Lady Voices in Audiobooks

I listen to a fair number of audiobooks, mostly because I spend a ridiculous amount of time in the car and reading a paperback while driving is both illegal and stupid. Audiobooks keep me alert and entertained. I listen mostly to fiction, but I also enjoy audio non-fiction and some recorded lectures, especially if I’m researching for a story.

I have some favorite narrators, of course, but I don’t choose books just for the narrator. I have, however, quit books because I did not like the narrator. A reader can really set the tone and influence the flow of a story.

One pet peeve is when male readers indicate a female character primarily by going all breathy. It can make a political thriller or sci fi adventure sound more like a 1-900 sex line. I listened to a Star Wars installment in which the male reader read all females in the same breathless voice, including Princess Leia. Princess Leia, senator, general, all-around get-things-done girl, was discoursing in high-level political council as a breathy sexpot. It, um, didn’t work for me.

Princess Leia lays it down.

Would this sound like the same character in a breathy, husky voice? Or does it suddenly become a clip from a porn fantasy? Yeah.

I’m in the middle of a fantasy book right now in which the females — all of them — speak in a near-comical falsetto. It makes it kind of hard to get really behind the characters. Also, every female sounds identical, whether she’s a ruling duchess or a trained assassin or a street whore. The male characters have great variety, from basso growl to shrill indignation, and can be identified by their dialogue alone. The females require context and dialogue tags or I can’t tell who’s speaking, because it’s all the same slightly-winded falsetto.

C’mon, women are totally capable of vocalizing naturally. It’s not like ovaries cause asthma.

So I was grumping about this in my head as I was listening to several takes on a scene with a mix of genders, and then, in a moment of that weird confluence which strikes occasionally, I stumbled across this quote:

In a recent webinar, Penguin Random House director Christina Rooney advised male narrators to listen to women around them and realize that pitch is not the biggest discriminator in voices. Instead, she said that women speak more fluidly and with softer consonants, rounded vowels, and more clarity on plosives. (source)

See? Not pitch, and definitely not breathy-ness, but speaking style. And then you can distinguish them by individual tones and quirks, just like the male characters. Yay!

I get most of my audiobooks through my local public library (via Overdrive, so I think much of the time creators are still getting individual royalties), and then from other venues like Audible as well. I’m always looking for recommendations, so feel free to share your favorites!


Simon Jones is one of my favorite narrators, and the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud is one of my favorite samples of his work. It’s also a rollicking story in its own right.

(And it’s free to acquire with a free Audible trial, so go for it!)

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  1. So TRUE! One of my favorite books to listen to is Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare, narrated by Daniel Sharman. He absolutely NAILS the women’s voices (and there are a lot of them), making them each distinct and strong. And his accent changes are incredible. There is a mix of Welsh, British, Celtic, and American among several others. Hands down my favorite audio book.

  2. As a woman and a singer, I agree so much with this.

  3. Definitely check out the Sabriel series by Garth Nix. Tim Curry does the narration, and he hits it out of the park.

  4. Dresden Files book series narrated by Spike from Buffy (huge variety of tonalities and voices, sexpot voice is reserved for the sexpots…because the other women characters would crawl outta the book and kill him). Jim Dale on the Potter books is fun. There is a female narrator my cousin and I love but it has been years (she nailed guys so well you didn’t even notice it was a woman) if I remember what series that was I will let you know – it was Urban Fantasy genre too. I agree – I have bailed on books because of bad voices (and because I got sick of listening to them lick their lips – REALLY??!).

  5. This. Is why l refuse to listen to audiobooks 😂😂

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