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Full Cast vs Single Narration

By Cameron Phillips, Nathasya, Rose Cook and Kathryn Alley

Cameron’s view: 

There is definitely a balance to be struck here. On the one hand, having just one voice narrate the work offers a sense of intimacy, and if the performance is fantastic, an auditory belonging in the story. For example, when Stephen Fry narrates Harry Potter, I can’t imagine any other voice doing so. Alternatively, a full voice cast offers a huge range and depth of talent and variety, with the opportunity for an extremely colourful listen. I do think, however, that there is a limit to this, and if it feels over the top in terms of sheer numbers of voices, it can become overwhelming. Many people listen to audiobooks to relax, in quiet places where there is little noise, so in that case, a very large voice cast might be too much. 

I did make the point last issue that the production of audiobooks should be given care, and that quantity should not be prioritised over quality, but there is an obvious statement to make that having a larger cast means more money and time needed to produce the work. It’s a hard balance to find, but personally, I prefer audiobooks voiced by a single narrator.

Nathasya’s view:

I personally have different preferences for different genres. As someone who listens to fantasy audiobooks, when the book is written in first person, a solo performance helps the listener to feel like they are going on a journey with the character. However, if the book is written in third person, single narration works when the narrator does distinct voices for different characters. One of the most successful solo performances I can think of is Rivers of London read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. The way he distinguishes each character makes the listener feel like there are different people doing the narration, which adds to listener experience.

When it comes to full-cast narration, it is often a hit-or-miss for me. One standout full-cast narration audiobook for me is Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Written in a conversational autobiography format, full-cast narration easily works for this book as the whole thing reads as a script. The distinguished voices and the performance of each narrator work well together to set the tone and build the story. I’m seeing a rise of full-cast narration in fantasy books, and this is where it is often a miss for me. There are fantasy books with full-cast narration and heavy SFX which ends up being overwhelming. If I must choose one over the other, single narration will always be my choice. 

Rose’s view:

For me, both individual and full-cast narration have a place in the audiobook market. What is important is finding what is most appropriate for each book to best convey the story it is trying to tell. 

When I think of standout audiobooks, the titles that come to mind are often character-driven novels with a single narrator. One particular favourite of mine is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Cynthia Erivo’s narration of the woman slowly descending into madness is more performance than reading and shows the power of single narration in allowing us to understand a character’s thoughts and emotions. I also love solo narration when listening to memoirs, as authors can express their emotion and tell their story how they intend. Jeanette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died is another recent favourite listen.

On the other hand, full-cast narration can create an immersive listening experience. I think full casts often work best in novels with multiple points of view or complex storylines. Lisa Jewell’s None of This Is True does this excellently, with each narrator’s unique reading distinguishing their character’s motivations. However, I have also listened to audiobooks in which the number of voices has been confusing, as I have struggled to identify who is speaking. I, therefore, believe full casts can enhance the listening experience if used carefully but can also be overwhelming.

Kathryn’s view:

The choice between a single narrator and a full cast is often quite subjective and typically depends on what suits the text best. For stories with intricate character dynamics that involve dialogue-heavy scenes, a full cast can enrich the audiobook and capture certain nuances of the different characters’ voices, interactions, and intentions. However, single narration excels in maintaining a consistent narrative tone and rhythm that makes it ideal for memoirs, non-fiction, and intimate narratives.

While I appreciate full-cast narration and its ability to bring character accents and dynamics to life in an immersive, vibrant manner, there is something uniquely special about single narration that crafts a deeply personal connection between the narrator and the listener. When I experience single narration audiobooks, I don’t feel lost in a crowd of full-cast voices. I feel inexplicably drawn into a story that is being told just for me. 


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