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There are two prevalent misconceptions about the purpose and method of creating character voices. One is the attempt to create character voices by changing the throat. Storytellers often strive to create a distinctive sound, and they usually do this purely by using the throat. That can stress their voices and ultimately cause harm. And, because it neglects the most meaningful purpose of character voices, it fails to advance the story to its fullest.
The other confusion is that people try to do what actors need to, rather than what storytellers need to do. Acting is based on creating illusion. When you're acting, you want me, as your audience, to be able to squint my eyes a little bit and imagine that I'm seeing you as Napoleon or as the old woman. Therefore, anything that gets in the way of that illusion is a problem. If I - a middle-aged man - were acting the role of an old woman, my beard and low voice would interfere with the illusion! Therefore, I would need makeup. I would also need to change my voice in some way, to create the illusion of an old woman's voice.
Storytellers, on the other hand, do not need to create illusion. In storytelling, we stimulate the listener to imagine.
So how do I stimulate your imagination? And what should I stimulate your imagination to create? Since I am freed of the need to create illusion, I can devote all my energy to achieving my overall artistic purposes for my story. First, therefore, I need to think, "What is my story about? What is the main thing in this story?" Then, for each character I want to create a voice for, I think, "How does that character relate to that main thing in the story?"
For example, I tell a story called "The Chicken Women." It's about a poultry dealer who answers three questions - in "the language of signs" - when no one else is willing to. For me, this story is about the willingness to try something, even knowing it won't be done perfectly. Doing something imperfectly is still better than doing nothing.
How does this poultry dealer relate to that theme? To me, she is the one who is open to trying anything. She's not educated. She's just a poultry dealer. But all the educated and powerful people are afraid to answer the questions, and she just does it.
As I began to talk about her with a rehearsal buddy one day, I began to feel her openness - her main characteristic, for me - in her body, in her chest. So the more I played with the feeling of openness in her chest and exaggerated it, the more her elbows got into it. I found myself thrusting my chest out and my elbows back at shoulder level. This had the wonderful, unintended side effect of causing me to look a little bit like a chicken!
Further, as I noticed the effect of that physical openness on my voice, I noticed that it made my voice break. Normally, I want to support my voice with air so it doesn't break. I especially want to avoid using extra pressure in my throat to prevent it breaking. But in this case, I can just allow my voice to break. If I don't fight to prevent it, it's not a strain at all. In fact, it sounds a little bit like a chicken, which is fitting.
This is the sequence I used so far to create the voice for her character: First, I thought of what was important in the story. Next, I thought of how this character related to it. Then I found the resulting intention in my body. Finally, I allowed that body feeling to influence my voice.
Now there is one more step. I have to make sure that what I am doing to express the character's intention is not interfering with any of the main parts of my vocal production apparatus.
The "body" of the Chicken Women wasn't interfering with my breathing. Perhaps, however, she was having a slight tensing effect on my throat. Therefore, I had to be careful to keep my throat open and not try to keep my voice from breaking. But once I'd done that check, she could talk.
Following these steps, the character voice becomes an elegant tool for stimulating the imagination of my listeners - in the service of my overall intentions for the story.
(For the full video and audio lecture-demonstration about character voices and voice in general, please see the Storyteller's Voice-Care Toolkit[tm], which is the source of this excerpt. Read the announcement below for a way to get free coaching along with complete vocal care!)
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