Post by Peter Watson-Wailes

As part of how I GM, I like to change my voice for more interesting NPCs. Whilst minor NPCs will simply get their actions and questions shown, if I think someone has a possibility of showing up again, I'll take a moment to note down a few basic pointers. Race, profession, skills, location, interaction point (act and scene), and notes on performing their voice. It's this last bit that's relevant today to anyone who's doing voice acting, whether for running RPGs or anything else.

The Components of Voice

The first thing to understand is the various parts that make up the texture of any voice. When thinking about this, I consider the following, which I think of as the basic foundations of how a person sounds...

Foundations: Sound

These are collectively the first set of variables I consider in voicing a character. You can think of these as the default settings for my voice for that character, rather than the acting variables. They give the specific sound, which I can then play with to create a performance.

Pitch

The pitch of your voice can be thought of in two ways - firstly the type of voice used (in terms of register - head, middle, or chest), and secondly the general pitch itself.

Base Speed

Whilst obviously you'll be using the speed you're talking to to convey emotion (speeding up to show nervousness or excitement, slowing down to be patronising and so on), your character will have a base speed for their speech. It's important you have an idea of where they start at, so your changes reflect the character you're voicing, not your own speed.

Tone

When I think of tone, I think of two distinct parts. The first is how open my mouth is, and the second is the position of my vocal chords.

For the first, I like to think of the mouth being open or closed. When it's open, I have a wide mouth, and create a lot of jaw movement to over-emphasise changes in the shape and volume of my mouth. When it's closed, I move my lips and jaw very little, and try and keep a consistent, static volume inside my mouth.

For the latter, this is down to where your sound production comes from. You can alter the position of your voice box and vocal resonance, to speak more from your chest or head, without altering pitch or vocal register. Take a listen to the examples in the recording below.

Diction

Diction is the last of the mechanical parts of a voice. This is related to the mouth part of tone, but this time rather than using our mouth to change our voice, we're going to change how much we use our lips and tongue, and how synchronised they are. Through doing this, we can have a clipped, precise voice, or a sloppy, drawling one.

I also put vocal fry in this category, although there's an argument for putting it in tone too. It depends partly on the accent you're doing, and how much it alters how you're voicing a character. However, I tend to think of it as a component of diction first and foremost.

With those "how we talk" pieces out of the way, we can now turn to the "what we say" pieces of a voice.

Foundations: Speech

In this second part of changing a voice, we get into slightly more character-driven pieces of vocal technique. For this, I'd suggest there are three basic components:

  1. Speed
  2. Volume
  3. Accent

For the first two, we use those to show change in a character. By altering the speed and volume that that particular character is using, we can give different interpretations of the same piece of text. For example, close your eyes when you listen, and consider the following two versions of the "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" speech, from Julius Caesar, Act III, scene II...

Damian Lewis as Mark Antony

Paterson Joseph as Mark Antony

Although we have two different accents coming in to play here, far more than that we have two very different speeds and volumes in play. These basic constructs allow for two very different presentations of the emotion behind the words. The same speech, ignoring the accent difference, comes across very differently, through changing just these things.

Finally of course, we have accent. For me, this is more about displaying geography and personal history in character, rather than anything else. However, that doesn't make it any less important or valuable, as it delivers characterisation to the piece. Also, with it being such a specialised thing, I'll be doing a separate post on that side next week.

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