The Problem With Multiple Narrators in Audiobooks

I love audiobooks, and listen to them regularly. In my experience, most audiobooks have one narrator who reads the entire book. However, it’s also common to have two narrators, particularly if there are two main point of view (POV) characters. Often a male voice artist will read the male character, and a female artist the female character. As long as the narrators are good, I enjoy both of these arrangements.

However, I’ve occasionally come across audiobooks that have four or more narrators, one for each POV (I’m sure it helps that I love fantasy, a genre well known for having many POV characters). It sounds great, right? Each character gets their own unique sound and you get to listen to a variety of voices. Unfortunately, I’m rarely as impressed by multiple narrators as I am by one or two. Here’s why:

There’s Always One That Feels Out of Place

The audiobook of Six of Crows has seven narrators. I thought most of them were stellar, and one is even a favourite of mine (Elizabeth Evans, who also voices Throne of Glass), but there was one who irritated me. He slowly over-enunciated everything with little care for the actual content, saying things in a tone that often felt completely wrong for the context. Maybe if he’d been the sole narrator I’d not have noticed as much, but in comparison to the other performances it stuck out like a sore thumb. Similarly, in Hyperion (five different narrators), one of the narrators had a very different sound and style of reading to the others. I wouldn’t have called it bad, and it might have worked alone, but it just didn’t fit for me with the tone I’d become used to.

The more narrators you have, the more likely it is you’re going to have one that doesn’t fit or isn’t quite as good as the others. Personally, that often pulls me out of the story, and makes me focus in on this ‘weak link’ rather than on the stronger performances.

Too Many Voices for the One Character

Another major problem with multiple narrators is dialogue. For example, if Mary and John are talking to each other, but we’re in Mary’s head, the narrator who voices Mary is going to have to say John’s lines too. Similarly, when we’re in John’s head, his narrator is going to have to say Mary’s lines. In a two-narrator scenario this is not so jarring – we get used to hearing each speaking voice in two different ways.

When you have six narrators voicing six characters who are talking to each other all the time (as in Six of Crows), you hear each character’s speaking voice six different ways. Other than being occasionally confusing, this can also become irritating. If I like one narrator’s interpretation of a voice better than another’s, whenever the latter reads it I think: “that’s not how he sounds! You’re doing the voice wrong!”

While I generally really liked the four narrators for the audiobooks Linger and Forever, these also occasionally suffered from this dialogue problem (though not as much as Six of Crows, because there were only four, and the characters talked to each other less).

Pronunciation of Names and Words

There’s also the simple fact that when doing a large production with multiple different narrators, the voice actors aren’t always going to have the time to agree on how every invented word, place name or character name is pronounced.

It might sound nit-picky, but if you’ve gotten very used to a city or place name being said a particular way, and a new narrator pops up and starts saying it another way, it’s irritating. It’s like hearing someone repeatedly mispronounce the name of the town you live in, in spite of your repeated attempts to correct them. It jars every time.

_________

It might look impressive to get a whole cast of actors in to narrate a book, and give each character a unique voice, but I would much rather listen to one narrator who puts on multiple voices and remains consistent with them, than five narrators trying to voice five different characters and giving me an inconsistent tone, sound, and pronunciation.

I don’t hate audiobooks with multiple narrators (in fact, I loved the four narrators in The Help – each performance was brilliant and successfully brought out the character’s unique perspective), but I think I’m more likely to find them disappointing and frustrating, especially when there are more than four voices, and wish they had just found one or two really great narrators to do the whole thing.

But those are just my thoughts. Have you listened to any audiobooks with multiple narrators? What did you think of them? Do you prefer one narrator or many narrators?

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24 thoughts on “The Problem With Multiple Narrators in Audiobooks

  1. Oh my gosh, I didn’t even think about the part where they’d be in someone’s head and would have to read everything in the one person’s voice :0 you’ve got some really good points here. But I will admit, this problem has never come up for me 😀 because I am never anywhere where I’d listen to a real audiobook! Haha. I just use an app that reads back to me, so I have this… cheapest and shittiest arrangement 😀 boyfriend always laughs at me that I am listening to my mechanical voice again. But it works for me!

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    • Oh wow, I can’t imagine listening to a mechanical voice read a book! But if it works for you, why not? And you would certainly never have the issue of hearing too many voices for one character 🙂

      I’m curious, do you ever get confused as to who’s speaking when there’s dialogue? I often rely on the way the narrator delivers a line to know which character is speaking (since the “he/she said” usually comes at the end of a the line, or should be guessed from the context, which I find harder to gauge in an audiobook). If the narrator doesn’t say it quite right I get confused… but maybe the fact I’m relying on the tone results in these confusions, and if it was all read the same way that wouldn’t happen! 😀

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      • It’s actually not so bad 🙂 the Google Voice reader is quite natural-sounding, at least she doesn’t irritate me 🙂 as for who’s talking, hm. You’re right, that’s a really hard thing to do when listening to voice reading 🙂 actually, that’s why I pick and choose books that I will run through the app. I’ve noticed books with too much dialogue don’t work too well, it’s best to just choose narrative books for this 🙂 at least, it works really bad for YA dialogue, cause it’s usually quick and snappy and doesn’t always have “he said she said”, so those kinds of books I just read the usual way 🙂 nonfiction works great on audio though! A bit like a documentary.

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        • Ah yes that’s a good idea to pick and choose them according to which ones work – I can imagine snappy YA dialogue wouldn’t be so great when read by an app. I’ve actually never listened to a non-fiction book – I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but when I do I get the physical book, I guess because I’m worried I’ll find the audiobook boring. But I enjoy non-fiction podcasts so that’s probably illogical of me 🙂 I can see how it would be a bit like a documentary – I’m curious to check out the Google Voice reader now just to hear how it sounds!

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      • Google Voice Reader is just a service, it’s not an app by itself. If you want the app, try PocketBook 🙂 it’s the only free one that worked with acsm files for me (the ones you get for protected pdfs from NetGalley!)
        And I also didn’t read ANY non-fiction at all up till this year, when I read The Radium Girls. Very recommended. Heart-wrenching. And after reading that, I haven’t regretted my venture into the land of books about reality 😀

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        • Oh okay thanks, I’ll check out PocketBook then! That’s really convenient if you can use it for NetGalley books. I’m sure I’ll still stick with traditional audiobooks most of the time, but I’m curious to see what it’s like to listen this way instead 🙂 And that book sounds amazing, I’ll have to check it out too!

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        • If you do, and you like it, you might want to see the interview I did with the author too 🙂
          And using the app is good because it really saves time, especially when you really need to clean the house, but you’re really behind on those NetGalley ARCs which just won’t read themselves 🙂

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        • That’d be great, I’ll check it out. And I can totally see how it would save time, ever since I started listening to books I’ve read about twice the number I used to read every year… and my house is cleaner too 🙂 (I imagine those ARCs always arrive as ebooks too, so that’s handy to be able to convert them like that!)

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  2. I actually adore full cast/multiple narrator books. It always makes it feel more immersive. That said, you bring up some good points with the common problems. The Six of Crows series had several of these issues, including with one narrator being a weak link, and different pronunciations of words, etc. Thankfully I find these to be rare, and on the whole I think it’s worth it!

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    • That’s interesting you find them more immersive, I can see why, I do enjoy the feeling it gives it when you have a full cast acting it out (actually I loved the Six of Crows narration at the start, but got annoyed by the flaws after a while, most particularly when I continued and listened to Crooked Kingdom… I guess I just wish they’d fixed the pronunciations and changed one of the narrators, because then it would’ve been perfect!). Perhaps I just haven’t encountered the perfect multiple-narrator book yet, or I’m too nit-picky with issues when they do arise 🙂

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  3. I recently started using audio books and realized that I prefer those that have just one narrator. I’m reading the Wheel of Time books by audio and those have two narrators, one for males and one for females, but they both pronounce things differently, which (I agree is nitpicky) throws me off sometimes and annoys me. I don’t think I’d be able to handle a larger cast.

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    • Cool you started using audiobooks! Do you like them? And yes there’s something about different pronunciations that’s just jarring/irritating, even if it is nitpicky! (one series I listened to changed narrators part way through and the new one pronounced the main character’s name COMPLETELY differently… I just couldn’t handle it!!). That’s a shame those Wheel of Time narrators didn’t collaborate more, I think two narrators can be really good if they make the effort to pronounce things the same and match their performances well.

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      • The audio books are okay. I use them like I use podcasts, just to have something to listen to while doing chores and such.
        I can only reread books with them, though, because I find it hard to pay full attention to them and sometimes miss stuff.

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        • Ah yes I understand that, I have friends who also say they miss a lot when listening so have to be picky with which books they listen to. I miss some stuff too, but I suppose as long as it’s nothing vital I just live with it, which is maybe bad of me 🙂 (though if I do think something might be vital I use the back button)

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  4. This is not really something I’m familiar with, since I rarely listen to audiobooks, let alone ones with multiple narrators, but I do get why this would be annoying- especially if the multiple narrators jar in style. And that seems *so* weird for Six of Crows!! And I would also find it really irritating if all the narrators can’t just agree on one pronunciation for proper nouns especially.

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    • Ah understandable – well, if you ever do listen to one with multiple narrators I’d be curious what you think of it! And yeah, in some ways the Six of Crows audiobook was still impressive to listen to because they did get several brilliant narrators… but I felt it wasn’t as good as it could have been, esp. toward the end and leading into the next book. They obviously did agree on some pronunciations, as those were consistent, but not others. Oh well, I still enjoyed it overall… just wish it had been better, because the book was so good it could have been a perfect audiobook!

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  5. I have honestly never listened to an audiobook — at least beyond a few minutes in an airplane — so I have no experience to compare….but I can see all of that being very annoying!

    How do you feel about listening to the audiobook vs. reading the text? Is one kind of book better than another for adapting to audio, or doesn’t it matter? I would worry about the voice negatively influencing my experience of a book I’d otherwise enjoy.

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    • Believe it or not I’ve actually come to like listening to books more than I like reading the text! And I often have the opposite experience to what you’re describing – I think a book I might not ordinarily have liked can be made more interesting by good narration, and I think I’m more patient with audiobooks.

      That said, there are several exceptions – eg if the narrator is bad or makes the character sound annoying, or when the book is too long so the audiobook drags on, or if it’s a very complicated book (with audiobooks it’s easy to miss things, which is fine in most books but a problem in books with very complex explanations or plots). There were a few audiobooks where I wondered if I’d have liked them more if I’d read the text… it’s hard to compare though, because I almost never do both!

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  6. One of my absolute pet peeves with audiobooks is female narrators doing male voices and vice versa. Often, they are simply not done well. It feels like a mother/father making funny/goofy voices while reading for their kids. It’s very annoying.
    I’ve never had more than three narrators in an audiobook and while I thought they did a pretty good job, I still wasn’t quite sold. Maybe you’re right, the number’s too high. I’ve had no problems with single narrators or even two but three seems to be stretching it.
    I hope you get to listen to better audiobooks in the future, even if they have multiple narrators.
    Amazing post and discussion! 🙂

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    • Oh yes I can totally understand that, a good friend of mine also hates those male & female put-on voices! Funnily enough I usually don’t mind them, but I do get annoyed if they’re overdone – ie ridiculous high squeaky voice for a woman, super low gruff voice for a man – I think it’s better when the narrator only varies their voice slightly otherwise it gets comical.

      That’s interesting you weren’t sold on the 3-narrator book you listened to. Perhaps 1 or 2 really is a safer bet when it comes to pleasing listeners! My favourites also all just have one or two. I do kind of hope that “perfect” multi-narrator book comes along though to prove it can work just as well 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

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