Reading Character Voices in Your Head

When I lived in Seattle, I once attended a reading of the Megillas Esther, the ancient story of the triumph of the Jewish people over the wicked Haman who intended to wipe them out from the face of the earth, that really was special because of the way that the reader went through the story. When he would read the lines of dialogue as spoken by people in the story, he would read them in their voices — Queen Esther in one way, the vicious Haman in his own nasty voice. I appreciated it quite a bit because I would often do the same thing when reading it to myself — and when reading most other fiction, for that matter. Even some nonfiction — I tend to hear the voice of David Sedaris when I am reading his autobiographical pieces.

It seems that this is entirely consistent with how people generally tend to read the voices of characters in fiction. In immersing themselves in the story they are reading, they will read the characters in the manner they see on the page — a yelling character will sound loud, while a whispering character will be quietly read. All this is the case even though it is all going on in the mind of the reader.

Bo Yao and Christoph Sheepers, researchers at the University of Glasgow, asked participants to silently read a number of passages containing quoted speech. Sometimes, the character spoke his words slowly and other times quickly. After tracking participants’ eye movements, the researchers discovered that participants read the slow speech more slowly than the fast speech. Readers, the authors concluded, were “hearing” the character’s voices inside their heads as they made their way through the texts.

What are some of your favorite books and stories to read — and do you read the voices of the characters in their own voice, or does everyone get the same uniform voice across the board? Sometimes when I am reading a book I imagine a particular actor or actress portraying a character and therefore when I read their dialogue I imagine that person — be they Morgan Freeman or Steve Carrell — reading that line of dialogue. It certainly made an interesting experience when I went to see the first Harry Potter movie and saw how different their voices were on the screen versus what I imagined in my own mind.

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