being.

Not only do I find it easy to imagine a character's voice, I find it essential.  Most novels that I grow bored with tend to be ones where the voices do not come me.  This often happens when I encounter novelists who "tell" and don't "show".   Even the narrator (even if it is a third person omniscient narrator) needs to have some kind of aural presence for me or I start to lose interest.