Reading a bedtime story to young children is one of life’s unfettered joys. There they lie, tucked beneath the covers, eager to be transported to some far away land where small furry creatures who speak in rhyme serve up fluorescent green breakfasts or children sent to bed without dinner are whisked away to a land of dancing beasts. But it takes particular set of skills to read the story aloud in such a way that kids can almost taste those green eggs and ham or feel the reverberation of the wild rumpus.
That’s why we recruited Hynden Walch to lend some advice. While Walch has lent her voice to dozens of cartoons and video game, including such marque comic book characters as “Teen Titan”’s Starfire and “Batman”’s Harley Quinn, she’s best known as the voice of Princess Bubblegum, the rageaholic ruler of Candy Kingdom, on “Adventure Time”. Over seven seasons, Bubblegum has revealed vast reserves of depth, evolving from a one-dimensional candy monarch into a warrior-scientist who manipulates her world with informed wisdom while keeping it casual with her peeps.
We spoke to Walch about the art of using speech to tell complex tales and offered tips on how non-professionals can use their voice to tell better bedtime stories.
How to Find Your Voice
“I do it from the inside out. In fact, I hardly even think about the sound that comes out. It’s about who you’re playing and how you feel. You can get little tricks like maybe she talks out of the side of her mouth but I don’t do it from a technical outside in kind of thing. If I’m doing somebody different, then they’re going to sound completely different.”
On Creating Different Characters
“It’s more instinctive than it is analyzed. You just discover who it is and then the voice comes out. When you really know who somebody is, all kinds of things come out. So Bubblegum is me, yes and sounds like me because I’ve been playing her the whole time. But she’s also the writers and the artist.”
Feel the Mood
“Bodies are overrated. They’re not really required (laughs). When you’re living it and feeling it, it doesn’t matter if the camera is trained on you, a camera is trained on your or just eyes. Because you’re really experiencing it. You feel those emotions and it sounds however it sounds. I don’t think about how it sounds when I’m crying, I’m just feeling the sadness. The sounds that come out are natural.”
Bedtime Story Reading 101
1. Go slower than you think
“Reading from a book, you should go slower than you think. The tempo is slower so everyone can understand what’s going on and create the visual pictures books give you.”
2. Pay attention to punctuation
“Be guided by the punctuation. It’s there for a reason. It will get you more into the story if you follow it. Those editors at publishing companies are very talented. They divide up the English language in clauses and phrases in excellent ways that increase comprehension. So, when you’re reading aloud, hook into that.”
3. Don’t get too into character
“With other characters and dialogue that come up, get into them slowly. Don’t make them too different from your own voice because that will make the people listening nervous. Unless you’re a gifted mimic, in which case go ahead. But otherwise, everyone knows you’re reading one text. You’re not eight people. Just give them a different thought process in the dialogue. All good authors make the characters distinct in how they speak, so tap into that and feel those feelings.”
4. Keep gender distinctions normal
“A big thing that comes up with audiobooks is how female narrators read male characters and especially how male narrators read female characters. It’s almost embarrassing sometimes. They get very high and feminine, which has nothing to do with who the character is. The thought is just that it’s a woman so I’ll be ridiculously girly. Watch out for that. Just sound normal. Sound like you.”
5. Remember the motivation of characters
“Voldemort doesn’t go around thinking he’s scary. Voldemort goes around thinking he’s right. His view of the world is really, really, really distorted. Ralph Fiennes, in the movie, he just went cold. Cold and right. You can find every character if you can find out how they think they’re right.
Everybody believes in their own cause. Almost nobody is, like, I am doing wrong. I am the worst person ever and everything I do is evil. Be aware there are differences between the characters but you don’t want to have to hit it over the head. If you just feel different, it’ll sound different.”
6. Exploit silence and pauses for dramatic effect
“This is enormously important. Enormous. You can make someone so uncomfortable with a pause. You can absolutely create tension. I do a show called “Teen Titans Go” and the cast on that show is so great.
I loved just filling the room with pain by staying quiet. Just absolutely filling the room with pain. You take as much pause as you need to get what you want to feel. When everybody else is in the room right there with you, they’re like oh my God. Are you ok?"
7. Think before editorializing
“It depends on your audience. If you guys are close, talk about it and have fun. If you’re reading in front of an audience of people, you should probably let the author’s work do the work.”