When we think of character work in voice acting, obvious genre choices like animation and gaming rise to the surface. Jumping in to the concept of character work from here, “characters” (not to be confused with character actors) refers to the roles that are almost never the antagonist or protagonist. They’re the supporting roles, those that are eccentric, unusual, or capture our interest in some way. Done well, they capture our attention and live in our memories. Done poorly, they fall into tropes and stylized cookie-cutter 2-dimensional caricatures that don’t resonate with us.
The same tools actors use to create authentic, original characters in animation and gaming acting, form the basis for commercial and narration work as well. Does this mean that everyone is a character? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Much in the same way that every character can (and should) be very real.
How To Breathe Life Into Your Character Work
In order to begin to breathe life into a character, you have to understand who that character is. First look to the role and the project and dig for any clues or direction from the specifications for the job or role, from the director, or from the script itself. In animation and gaming, you’re often given more information than in medical narration, for example, but there are always at least some clues as to who is speaking and why.
Then ask questions about how you would act/react in that role. Flesh it out. Build more than they give you. Create your backstory and your world. Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going? What is making you say what you need to say (aka the lines in your script)? Really try to engage your imagination and live in the world you create for your character. This will help you to react organically and from an honest reflection of what you would do if you were them, in their circumstances, with their needs and motivations.
For film and theatre roles this list of questions will run deep. Actors in these areas are used to a longer preparatory period and time to live, breathe, work, eat, and sleep as the character. Nothing stops us from putting this kind of work into our voiceover characters, even with far less time to do some imaginative world-building. In fact, in my honest opinion, it can only lead us to more authentic choices behind the microphone.
Uta Hagen (another of my favs) had a list of nine questions she suggested answering for building characters in her classic “Respect for Acting”:
- Who am I?
- Where am I?
- What surrounds me?
- What time is it?
- What are the given circumstances?
- What is my relationship?
- What do I want?
- What’s in my way?
- What do I do to get what I want?
Tools For Building Voice Over Characters
I teach a shortcut version of Ms. Hagen’s list specifically geared for voiceover acting in my private coaching sessions with special direction on how to make these choices really come alive for you despite being alone within the confines of your small padded recording space.
One of the ways to enliven your choices is to engage your senses. Yes, you are working in the medium of sound but (as long as the mic doesn’t pick it up) you should bring physicality to your role. Start with how this character might feel – are they tired, excited, do they slouch, are they ramrod stiff with fear? Then also use other senses like touch, taste, and smell. And then, much like you used to do when you were little, visualize what is going on around you. To paraphrase Jen Craine from the NY Film Academy, really immerse yourself in what the character is experiencing. Then because you are prepared, take a moment and focus.
To find inspiration for these moments in the booth, make sure you’re taking time to look around you as you go about your daily life. Use one of the sharpest tools in the actor’s kit – your powers of observation – and study human behavior all around you. Remember how people sound, talk, behave, and react to each other and bring this play into your own work.
Lots of my students ask for references to acting classes and books. Here are three more of my favorite books on character work:
Building a Character Constantin Stanislavski
The Actor’s Guide to Creating a Character: William Esper Teaches the Meisner William Esper, Damon DiMarco et al.
Tools and Techniques for Character Interpretation: A Handbook of Psychology for Actors, Writers, and Directors Robert Blumenfeld