Saturday, November 2, 2013

In Their Own Words: Finding Your Character's Voice

Creating a character you can get into isn't an easy process. You need to know who this character is, where he or she came from, as well as facts like age, gender, ethnicity, race, religious views, fighting style, education, family life, and a hundred other things that aren't listed here. When you've finally figured all of that out, and you have a fully-fleshed concept in your head, you still have the biggest hurdle of all left to jump; finding that character's voice.

Some masks are harder to put on, than to take off.
Giving a character the right voice is perhaps one of the most important things a player can do, especially in the absence of costuming and virtual avatars. Everything from timbre to word choice plays into it, and everything has to fit together to create a unique, complete whole. It can be a little intimidating at first, so we here at Improved Initiative have put together a list to help you express your characters in their own words.

Tip #1: Accent

An accent is one of the first things you notice when talking to someone. If someone is British, German, Russian, Indian, etc. you notice. Accents are indicative of a geographic upbringing, and that can be used to intimate things about a character. This is especially true if the common language of the land was not the language your character was born speaking.

Ask yourself where your character was born, where she grew up, and what languages she speaks. Also ask if your character has an ear for languages, and can speak them fluidly and flawlessly. Lastly, ask if your character's biology would lead to any kind of linguistic quirks. If your character is a half-orc chieftan who is more comfortable with orc, gnoll, and giant, then his common might be guttural. It might also be hard to understand him if he has tusks, which could lead to him speaking in short, terse sentences even if he knows the language well. If your character is a human learned in esoteric lore, then she might be able to read and comprehend the language of inhuman Outer Gods and other ancient beings. She might have difficulty speaking that language with only a single tongue, though.

Another handy thing about accents is they can make it very clear when you're in character, and when your character is speaking a different language. That lack of confusion is appreciated by storytellers and by fellow players both. For those who need examples of accents, this video by the very talented Amy Walker goes through 21 accents seamlessly in less than 3 minutes.

Tip #2: Word Choices

What words a person chooses to use says a lot about them. If a person was raised in a folksy environment, then backwoods slang will always be part of that individual's vernacular. If someone was raised to the priesthood, or spent a life as an academic, then that person might use precise words with a lot of syllables, or make references to books and learning other characters wouldn't know about. Career soldiers may speak in clipped sentences full of slang picked up during training, and performers may use sensational word choices that draw the ear and intrigue the listener out of habit.

Which words a person chooses to use is a reflection of what they know, and who they are. It might also be a projection the character uses to create a certain impression. If a canny barbarian knows people will underestimate him if they think he's stupid, he might deliberately use simple words, or even the wrong words, despite knowing better.

Tip #3: Linguistic Tics

Every person has his or her own, unique way of speaking. These idiosyncrasies go beyond an accent or a culture, and they make a person's speech pattern unmistakable. The often used trope of "hulk speak", where a character speaks largely in third person and uses simple or childish terms for more complex concepts, is a common one among characters who are not very smart.

These tics can be big things or little things. Does your character have good diction? Does the character have a catch-phrase, like "trust me" or "the gods will as the gods wish"? Does the character speak one way when in the public eye, and another way in private? How does your character's speech change with emotion? Is a character terse or verbose? Does the character swear a lot, and are the curse words real-world swears or are they curses used in the game world? Does the character use derogatory phrases for members of a certain profession, race, sex, etc.? All of these things can speak volumes about the character in question.

Tip #4: Pitching It

Perhaps the easiest trick in the book for making a character's voice sound different from your normal speaking voice is to pitch it. If a character is small or slight, then a higher-pitched voice would help create that visual. If a character is barrel-chested, or of a large stature, then making your voice deeper will help reinforce that image.

Adding qualities to your voice can take practice, but it can be very useful as audio shorthand. A rasping voice might represent a life of hard use, or an injury/scar on the throat that never healed right. Speak in a monotone if a character feels little emotion, or to show someone constantly distracted by interior thoughts. Put a growl in your tone for someone that's aggressive. Movies, plays, and audio dramas are great places for even more examples.

Tip #5: What Isn't Being Said

Quit looking, it's not on your sheet.
Language is how ideas and culture are expressed. Sometimes what people don't say can be just as important as what actually passes their lips.

What does that even mean? Well, it means that if a culture doesn't understand an idea, then there won't be a word for it. For instance, if someone was raised speaking infernal would there be a word for "apology", or would the nearest translation be, "I acknowledge your suffering"? Would abyssal have a word for "friend"? Does orc have a word for "love"? The languages characters speak, and the cultures they come from, influence how they act and what ideas make sense to them.

Wait, one more! Is there a goblin word for "self-preservation"?

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