Update: added a chapter about forum-based roleplaying at the end.
This sprung from some trouble I had during our last gaming session where I for the life of me could not stick with a voice I had chosen for a non-player-character.
Let me explain. We do fantasy roleplaying, and find that it helps to use different voices for different characters. On the one hand, the players sometimes use another voice for their characters, so you can easier distinguish between comments made by the player and what the character actually says. Also, our dungeon master (yours truly) is trying to use easily recognizable voices for those non-player characters (NPCs) that are bound to leave an impression or return later in the game.
I started writing these steps up for myself, but decided to make it into an instructable. Maybe someone else finds it helpful, too.
I should point out that I am not a professional, at least not as far as voice acting is concerned.
And last and probably least, I should point out that I started writing this as a step-by-step, but lacked the images required and did not want to add pointless ones to each step. If there is actually something that needs images please point out to me what I missed.
Well, first, because it is fun - or at least it can be, and you will not know what you and your group are missing out if you do not try it.
Second, it allows your players to easily identify certain groups (say the cult of the lisp) or individuals (that gruff orc farmer).
Third, there's some atmosphere to created - you can make someone sound haughty, dumb, mean or threatening. Or use these impressions to trick your players into making false assumptions.
Copy & perform
It is best to start based on a concrete character you want to create a distinctive voice for. Knowing what you want the voice to sound like will help you find something appropriate to base it on.
The easiest way is to pick someone to copy from. This could be a movie character or actor (some name might carry with it a distinct way of speaking, say Arnold Schwarzenegger for example), or come from a television series, audio drama or what not. The point is that you should be familiar with it and be able to draw from it.
It is not necessary for those listening to it to know who you are copying, as long as you are able to make the impression distinct. And again, it is not necessary to do research or try to get as close to the original as possible. YOu will have to do the voice on the fly, so you should pick one that comes easy to you.
If you are looking for something special, like someone evil or naive or powerful, you might want to look for characters that have these atributes and look for something that suids your needs - for example, Saruman would make a good powerful wizard if you could capture it (which I cannot).
Do your own thing
Using "known" voicec is a good start, but there is a lot more your throat can do. There is no patent solution for this, and everyone is different. There are some basics, though, and based on them you can build your own repertoire.
Usually, the more exaggerated a voice is, the easier it will be recognized. Of course, exaggerating too much can hade adverse effects, but a little exaggeration does help to get a point across. To that end, let us look at some of the aspects that you can controle. I tried to categorize them, but that did not work, so here we go. Keep in mind that none of these aspects are stand-alone, and only a combination of them will produce a distinct voice. Also, the examples given are just that, there are always exceptions and of course there are grey areas regarding said examples.
pitch - a high voice can mean a small speaker (a tiny gnome), while a low pitch can indicate a large creature (an ancient dragon).
volume - a loud voice can mean confidence (or an overabundance of liquor), while quiet voices can be either timid or secretive
speed - speed has a great influence on a voice's effect. A slow voice can seem uncertain or deep in thought - and can even tire your listeners. Speaking quickly can obscure what is being said or promote a sense of urgency.
accent - here your personal knowledge has to kick in, regarding differens accents of the language you intend to be speaking. For example, for the english language, you have Scottish, Indian or Texan accents. Here, you probably will not be able to accurately portray an accent without, say, having an actor or a proper native speaker to go on.
grammar - Yoda is the best example here. Changing the sequence of words in a sentence - according to a certain system - can at the very least create a unique and re-recognizable speaking pattern for, say, a specific race. This can include switching two words (like "said I" instead of "I said") up to completely scrambling the words, as befitting a monster speaking in riddles, although the later is rather tricky when done on the fly.
pauses - every language has its own rules for pauses, for example after commas. By adding additional pauses you can throw your listeners off and mimic the effects of a speaker not native to that language.
patterns - a different characteristic of a voice could be iconic for a single NPC, for example repeating certain words or using patterns like using multiple synonyms in every sentenct (example: "Good to see you, my friends, my companions, my allies.")
metaphors - most complicated, but also most capable of breathing life into a character's background or species, is using special metaphors based on his, well, background. A fisherman would be more likely to quote "a herring's chance in a school of sharkt" than "a snowball's chance..."; a forest-dwelling person is bound to use other proverbs than someone who hails from a desert and has six legs.
To make a voice, decide what you want it to express, and then pick the various aspects that you feel will get the job done. For example, an old dwarven mage's voice could be describes as loud, low pitched, slower than normal, with a slight accent and using metaphors focussing on mining and stonework.
Put a face to it
Describing a voice like this might seem tedious, and quite frankly it is. The idea is not to use the "long" description ("loud, low pitched, slower than normal, with a slight accent and using metaphors focussing on mining and stonework") but rather bundle that up in a name ("dwarven mage"). If you do this, you will automatically get a feel for the character, and thus be able to use the voice at a moment's notice (or at least close enough).
This works easiest with movie characters and the like - it is easier to take, for example, Sauron from The Lord of the Rings than to describe a similar voice in your own terms. This way, using avaliable voices as well as your own ones with a distinct name ("dawrven mage"), you will be able to quickly switch from your own voice to that of a NPC with just a glance at the name you put down in your notes.
Of course, this can only work if you make notes - at the very least which voice you want to use for a character, if only the name you can recognize it by. But to flesh out an NPC you need a little more - you need to know what they are going to say, and, more importatly, how.
Of yourse you should already know what you want to say, i.e. the information a character has and is willing to part with - that has nothing to do with the voice used. What does is how she will react under different circumstances. For example, our dwarven mage might get nervous when faced with violence and speak faster and in a high-pitched voice. If he thinks he is intellectually superior he will start lecturing, speaking even slower and more precisely.
Such changes could be taken down as short notes next to the name, to ensure that an NPC's reactions are consistent even over several adventures.
If all else fails...
If you are having trouble keeping a voice up over an entire conversation, your first option is to switch from direct speech to indirect, as in "the dwarven mage tells you to stick it where the coalbed ends" or something like that. This way you can go back to your own voice for a bit without losing any atmosphgere created by using another.
Also, if you accidentally used the wrong voice, you can either adapt - claim another character said what you said - or pretend that the actual character had a cough or something and has to recover to his own voice. Both options are optional, though, and whether they work depends on how you and your group are playing. They are probably not for the overly serious at heart.
And if that fails, too...
Keep in mind that you are doing this for fun. If it is not fun, then do not do it. Seriously, if you find this whole idea of using voices tedious, unsettling or simply not your style, then do not even try to use them because it will not work for you. This is not a bad thing, since every group is different. Some might be able to have great fun with voices, while others will find them boring or stupid - any of course there is any variation in between.
If you find that voices are not for you then drop them, and tick them off as something else you have tried or considered. Nothing is lost by trying, but nothing won by trying too hard.
Supplement 1: forum-based roleplaying
Speaking is one thing, writing it another - which is easier probably depends on your personal disposition. In writing, you certainly have more time to consider what you want to write.
What am I talking about? Roleplaying boards. There are countless such boards out there, and they all operate on the same principle - you write what your character does, then someone else writes how their character reacts, and so on. Of course I cannot explain the beauty that is forum-base roleplaying here without a lengthy excourse.
In short, there you get to play characters that can talk, too, and there are ways to make each one slightly unique (though not as many as there are with using voices). On the other hand, in a roleplaying board you usually have just one to three characters, with the option of using NPCs if necessary for stories played out - but your mileage may vary.
Anyway, this is slightly different from using voices, and while some points may be more obvious, at least for me some took a while to find themselves realized.
metaphors - this is easiest in this context, since you have the time to think about it. “For heaven’s sake”, you might say, this is obvious - but what is this heaven you are talking about? A swamp-alien might say “For methane’s sake”, while a snow elf would say “For snowflake’s mercy”, and a generic creature might invoke “By Elpmaxe’s beard” (yes, that’s ‘example’ spelled backwards - sue me).
structure - here the little green one comes again. It is hard not to reference Yoda here. But it can be done in different ways. As for explaination, maybe the person’s native language uses a different structure - like saying “uses different a structure” which is still fine but may sound a little odd. Just make sure that you know how to change your character’s sentences, i.e. you always do it the same way. Otherwise it will sound like jumbo’s mumbo.
pauses - hailing from the same roots as a different structure, at least if you want to argue that way, a foreign language might make more use of breaks, so the speaker uses them where they sound odd to our predisposed ears. You could use commas or dashes for that, after all, they both represent kind of a pause, at least in English (and German as the case may be). Whether you place one every two or three words, after certain words, or take the time to maximize strangeness by hand-placing every single one, the result is bound to be rather unique - but make sure it, fits, the character you, are using - it for.
patterns - I find this to be the most subtle yet effective method. If done right, people will hardly notice what you are doing, but your character’s dialogue will nevertheless be distinct and easily recognizable. The trick is to use certain words or patterns over and over again. For example, a rather chatty character of mine uses a combination of “I mean” and “thus”, always alternating between them, I mean using them interchangeably, thus creating the feeling of a very long sentence, I mean without actually pausing, thus giving the character grief since she usually forgets to take a breath, thus resulting in a kind of panic whenever a talkative mood catches her, I mean whenever she cannot seem to stop, thus making her rush forth in order to say what she wants, I mean despite the fact that what she wants to say usually escapes her anyway. See what I mean?
A side note on names
Here’s something a few friends and I do in a roleplaying board where we are active. It’s a Star Wars roleplay, and it might not work with other settings. Also, some people might find that it violates their experience, but it can be fun among friends. The thing is, whenever we play a story that takes place somewhere where a lot of name-giving is to be expected - i.e. an unknown planet, or even a village that we create ourselves - we decide on a subject to use for all the naming. Also, we would alienate the spelling to make the words harder to recognize.
For example, for this one village we set out mind towards cars. In the end, the village name was “Tuan Thig’nal” (turn signal), the position of of vilage elder was called Fro’thpro’deg’shn (frost protection) while small service held by the village priest (Vay’pahr, i.e. wiper) would be a Moan-nentz (maintenance). Keep in mind that the actual roleplaying board is in German, so I had to improvise here - believe me, it lost in the translation.
I think I should also point out that this last point is the one most prone to being a bad idea, since other players would be most affected by it - having to use names set up by other in that fashion might not be as much fun for others, and even be actively discouraging for them, which would be a very bad thing. So, use this technique, if you feel inclined to do so, with utmost care.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this!
Update: added a chapter about forum-based roleplaying at the end.