When it comes to voicing characters, it probably goes without saying that a voiceover artist can have a field day crafting an arsenal of varying, unique voices. Whether it be for narrating an epic fantasy audiobook, multiple characters in a video game, or a number of cartoon characters over the course of a career, the VO artist who specializes in character voices needs to be able to draw from a wide range of voices. Not all characters are created equally, and neither are their voices. Size, gender, age, emotions, circumstance, life experience, etc. all play into how a character sounds. That said, there’s no such thing as a one-voice-fits-all approach.
Not all voice actors will be able to provide the right voice for every character. So, while I stand by there not being a one-voice-fits-all approach to character voice acting, you’ll often find voice actors tending toward a type of voice they’re really great at producing and voicing characters who all share that similar kind of vocal style. Voice actors may excel at multiple voice styles, but no one is going to do them all well.
I, for instance, will likely never convincingly pull off a character who requires an extremely deep basso voice, no matter how much I may want to. Sure, there are techniques to help me expand my vocal range so I can push down into a lower register over time, but that deep, rich, resonant bass sound is not where I’m innately gifted. My voice is naturally higher and I’m able to reach into even higher registers quite easily. With that in mind, I tend to look for auditions that need voices for young characters or characters that have a youthful sound. Half the battle in character voice acting is finding your niche and learning to create variety within it.
That’s not to say voice actors are limited to the parameters of their natural voice. There are all kinds of characters that need voices, and a voice actor can certainly build up a diverse resumé. Mel Blanc, Nancy Cartwright, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, and Debi Derryberry are just a few voice actors who have had extremely successful careers voicing a vast array of fun, distinctive characters. Even among these VO titans, though, you might notice similarities in the voices they use to bring different characters to life.
So, how do voice actors come up with so many different—even if the differences are miniscule—voices? First of all, it’s not as tough as it may seem initially. The human voice is a remarkably versatile instrument, and one needs only learn how to manipulate it in order to establish a surprisingly large reservoir of character voices. Again, no single person is going to be able to adequately pull off every kind of voice, but there are still so many ways you can make minor adjustments within your vocal wheelhouse to produce more voices than you’ll ever know what to do with.
When it comes to creating a specific character voice, one of the best first steps I’ve come across is studying an image of the character. This is tougher if an image isn’t available, but there is often at least a minimal character description to draw from. If an image is available, take some time to examine what the character looks like. How big are they? How old are they? Does the character require a masculine or feminine voice? How do they hold themselves? Are there any physical features that may affect their voice or speech (e.g., large nose, buck teeth, lolling tongue, puckered lips, etc.). Simply looking over the character’s appearance can often give you most of what you need to create the foundation of what that character will sound like.
What do you do if a character’s voice requires great nuance, though? Or what if you’ve created so many character voices that “new” ones are starting to sound re-used?
For what follows, I’m pulling from the video linked below, How To Create 100 Distinctly Different Voices from Darren McStay’s YouTube channel, Improve Your Voice. He is an excellent voiceover resource for anyone with a desire to learn more about VO and lots of time to kill. I highly recommend watching through the full video if this is an area of interest, as I’ll only be summarizing here.
So, how do you go about crafting new character voices when your creative juices are coming up dry? Believe it or not, a popular movement theory used in dance and theatre is a great place to start. In the first half of the 20th century, Hungarian dance artist, Rudolf Laban, developed a theory of movement that actors still use today to help them understand internal impulses and develop expressiveness in their body movements when embodying a character role. The Laban Movement Analysis looks at eight “efforts” or categorizations of human movement. When extrapolated, these efforts can also be applied to vocal expression to help voice actors develop an incredible range of distinct voices.
Laban’s efforts, when applied to voice, give us eight vocal bases to begin with:
1. Dabbing voice
2. Flicking voice
3. Pressing voice
4. Thrusting voice
5. Wringing voice
6. Slashing voice
7. Gliding voice
8. Floating voice
These efforts act as basic descriptors of the texture and character a voice has. Again, I highly recommend watching the video for more in-depth examples of what these sound like and how they’re structured.
So, right off the bat, we have eight distinct voices to experiment with. But wait! There’s more. From there, you can add a variety of other elements to further develop and distinguish your own collection of character voices. Try adjusting your Pressing voice with a masculine vs a feminine perspective. Or explore how your Slashing voice sounds with a different air texture (i.e., breathy or dry). Take any of the eight efforts and mix and match them with one or more of the following elements:
· Air Placement (nasally, throaty, mixed)
· Air Texture (breathy, dry)
· Age Range (young, middle-aged, old)
· Gender (masculine, feminine)
· Size (small, medium, large)
· Tempo (slow, medium, fast)
· Volume (quiet, mid-range, loud)
· Tone/Attitude (friendly, impartial, aggressive)
When you begin combining the above elements with the eight efforts, you’ll find pretty quickly that there is a treasure trove of character voices you can come up with that work well for your voice. Spoiler alert for the video—there are WAY more than 100 unique voices you can create when using this method. And that doesn’t even begin to incorporate accents or vocal/speech impediments into the mix!
The next time you have a creative block when coming up with that perfect voice, give this method a try. You might just stumble upon a voice you never knew you were able to produce before!
If any of you have tried this or a similar trick to creating character voices, let me know how it has worked for you. Have you been able to develop a unique voice that has brought you success? If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a shot and tell me about your experience with the process. Being an artist is all about exploration and discovery. I’d love to hear what you learn.
Lastly, I just want to give a final plug to Darren McStay and his incredible YouTube channel, Improve Your Voice. He really does have an incredible collection of information, tips, tricks, and exercises for voice artists.
Until next time, friends, keep telling stories.
Voiceover Artist | Storyteller | Professional Nerd
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