Voicing a character, or giving a character a voice?

Sometimes, the characters you voice – or, for you authors, the ones you write about – aren’t who they seem at first.

Several years ago, I was watching a behind-the-scenes TV program about an animated kids’ show.  One of the lead characters, a young African-American boy, was voiced by a white woman, and the show’s creators were explaining why.  It had nothing to do with race, accent, or any other sterotypical ‘traits’ one might expect.

Quite the opposite.

When auditioning for the role, the voice actor simply read the lines as a young child; no ethnic accents, no unnatural changes in tone, just a normal child’s voice. And the casting director loved it. (It’s days like this that I wish I could remember the show, so I could give the voice actor credit!)  The producers agreed that having a neutral child’s voice was the best thing for the show, and it worked well – the show was very popular and ran for several seasons.

(Still can’t remember the show.  Stupid old age…)

The reason I bring this up is because I also recently voiced a character who wasn’t supposed to be quite the way the producers had intended…and it got me thinking about the trap of stereotyping.

“When did y’all develop that accent, anyway?”

Without divulging too much info about this project, here’s what happened:  I received an audition to voice an American soldier from the early 1700’s.  He was from the South Carolina area, and had three or four sentences to speak.  Because of the region of the U.S. in which the action was taking place, the audition stated he should have a slight Southern accent.

Problem was, in the early 1700’s, there was no such thing as a Southern accent!  We had barely settled this land, we were all still British citizens, and we were all still speaking the Queen’s English.

So what’s an obedient voice actor to do?

I dutifully recorded a take with the Southern accent, as requested. Then I recorded two additional takes with a British accent, explaining in my email to the producer why.

The producer ended up agreeing with me.  She asked me to record a couple more takes with the British accent, and we were done! She thanked me for bringing that to her attention, and I thanked her for being so open-minded.

Don’t try to find the character – let the character find you

Whether you are a voice actor or an author, once you know what the character is…you need to find out who he or she is.  Voicing characters is not always about funny voices. It’s about giving life to an entity, a creation.  Maybe it’s a funny character, maybe it’s not.  Maybe it’s a young, inner-city child, perhaps it’s a pre-Revolutionary War soldier from the Carolinas.

But just like a comedian rarely goes with his first thought when coming up with a joke, take some time to consider whether or not the voice you’re about to give your character really is his or her voice.  Granted, you have to work within the parameters of the description given by the producer or casting director.  But just because he’s a tough cop, doesn’t mean his voice has to be gravelly.   Just because she’s a lonely housewife, doesn’t mean she has to sound milquetoast.*

My CAD Equitek E-100s!
Click here for a sample of characters I have voiced. (The soldier is featured on the Voice Acting demo)

Voice actors, think about the character and who they are, their circumstances, their history/backstory.  Ask yourself if the voice you’re going to use is honest, or clichéd?

Writers…do the same thing! Often, the best characters are not the ones upon which you foist specific traits and quirks, but the ones you allow to grow and develop.

Just remember, when auditioning, follow the casting director’s rules – but know that sometimes it’s ok to step a little outside those bounds now and then.  There is a big difference between providing an original voice and completely disregarding your instructions. Know that difference, and the line will be easier to walk.

And even if the casting instructions do indicate a style or tone that may seem stereotypical, many times you can get away with voicing a ‘wild’ take, as many of us call them, after your first take.  That is, give the producer or director something they may not have been expecting, and explain why.  If it’s a good enough reason, you may have just set yourself apart from all the other gravelly-throated voice actors out there.

* (Is that not a great American word, or what? Don’t know what it means? Look it up!)

8 thoughts on “Voicing a character, or giving a character a voice?

  1. Hi Matt, your blog post reminded me of a brilliant piece written by veteran actor Stephen Tobolowsky: “How to read a script as an actor.” (http://www.backstage.com/advice-for-actors/backstage-experts/how-read-script-actor/)

    My frustration is this: The total lack of character description when receiving an invite to submit a demo. Too many auditions simply tell you:

    “Male. English. Middle-aged.”

    That’s it. The middle-aged part is a blissful bonus.

    How are we supposed to find our destination without a clear map of the territory?

    When doing a corporate read, one doesn’t need a five-page backstory. For the more dramatic roles, vague descriptions are useless.

    My agents will usually provide me with a few clues about how the client wants the character to sound like. P2P’s on the other hand, still stick to the “less is more” format.

    It’s utterly unhelpful.


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Paul! Your link isn’t working, but I think I may have read that the other day. I agree, lack of information is extremely frustrating.

      I just voiced an audition over the weekend that required three different voices conversing, but no indication of what those voices were supposed to sound like; one in particular sounded like it could have been a tough guy, a sarcastic fellow , or a superhero-type. I did my best and gave a couple of variations…but I unfortunately have no idea if I gave them what they were looking for.


  2. Thank you for this interesting glimpse into your world of voice acting!

    I think there’s a lot here for writers to put into practice too, especially when we’re writing in the voice of someone not ourselves. I love this advice you give: “Often, the best characters are not the ones upon which you foist specific traits and quirks, but the ones you allow to grow and develop.”

    That takes time, but it’s probably time well spent.


    1. I think anyone who’s done a fair amount of fiction writing – or even poetry – knows the joy of discovering who their characters are as they write them. How many times has an author started off with a particular character in mind, only to realize the character is someone else entirely, halfway through the story?


  3. I always find when voicing for characters that the more information about the
    background of the character etc, the closer you’ll get to finding the right voice. Although sometimes it is better to have a few different styles as this makes it easier for the client to find out what they DON’T like!


  4. Pingback: Voicing a character, or giving a character a voice? | Voiceover | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: THE BOY IN THE ROOM | aapatawaran

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