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.

Posted by Gordon Davidescu

Born in Perth Amboy, Gordon Davidescu lives in Queens with his wife, toddler son and bears. He loves reading a good book whether it is cloth and paper or digitally.

8 Comments

  1. This is a fascinating topic, Gordon. I remember thinking about this a long while ago when I first started reading and I recognized the voices I was hearing on the page sounded just like me in my head.

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    1. Is it odd to read women that sound like you?

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      1. Yes, certainly a strange disconnect for a young mind “hearing voices” in his head and trying to repress that obvious insularity in order to keep reading the text.

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        1. How is your current in head reading voice?

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          1. It’s more disembodied now. I tend to speed read, so the voice in my head is more accelerated, less easy to identify, but it is, uniquely, still a version of my speaking voice.

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          2. This makes me wonder — what if a person could not speak, or could not hear? What is going on in their mind’s ear when they read?

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  2. This is wonderful, and so true, for me at least. I love reading British novels for this very reason because I can test on my in-head British accent. Or fantasy books because then you can make up really interesting voices for the characters. I think though, when people are really immersed in a book, they know which characters are likely to get angry, or to speak a certain way and so they use that tone in the dialogue of that character.

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    1. Thank you for your insight, Cassie! I too love a good British novel, partially for this reason! I appreciate your comment and wish you best of luck in your running.

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