By Stephanie Ciccarelli
January 3, 2013
How do you come up with a character? Do you skim the surface or dig a little deeper? Pat Fraley teaches how you can create a character that is evocative, unique and developed. Don't just jump on the performance of the form (how the character sounds) but rather begin by focusing on the content and your personal experience with it. Pat explains his formula for Content + Connection + Form = Character Voice in this Voice Over Experts podcast.
Patrick Fraley is one of the best and known and respected voice-over people in North America. 2013 marks his 40th year performing and teaching. As a performer, he has created voices for over 4,000 characters, placing him in the top ten of all time to be cast in animated TV shows. As a teacher, Pat has guided more performers into meaningful voice-over careers than anyone in the history of VO Instruction. He lives and works out of Hollywood Heights, California.
For more information, visit his website PatFraley.com
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Pat: After 37 years of performing and teaching, it astounds me when I find an area where I have missed the opportunity to advance my students' skills. I have found another area of skills which I have missed. It has to do with how to come up with characters and character voices. I am confident it will be a meaningful one and an eye opener to many.
Let me address the content of the character and your personal connection with it. I have taught, as many do, a performer must come up with characters who have an inner life. Inner life in reference to a character is the content. When you are working at performing the content there is a necessary melding of your experiences, personality and behaviour with the characters. This is the connection. It is the bridge between the character's content and the way you sound, the form.
This connection must be personal and there is a method of working which ensures it will be so. You could very well just say that you have to act good. But the word 'acting' carries so much weight and is used in so many ways it is too ambiguous in this context to be useful.
Here's where writing about this falls short and an example works better. Say I'm required to come up with a character who is an arrogant, big man from India. Now, immediately, my impulse is to skim the surface. I jump on the form of the character, his dialect and size by sounding big and slap on a, kind of, arrogant, emotional wash to him, like this: "When I pointed out to you, missy, that we will not be covering the Civil War in this class, I meant to imply that we would not be covering the Civil War in this class." That's pretty good, right?
Now, if the objective is to come up with characters that are evocative, unique and developed I really have only, perhaps, addressed the aspect of being evocative. Is it unique. It is certainly not developed. I just winged it, hoping my ability to bump into arrogance and my acting ability would put it over the top.
So how do I, how do we, in a brief time, address the two other aspects, unique and developed. My problem is in my procedure as I approach the key ingredient to the character's content, arrogance. What I delivered was a stereotypical arrogance, which I picked up from where, bad TV, someone else's work, who knows where.
As I mentioned, the two other parts of the description, that of being big and with an Indian dialect are addressed in the aspect of form, how the character sounds. But I'm suggesting that when you begin to create a character don't jump on the performance of the form but, rather, begin by focusing on the content and your personal experience with it.
In the case of my example, the content is simply arrogance. Following this method, my first question, after I got the information about the character and sorted out what would be addressed in the form and what would be addressed in the content, should have been how do I behave, feel and sound when I am personally arrogant. If I tap into how I behave and sound when I'm personally arrogant, I can accomplish two objectives. First, it will be unique and, second, it will be developed because I have years of my own experience being around and, at times, being arrogant.
Well, let's see. When I'm being arrogant it's usually in situations where I'm not getting what I want. I treat people like they're not as smart as I am, I patronize them, I also fain patience with them. I sound a little like this, "Are you getting this or perhaps you should slide your little sound bar back and review?"
Now, I take this feeling that I have, along with the way I am physically moving right now, and the way I hear myself sounding, and now I'm in a position to address the form or sound of the character.
Now, I don't just whip on the Indian dialect and slam my voice down in pitch and give the character, say, a throaty placement. If I do this I risk losing the personal connection to the way Pat Fraley is arrogant and go back to my stereotypical arrogant default.
So I get back to my personal style of arrogance and slowly extend in the form, gently exaggerating this sound, in this case lower in the kind of throaty placement and then add on the Indian dialect. Now I go back to the line, "When I pointed out to you, Missy, that we would not be covering the Civil War in this class, I meant to imply that we would not be covering the Civil War in this class."
So, by working this way, I've addressed coming up with a character which is evocative, unique and developed. It didn't take a great deal of time, just organization. Yes, I might need to perform the dialogue faster for comedic effect. The character may need to be more exaggerated or real depending on the style of the show or genre. But the start of the character, the building began with a foundation, which is really about my experience as a human being.
There's a, sort of, formula that emerges which may be handy. Content, plus connection, plus form equals character voice.
So here are some benefits to following this method of working. Number one, it addresses personal style. You are training yourself to accept that the way you go about behaving is sufficient for primary building blocks for your character's inner life. Two, you have immediate connection between the requirements of the character's inner life, the content, and your inner life, your content. The melding of these two aspects is addressed from the get-go. And, three, speed. This is a more rapid way of getting to the end product.
In order to work this way, there are a couple concepts you have to buy into. First is the premise that we all have the emotional and behavioural information within ourselves to tap and apply to the content and connection requirements of a character. We may not be a snob but we have been snobby, smarmy, sexy, et cetera. This is a truism. That means it's not always true but, in a lot of cases, it is.
Personally, I struggle with tapping into cynicism. I can't find it in me. So what I do, I channel up my brother who is the poster boy for cynicism. And, in my book, it still counts as personal style and a uniqueness because I'm the only guy with a brother like [Bert] Fraley.
Brian Cummings, my pal, teacher and voice over talent once said, "If you do impressions, do them badly. If you do your family, do them perfect. That way, you don't get caught."
Also, this method of working assumes you know how you behave, feel and sound as you move around the planet. Now, that's a big assumption and will call for some soul searching or, really, behaviour searching on some more than others. It will require some of you to sit down with a list of emotional washes, circumstances and behavioural patterns and practice conjuring up scenes so that you may tap into the objective way you come off to the world.
Finally, is this the method of coming up and performing characters, no. Personally, I rarely do this. That's why I missed teaching it for so long. I'm just able to hear a performance of a person and channel up the form, content and magically make the connection.
I get lost in characters, many times. I'm like the Daniel Day-Lewis of duck voices. But, other times, I have to pound out a character mechanically by adding elements of the voice and character attributes.
Now, here's the end of our little lecture. I was taught and teach to have many methods of working. Each job you get will challenge you in a different way. And the more methods, the better of you are. But this one, I'm telling you, is a pip. Thanks for listening.
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