Accents were the first way I learned to differentiate my NPCs. My Scottish barkeep was a hit! Unfortunately all my barkeeps were Scottish for a very long time. So were all my Dwarves. Stereotypical accent reliance be gone! Here are five vocal and speech dynamics to build character and differentiate NPCs, even those who share the same cultural upbringing. Use these tips to not only shake up your voice options, but to communicate the world view and personalities of your characters.
1. Word Choice / Sentence Structure
World view differences have a huge bearing on word choices. What does it say about a character who always uses words like "interpersonal conflict", instead of a words like "argument", or "row?"
How lengthy are their sentences or thoughts? Try on "Given the absence of any evidence to the contrary, and that there are no other persons with plausible motives, I expect you'll find it reasonable for me to bring you in for questioning," or "You're the only suspect. You'd best come quietly." How a character speaks is related to how a character thinks. They might be curt, direct, and to the point. They might view a character as beneath them, and use long sentences, multiple clauses, and big words to accentuate differences in education or perceived intelligence.
2. Pitch & Melody
Where does the character’s speaking voice sit in pitch, compared to yours? Simply picking higher or lower pitched voices can start to differentiate a character, and is a quick and dirty way to offer clues about gender and age. We can deepen the understanding of a character by imagining what range of pitches they use in their average speaking voice. Do they have a Clint Eastwood monotone, or a a Maria von Trapp sing song vast speaking range? This can tell us a lot about what a character thinks about the world, and how safe they are to express themselves emotionally. Guarded characters will guard their pitch range.
Do they have a repetitive melody in their voice? They may have an upward inflection at the end of most sentences. If they sound like every time they make a statement, it comes across as a question, we are communicating something about their confidence. In my family, all of the older generation have a very peculiar rainbow pattern to their speech. Every sentences starts in mid range, arcs into a higher pitch, then finishes down on a low note. Once I first heard it I couldn't unhear how regularly they all do it. One can really get a sense of those old farm kids’ earthiness when hearing them chat about the weather and hockey with the same 5 note melody to every statement.
A character skilled in rhetoric may use many more variations in melody and pitch as they alternate between threatening, cajoling, and flattering your characters.
The pacing of someone's speech is a huge clue to their personality. Do they feel they have the time and attention of their audience to reveal their thoughts over time? Do they feel no one is really listening so they spit everything out without breath to make sure they are heard before they are interrupted? Very rapid speech could indicate a busy person with no time for anything but action, or nervousness. Slow speech could indicate someone perfectly comfortable in their environment who feels entirely unthreatened, or someone who has difficulty coming up with the right words. Try varying the tempo of speech to reveal different traits.
4. Silences And Filler Words
Do you have that friend who when asked a question, makes no immediate vocal response, and you can’t tell if they are thinking about a response, haven’t heard you, or are ignoring you? A character who is comfortable letting silences hang is very different than one who fills gaps immediately with “umms,” “uuhs,” and “well…” What sort of filler words might your NPCs use when they don’t have the exact turn of phrase they are looking for? Is their speech littered with “like,” or do they finish every list with “ and stuff like that?”
5. Aperture or Mouth Tension
Try speaking a few lines (or reading part of this article aloud) two times. The first time, keep your teeth firmly together. The second time, imagine having a pencil oriented vertical inside your mouth wedging your jaws as open as possible, and speak while keeping this openness as much as you can. There are two things I am hoping you’ll notice. First, the voices sound different. The quality of your vowels will be greatly affected by the openness of your mouth. Second, it feels different emotionally to speak these two different ways. The tension of keeping your teeth together produces a tension in character, a grittiness. The looseness of the open aperture recommends itself to a more open minded, or curious type of character, or one well versed in the flexibility of mind required to be a master manipulator.
Let’s imagine two brothers. One brother is a golden boy: gets great grades and is optimistic about the world. The other is in his shadow, constantly fighting for attention.
We’ll make the first brother’s voice have an easy pacing, and a relaxed melodic tune. He uses lengthy composite sentences (to show off his facility with language), and usually ends on a firm and confident low/middle note, a tonic.
The second brother’s voice is spoken with a tight mouth, pitched higher but with less modulation in tone. He speaks louder than is appropriate for the context, in simple short sentences, but with lots of thoughts in a row. He speaks quickly without taking breaths: "and this, and this, and this..." He usually has to be interrupted instead of finishing thoughts on his own. He inflects upwards at the end of sentences as if statements are actually questions.
Here you have two totally different characters, with very different voices, but with the very same heritage and the very same accent.
Darren has a background in theatre performance, and if he’s not exactly aiming for the Tony’s anymore, he’s delighted to strut the boards as often as possible at the gaming table. He makes his home in Edmonton, Alberta with his encouraging wife and their tiny thunder Goddess. Find him on twitter @dsteelegm
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.