Voice Character Performance

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What is Voice Characterization?

Commercially produced audio books can have a single reader performing multiple Voice Characters. The use of Voice Characters better engages the listener, stimulates the visualization of characters in the story and generally provides a more entertaining listening experience. In brief, Voice Characterization is more about acting than it is about simply reading a story.

A repertoire of convincing Voice Characters is the mark of a professional. As with a professional qualification in any endeavor, it does not come without hard work and practice. Natural ability alone will not be sufficient.

I really want to do Voice Characters – Where should I start?

Before attempting to create any Voice Characters for use in your story telling, it is always a good idea to first develop your own voice to its fullest capability. Your own voice is the foundation upon which all other voices you develop will depend, so make it strong. Here are some tips to help you in this area:

  • Seek out opportunities to speak in public. This could be a presentation related to work or simply telling stories to friends and family. If you have time, consider taking a public speaking class at your local community college. There is nothing better than a live audience to help you develop and hone your speaking skills because you can see the reaction of the audience and tune your delivery in accordance with those reactions.
  • Modulate your speaking tones. There is nothing that will lose an audience more quickly than a monotone delivery. The best stories in the world delivered in monotone will not be appreciated. Marginal stories delivered with good modulation and emotion will be remembered.
  • Get over the effect of listening to how strange your own voice sounds to you. Everyone has felt this way the first few times they have heard themselves speak on a recording. Yes, it’s disconcerting because we never imagined that we sounded that way and we feel oddly ashamed about ourselves because of it. Now you have to just get over it! Detach yourself from such emotions and listen to your voice with a dispassionate ear.
  • Honestly critique your own style. Find a story that you like – it doesn’t even have to be in the public domain – and then record it. If it is a short story, record all of it. If it’s a novel, find a chapter or two that you really enjoy and then record them. The purpose here is not to make it available to the public (which you can’t do if it’s not public domain) but to simply play it back for yourself. Listen to your delivery with a critical ear and take note of places where you stumbled or rushed through the delivery. Then, record it again to improve upon your first attempt. Experiment with your voice and try to find where your real range is—since you are not going to release this recording for others to hear, the pressure is off and the learning is on!

I’m pretty confident with my own voice – How do I develop Voice Characters?

Character development is normally done one character at a time. When you have perfected one character, you can then move on to the next. Eventually, you will have developed an entire family of characters. From this point on, you will never be truly alone– you can have your characters debate each other until the guys with the white coats show up. Seriously though, a repertoire of voices can be a powerful ally in recording audio books.

There is no shortcut to developing a credible Voice Character. Even developing cartoon voices that have no basis in normal human speech is a long and inventive process. When you are developing the voice for a character, you will need to study the character thoroughly. In Public Domain literature written long ago, it is not going to be an easy thing to do. How can you go back in time and observe a miner or a cowboy character that appears in a Zane Grey novel? What did they really sound like, what were the manners of their speech? Nobody alive today has memory of them and precious few recordings (if any) survive. However, you can study people in the rural west and make some interpretations of how they may have sounded.

This is the key word: Interpretation. Your Voice Character is going to be your interpretation of a class, race or gender of human beings. Pulled off well and with respect, it can be a joyful wonder. But when it comes off poorly, it can be viewed as pitiful at best and derogatory at worst.

The following tips can help you put your Voice Character in the best possible light:

  • Find some way to identify with the character. A fifty year old man is probably not going to find it easy to identify with a teenage girl. It is likely that his portrayal of this character would be a sorry thing to hear. Choose well the Voice Characters you plan to develop so that you have some chance at success.
  • Stay within your range. If your natural voice is rumbling in the basement, it is unlikely that you are going to develop a soprano Voice Character. If your natural voice is in the high range, you would probably not think that you could develop a Voice Character of a burly longshoreman on the waterfront of Seattle. This may lead you to think that you cannot develop certain characters but that is not necessarily true. Not all children and women speak in alto or soprano tones and not all men are basso profundo. A man does not necessarily have to stretch himself with falsetto speaking in order to do child Voice Characterization but the manner of the speaking must be truly recognizable as that of a child or it will ring false.
  • Closely observe those who have the attributes of the character you are developing. If you plan to develop a Voice Character of a rural black living in Mississippi, you are probably not going to have much success in doing so from your living room in Los Angeles. However if you are planning to develop a Voice Character of an old and confused man, there are plenty of opportunities for such observation in nursing homes and senior centers all around the country. You can give them attention and a listening ear and learn from them in return.
  • Voice Characterization uses many of the same skills that actors use on stage. You will need to master the sound and rhythm of the voice but you will also need to immerse yourself into the character. You will need to actually become the Voice Character you have chosen. Do anything less and the effort will ring hollow to you and to your listeners. If you were doing a Voice Characterization of the old man, let your mind slow and feel the weight of those long years of life that are now behind you.
  • Consider getting involved in Community Theater or take some acting classes. It is not a coincidence that many professional audio book readers are also actors. Many of the same skills and techniques used on the stage are used in commercial audio book production. If you are serious about striving toward perfection in your characterizations, these skills will be invaluable to you.
  • Once your Voice Character starts to gel for you, practice the character often. Use the voice in conversations with family and friends. The telephone is a perfect place to fall into character– it is only one step away from speaking into a microphone, you aren’t distracted by the reaction of your audience and they can always hang up on you if they become tired of it. When they don’t hang up and become rapt or entertained, then you know that your Voice Character is coming together.

A Final Word on Voice Characterization

The readers used to produce commercial audio books are professionals. Many of them spend six hours or more each day using their voices in readings, voice-overs and other similar productions. This gives them a distinct advantage in developing Voice Characters since their learning curve is much shorter. In many cases, they already have a core set of characters developed and they can simply draw one out and adapt it to the story at hand.

They have a distinct advantage in developing Voice Characters due to their training. They also have the advantage of a director, producer, professional sound stage and equipment, engineers who do all the editing and mixing and many other things that are not at the disposal of a solitary LibriVox reader sitting at home with a personal computer and a USB headset! The production is a team effort and the reader has immediate and effective feedback about what is working and what is not working in the reading.

Even with all this professional background and support, commercial readers may still have to spend significant time in developing a Voice Character if they have no prior experience to draw upon. There are no shortcuts to developing credible characters.

Finally, there are technology solutions that you can deploy in changing the Voice Characters you have recorded. You can raise or lower the pitch and speed up or slow down the tempo within your audio software application. Many of the higher-end audio recording software packages have such filters and effects built into them. These tools are tempting to use and can be amusing, but they will not make you a better reader nor will they produce a credible Voice Character.