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The world is full of real characters. How many are in your VO toolkit?

Edge Studio

You’re at the mic, and the Director says, “Do this as someone else – weird but likable.” Or whatever. What do you do? We’ve written previously about the value of developing characters ahead of time, and this situation is one reason to do that.

But where do you find fresh, interesting character voices? The answer is, “all around you!” Here are a few suggestions:


Here’s a great excuse to take time away from your busy day. Sample reality and news shows. Hopefully you’ll even enjoy them. The subject matter maybe mundane, but these are a great source of real voices from around the country and around the world. With so many programs these days being about life in the back country, you’ll hear a lot of prototypes of that sort. But don’t focus only there. Check out more “typical” people, too. Listen for how one person in the same scene differs from another. How are they similar?

Beware that some reality shows are actually more or less scripted, and, regardless, some of the “characters” you encounter might not actually be from the area depicted. But even if what they say is scripted, their accent probably isn’t. And even if their accent is a hodge-podge of various locales, it’s a character, and that’s what you’re looking for.

Record the voice, and get to work at the mic. Play a phrase, then repeat it precisely. Don’t just focus on the accent. Focus on everything about it. How do they pause? What nonverbal sounds do they perhaps include? Can you reproduce their voice placement (chest, nasal, combo, etc.) and timbre? For example, you might echo someone saying, “Let’s make this work.” You think you’ve matched it precisely, but it still sounds like you, not the prototype. What’s different? Maybe your voice is more vocally free, whereas theirs is constricted, maybe with a bunch of glottal stops. Or just the opposite. What’s their body language. How loud do they speak? And when you’ve got this skill down, think about what one aspect (at a time) you might change or exaggerate to make the character more interesting or distinctive … when that is called for.

Listen to the characters all around you.

Here’s some advice and a tip from Larry Davis (who does a great Morgan Freeman and other characters) and Elizabeth Stuart (another very talented voice artist), when they were guests on East West Audio Body Shop last spring (they have since changed the name to VOBS). (Click here to watch full episode – EP 186, April 28, 2015, 1:01.)

Davis said,

“We always try to find new places to get what we call ‘CD.’ When we’re in a restaurant or we’re out somewhere, or we’re in an elevator, and we hear someone doing like a strange sound, or a weird cadence, or a weird lilt, we’ll look at each other and go, ‘C.D.”…and that means Character Development. We’re picking up what this lady did, and then we’ll go back in the hall (when no one’s around ), we’re not trying to make fun of people, but then immediately what we do is we start working on what we just heard. … You never know when you’re going to need something.”

Precisely. It’s a handy tool to have.

Incorporate regionalisms

Use of regionally-specific words, phrases and pronunciations are another way to change up a character (that is, when you have freedom to play with the script).

For example, in the same EWABS episode, co-host George Whittam observed there are yet other alternatives to “you,” “you guys” or “y’all”:

“If you’re in Pittsburgh, it’s ‘whatta y’ins gonna do, but if you’re in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, it’s ‘what’re youz gonna do?’ Pennsylvania is a cornucopia of crazy accents. My favorite word from my hometown is ‘hoagie,’ but you’ve got to say ‘haewgy.’” [Actually, we have no idea how to spell the way he said it.]

Give it a shot, and show up with ammo in the chamber.

As Davis also advised,

“It’s fun, you’re on the spot, but it’s fun. You’ve got to do it. What are you going to do, not do it? You might not be great at an Italian voice, or maybe you don’t do whatever, but when you’re asked to do an improv or something that’s out of your comfort zone, you’d better give it a try. Go for it. At least you’re doing it, and everyone else said no because they’re too embarrassed. But you’re doing it. You showed up.”

So give it your best shot. And if you’ve done your exploration, homework and practice ahead of time, your “best shot” will be that much better.