Things to know about Character Voices

Being able to change or manipulate the way your voice ‘sounds’ is a great skill.

Understanding the mechanics of how to do this when you’re creating character voices is key to being a versatile voice actor.

I want to talk about how it works in the voiceover industry and give you some techniques, exercises, insights and information that will help you improve your skills.

I also want to draw your attention to two different ways we’re asked to find character voices.

One is for a cartoon or animation, where we create a voice from an image.

For this, you take all your clues for the voice style and personality of the character, from the way it looks, aided by the character brief of course.

The other is for an audio, such as a character in a radio ad, where you’re just relying on your disembodied voice. For this work, you need to create a strong visual for your character.

That’s where voice acting comes into it.

I get a lot of calls and emails from, as well as coach, many who want to work in animation and games, because they love to create character voices.

Often they’re natural mimics, and have been entertaining family and friends for years, with their quirky cartoon voices, or uncanny take offs of friends and famous people.

If you recognize yourself here, you’ll know that you’re almost always improvising.

Improvisation is fun and spontaneous. It lives in the moment and I’ve seen many, many wonderfully entertaining, if not brilliant, improvs in my life and career.

But there’s a big difference between jumping into character at a party, improvising and wowing everyone in the room…and working with:

  • a script
  • an image of the character
  • a creative brief, and
  • a cast of other players

When you create character voices for animation or games, you’re working in the ‘visual’ world. That is, your characterization is supported by an image.

In animation and games you don’t just need a repertoire of different character voices, you need great voice acting skills.

 You need to be able to look at an image of the character and find the right voice.

Then you need to be brilliant at delivering ‘story’ through the words on the page.

Most often, for lead or principal cast roles, you’ll be sent the script before hand and will work with the other cast members in the studio.

For smaller and guest roles, you’ll sometimes get the script or scene/scenes on arrival at the studio and just be working alone with the director and engineer producing you.

I also coach those who want to work in the commercial world and believe they have the ability to do character voices for ads.

When you’re working in the commercial world – with the exception of creating a voice for a ‘visual’ character for a TV Ad, such as the M&M’s characters – you’re, more often than not, working with a radio script that requires you to ‘jump into someone else’s shoes’.

This work requires you to understand the art and skill of working with a script that you’ve just been handed.

 You’ll need to find a way into the character and tell the story from their perspective, creating an entertaining and believable character that sounds ‘real’, not cartoony.

And the most important aspect of doing character voices in the commercial world is this:

 It’s an ad.

Ad’s are full of key words and phrases that are written to convince the ‘half-listening’ audience to do something:

  • buy the product,
  • attend the event,
  • think differently, or
  • give from the heart.

Here, you’re working in the ‘disembodied voice’ world. That is, your voice is all you’re relying on to create a believable character and, more importantly, get the advertisers message across.

So, as you can see there’s a difference in the way you approach each.

However, the skills you need before you even get into the studio are pretty much the same.

The first and most important aspect is:

Gathering a Repertoire of Voices – An exercise in Listening

This is key for both kinds of voice acting.

I gathered my ‘character voices’ from people I heard out there in the world that were interesting, quirky, entertaining or classic of their type, whether it was a lady with a whiskey and cigarettes voice or a clichéd uni student.

I also listen for the way emotion ‘sounds’ with people.

How does someone who’s passive aggressive speak?

What about someone who’s just heard bad news, someone who’s in love, inspired, or completely indecisive?

Perhaps you already do this and perhaps you have a solid repertoire. Great!

You’ll need to be able to dip into your unique stash of voices when you’re in the studio.

If not, then begin to collect voices…‘characters’. They’re everywhere. Memorize them!

When you listen to the voice, notice what the person looks like. Memorise them visually. I visualize very strongly when I’m working with characters.

The reason for that is you’ll need to ‘physicalize’ them.

The character is not just coming from your voice choices, it’s aided by the way you think about the shape and type of the body the voice is coming from.  

I would also add that if you can create 6 fabulously entertaining character voices that are unrecognizable as you, then you probably have the natural ability required.

Taking clues from the visual or image you’re sent 

When you’re voicing for animation or games, you’ll know what your character looks like because you will have been sent an image of the character.

This will have happened as part of the audition process, so by the time you get to the studio to do the work you’ll need to have made solid character decisions.

In fact, if you get through the audition to the job, it’s because what you managed to create for that character was perfect.

So, usually, apart from refining certain character traits, this is what you’ll be working with.

If you want to work in the field of animation, you need to know how to build a great character.

But how do you make sure it does hit the spot?

First of all, you’ll need to take ideas from the way it looks

Take an image such as this. Let’s call him ‘Wally’.

Those teeth would need to figure in the way he talks.

Those wicked, slightly manic eyes give clues as to attitude.

Look at, and into your character, not for just how it sounds, but find clues as to why it sounds that way.

Another thing that will really help you is understanding how phonetics play a part in speech.

No matter what accent or character voice you’re trying to create, the structure inside the mouth is what changes the sound of your voice.

For Wally, the phonetic structure is shaped by those buck-teeth.

Play with that structure now.

When you put your front teeth over your bottom lip and begin to speak, you’re charging the phonetic structure in your mouth and you should sound unlike yourself.

This will allow you to play further with the shape of ‘language’.

Changing phonetic structure inside the mouth, to change your voice is often about which muscles you engage.

Go to Youtube and search for speakers from any country speaking English and watch how their mouth and faces look (what muscles they use) to speak.

For instance the French work forward in the mouth.

When you’re, literally, ‘holding your mouth right’, you can then think about ‘what voice will work with all the clues you’ve been given’.

Just a tip:

You do need to make sure that whatever you choose or concoct, that your character can be understood.

Get yourself prepared for anything.

That way, the next time you’re invited to audition for an animation series or production, or are faced with an advertising script that needs you to quickly get a solid idea of who, where and what your character is, you’ll have a little bag of character voices and tricks to draw from.

Happy Voiceovering!!!