THE BLOG

How to Discover and Create Original Characters for Animation and Games

02/11/2015 09:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

Certainly not every voice talent is required to offer flawless dialects, or extreme departures from themselves -- as so many as actors and audience alike might assume. Nope. The truth is you being you (as mundane as that may seem on the surface) is a bulk of what's required of you and your voice-over work. No producer is interested in obvious acting and indicating, and most often prefer completely natural, conversational deliveries above all else in every genre of voice-over. However, if you are a character actor, with a penchant for play and seriously interesting character voices... then flexing that character muscle is an urge and inclination that must be practiced.

When it comes to animation, games and what is now typically considered 'interactive' voice over, producers are after original character voices plausibly depicted in a familiar style or genre on your animated or interactive voice-over demos. Especially if it's character voices you've been sitting on and the broad public has yet to hear. Provided, of course, they don't hurt your pipes to recreate, or are so extreme they make the listener/viewer uncomfortable for you, the voice talent. Your mission as a voice actor is to forward the story -- not simply flex your own wacky (self-indulgent) impulses.

It may seem terribly obvious to mention this, but so many people, not just novice voice talent, mistakenly assume crazy character voices and marginal impersonations are the extent of all voice-over work. Granted the occasional character voice is needed and wanted on commercial, narrative or promo work. But if it's a character sound they're after -- they will audition you for it. Why? Because it's such an individual thing. Think about it. A truly unique character voice is nearly impossible to describe until you actually have the tangible right in front of you.

As it stands with standard commercial and narrative voice-over work, producers consistently tell us, "I'll know what I'm after when I hear it," much like most personality-driven work (which, frankly EVERYTHING is in the performance business). And they'll know whether they want to hear more of it... or not.

If you are among those compelled to do character voices and such, you absolutely MUST continue to flex that muscle with regularity. It's imperative! Otherwise that muscle will atrophy. If you are so inclined -- this is a great part of your best skill set and part of what makes you valuable as a talent.

With that in mind, I offer some of my greatest insights into discovering and creating original character voices for yourself. (Make note of the following to gain the most control of character as your voice develops to suit the project at hand.)

1. Begin with an impersonation... perhaps of an impersonation:

Many of the characters used in animation today are loose or distorted impersonations of old Hollywood stars, or famous people.

For instance, the voice of Stimpy, from Ren & Stimpy, is an exaggeration of Peter Lorre, rather than a direct impersonation.

With that in mind, take an impersonation of someone famous... even a bad impersonation... (Like Orson Welles or Jack Nicholson or Mae West) and see where that takes you. You must COMMIT completely to the character rather than come at it half way, regardless of how awkward or poor the impersonation might be.

2. Play with original voices you've inherited or developed from childhood:

I don't know a single soul who doesn't speak for their cat, dog or goldfish. Especially if you're a voice-over! This is usually a voice that stems from childhood, or a family character voice that's been morphed, magnified and manipulated a million ways to Sunday. Now's your chance to waltz these voices out into the sunlight.

Practice making a hybrid of this voice with that ridiculous impersonation of your Uncle, or your bad impression of Jack Nicholson or Christopher Walken. It will take you down an entirely different rabbit hole.

3. Consider your placement of your sound:

When creating each new voice, consider where your sound is centered and where you're projecting your performance.

Is your sound centered in your nose? In your throat? Is it a chest-voice?

Is this character missing teeth? Have too many teeth? Tongue too thick?

Are you speaking through your cheeks? Is this character well-spoken? Does this character have a speech impediment like a modified Daffy Duck? Is your sound centered in the back of your throat, or under your tongue?

We still need to be able to understand what you're saying, so this character's intention is everything!

4. Consider your characters' emotional center and intelligence:

It's key you master the ability to vary up the emotions while maintaining the characters' center and the character's primary point-of-view (POV).

Ask yourself is this character honest or rotten? Pleasant or putrid? Smart or dim-witted? Conniving or clueless? Nerdy and awkward or pompous and egotistical? Kind or cruel? Mischievous or a goodie-two-shoes? Heroic or nervous and frightened?

5. An exercise in developing your characters and mastering dexterity:

Consider the impersonations of your friends and family members you may have in your back pocket, whether they're oddball or not.

Use Alice In Wonderland or anything from Dr. Suess as your script in this voice.

Consider people you've mimicked in real life: at home, school or work throughout your life such as your mom, or your uncle, or your brother when he was teasing you at 12 or your little sister when she was 4 years old. Don't limit yourself to gender or age.

Play it from the age you are now and discover what plays out.

Define four or five characters. Who are they? Calibrate them on a scale of 1 to 10. (10 being the most exaggerated and fully animated, and 1 being the least.)

Go too far from the very start, and speak slowly while over enunciating. Speak with purpose. Then, do the entire read again with the same character and calibrate your performance down to 7, then 5, then 2. Not your volume, pitch or speed, but the over animation of the character. Do this a few times a week, and you'll discover some amazing characters while fine tuning your performance skills.

Be sure to record these sessions and listen to them afterward in their entirety. Log what you hear: your placement of sound, your thought process (i.e. Aunt Ginny meets Boris Karloff.)

This is a great place to begin.