For Voice Actors

How To Keep Characters Straight When Reading Multiple Roles

When you’re reading for a project that involves multiple voices and drastically different characterizations, how do you keep all of those voices straight while maintaining a steady read as each word dances off the page?

Hear about several techniques that professional voice actors use to distinguish character voices when reading in today’s VOX Daily.

Just Ask!

In the Voice Acting Hub, I happened to come across a question from Brian Rollins that reads:

Brian Rollins avatar“When recording a novel (or any story with multiple characters), do you make notes or marks to differentiate the characters? I’m using different colored highlights for the short stories I’m doing (about four to six characters with dialog) but I wonder how you would tackle something bigger.”

This got me thinking and I posted a status on my own Facebook page asking for tips from people who could provide insight and practical tips.

How Do You Differentiate Characters?

There are many different ways you can go about this as the comments below will show. The primary methods appear to include:
๏ Highlighting
๏ Annotation
๏ Hooks
๏ Physicality

Taking A More Cerebral Approach

Maggie Mustico avatarMaggie Mustico has mastered the art of organizing characters, sharing “I did an audio book that had 34 different voices including the narrator (Pixie Warrior). I would go through each chapter and write down who was in the chapter that had lines, then I would go and distinguish each character by highlighting main characters and then went to a large box of different color markers and underlined where I couldn’t highlight or I put a dash next to the line.

I also had my cheat sheet of colors to characters. I was lucky that each chapter would at the most have between 4-10 voices at a time. Before I sat down to record the book. I would figure out each voice, record a few lines for that character and save it as sample file so when I needed to do that voice I could go and listen to my sample file and recreate it.”

John McLain avatarJohn McLain uses a couple of different methods to differentiate characters but finds that his usage of these techniques depends on the complexity of a passage, noting, “If a passage has a lot of non-attributed dialogue, I will highlight and/or annotate. But for short, well-attributed passages with just a couple of characters, I typically don’t need to. It just depends on the writing.”

Bob Derro avatarBob Derro takes a slightly different approach. “I use a variety of ‘hooks’ which work well for my brain. Everybody’s brain works differently at recognizing text variation. Try it…you’ll see. No one easily understands my printing or writing however my brain gets it. When I hit a challenging spot in a script I write it out, then coordination between eyes, brain and mouth is automatic. If I have a text problem in reading flow or a stressed word is needed I will add a stroke line before and after the word. Automatically it stands out and after reading it aloud a few times the brain accepts it as a normal sentence without hesitation on that word. Some people ‘stroke’ entire sentences. What ever works for YOU is all that matters.”

Combining Vocal Touchstones With Physicality

Melba Sibrel avatarMelba Sibrel gave some great tips and even included how she goes about developing how each one of her characters sound. Melba writes, “When developing the sound for various characters, I use the old acting trick of picking a phrase from each character’s lines and using it as a touchstone, to create a sound memory of how that character talks. Letting a physical attribute accompany it also helps me — a hand motion, head lean, facial tic, even sometimes holding an object…developing the characters physically will lead to their unique sounds. For reference I record each character voice in a separate file and listen to them just before reading the chapters in which they appear. I don’t mark the manuscript to delineate unattributed characters’ lines. I think doing so would throw me off.”

Josef LoewinsohnVoice acting, while performed behind the microphone, doesn’t have to be limited to just movement and fluctuation regarding your voice. Josef Loewinsohn is all about getting his whole body into the read. He writes, “Body, body, body. I can hear one of my favorite voice coaches yelling to the class ‘It’s NOT just a talking head!’ so I create a complete character for each voice, complete with body/facial movements unique to THAT voice (sometimes even jobs, point of view, catch phrase, etc.), that way I can stay in character and not accidentally ‘blend voices.’ This really helps if you need COMPLETELY different sounding voices in the same recording session.”

Diane Havens avatarDiane Havens internalizes the characters she voices combining both physicality and their back stories, sharing “I work in a similar way to Melba and Josef. I try to completely visualize and physicalize the characters, become them when I reach their parts, and use a stance, expression or gesture unique to them to cue myself into them. Creating complete back stories on even minor characters helps — and then even similar type characters end up sounding different — at least to me.”

How Do You Differentiate Characters?

If you have a lot of experience creating character voices that are distinct, I’d love to hear from you! Anyone involved in narration, interactive and character voice acting work likely has a lot to add here…
Looking forward to hearing from you,
© Lindström

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  • Herb merriweather
    July 27, 2011, 5:15 pm

    …each one of the suggestions for keeping characters separate and distinct is practical and well thought out. I use a melding of some of the above–with great care taken to use colors to distinguish characters on the page AND audio files to refer to as often as possible so that all characters sound like themselves–and none like me…

  • JC Haze
    July 29, 2011, 10:25 am

    Hi Stephanie! I hope your summer is going well!
    I loved reading the responses of other voice talents for this posting, because I find that voicing several characters in one project to be one of the most difficult things I’ve EVER had to do as a voice actor.
    What helped ME?
    1. It’s great…that I already have all these voices swirling around in my head! Now to just stay TRUE to the voices!
    2. Movement, both facial and body
    3. And I think the most important (well, it was for ME, anyhow) is ASSOCIATION.
    I recently voiced a children’s audio book and needed to come up with 26 voices (darn Alphabet!).
    I found that if I associated each character with a PERSON I know, or an existing character, it would help me get into the right state of mind for that character’s voice. I kept a ‘cheat sheet’ on my copy stand, for each “Letter”–with character traits and my association next to each one. It helped me greatly, and hopefully this will help others too!

  • Nick O'Rourke
    August 4, 2011, 11:03 pm

    Thanks for the article, all great advice.
    I also often base my characters on real people or characters who you have stockpiled in the ‘go to character voice section’ of your brain.
    And I find physicality is especially important to really define & memorise each character and how they sound. Happy voicing!