Steal My Idea – 7 factors to making unique NPC voices. Also, Frank Oz’s Muppets

Accents (accurate or butchered) are a great way to differentiate NPCs. But accents are a single tool in a box brimming with more options you can use to make a world of NPC with unique voices.

These are seven factors you can use with your normal voice– or an accent– to make NPCs sound unique. You don’t have to use all of these, but combining three or more can help flesh out a character’s voice and better match their personality.

[corrispoding Reddit thread]

The seven factors:

  • Word choice

  • Tone

  • Speed

  • Inflection

  • Specific quirks

  • Volume

  • Posture

 

Word choice

  • Do they use small words, large words, or a mixture?

  • When speaking to someone they like or dislike, when do they invoke their name? At the beginning of their sentence? Do they avoid using names for any reason?

  • Do they give people nicknames instead of addressing them by their name or “you?” If so, what kinds? Are they for people they like, dislike, or both? Why do they use nicknames?

  • Do they use a person’s last name or first name? Is it in a professional, militaristic, or personal way?
  • How much slang do they use?

  • Do they avoid or use filler words?

Tone

  • Is there general tone lighthearted? Distressed? Does it have undertones that reflect their demeanor, such as worry or hope?

  • Are they trying to please the person they’re talking to or get them to move on?

  • Do they sound stressed or relaxed?

  • Are they excited to speak to this person? Upset? Indifferent?

Speed

  • How fast or slowly do they speak?

  • What makes them speed up or slow down? Excitement, fear, boredom?

  • Does their speed reflect how much they contemplate their words before choosing them?

  • Why do they speak quickly? Are they distracted? Is it part of their culture or family?

Inflection

  • What words in a sentence do they emphasize and why?

  • Do they stress the name of the person they’re talking to? Do they stress the point they are trying to make? Do they stress filler words?

  • Is there a rhythm to the words they stress? Or do they stress words that have a particular meaning to what they’re saying?

  • Do they passively stress words or do it on purpose?

Specific quirks

  • Do they commonly use sound effects instead of specific words or phrases? Such as “Things were like *explosion noise*!”

  • Do they laugh reflexively? Perhaps when they’re nervous, uncertain, or happy?

  • Are they constantly distracted or hyper focused on the person they’re talking to?

  • Do they address the group or individuals within it?

  • Do they always pause to let people finish? Do they constantly interrupt others?

Volume

  • What causes them to increase or decrease their volume? Perhaps when they’re excited or intimidated?

  • Does their normal environment effect their volume (such as someone who constantly works in loud places)?

  • Do they raise the volume of their voice regularly for specific moments, such as someone’s name, a chuckle, or the last word of the sentence?

  • Are they loud for a specific reason, such as to make sure everyone can hear them clearly or to intimidate the person they’re talking to?

Posture

  • How do they stand or sit? Do they cross their legs? Do they man spread? Do they do the Riker Maneuver?

  • Do they talk with their hands?

  • Who or what do they look at while speaking? Does that change based on the subject matter?

  • Do they try to make physical contact with the person they are talking to? If so, why and when?

  • Are they actively doing other things while speaking?

  • Do they shift or change positions? If so, why and when?

 

So let’s talk examples. Frank Oz is the man behind a suite of famous Muppets, such as Fozzie Bear, Grover, Miss Piggy, Bert, Animal, Cookie Monster, and Sam the Eagle. If you listen to them, it’s clear they’re voiced by the same person. And while some of them have very similar voices, I’ve never mistaken any of them for another.

Fozzie Bear and Bert have very similar voices. Fozzie as an edge of excitement while Bert sounds mildly annoyed. Fozzie is expressive, while Bert is reserved. Fozzie wants to please his audience, whether it’s one person or a group, while Bert addresses people directly. Fozzie wildly uses his body, while Bert often keeps his shoulders stiff. Fozzie also sometimes reaches out to touch the person he’s speaking too, while Bert generally keeps his hands to himself.

Animal and Cookie monster are very similar as well. Both characters shout, their word choices are limited, and neither speaks in the first person. However, Animal likes to repeat words to prove a point, Cookie Monster does not (except “omnomnomnom” while eating cookies). Animal also almost exclusively talks in broken sentences, where Cooking Monster can speak clearly when talking about a passion of his (like cookies) and uses “me instead of “I”. Animal has a constant volume except for rare exceptions, while Cookie Monster has a broader range.

Sam The Eagle’s word choices are very proper. Filler words rarely enter his vocabulary. He’s stern. He gets straight to the point. His volume is mostly constant. He pauses to make a point, and sometimes emphasizes the word before the pause to draw further attention to it.

So when you’re building NPCs, or having to make one on the fly, try this: Have this chart handy, take about 3 or more of those factors, and use them to form a voice for the character. As always, make sure they have some sort of personality too, and let your choices influence that. Or if you start with a personality and make choices on the chart based on that.

I hope this was useful to you. Have fun.


Of course I’m on Twitter [@RexiconJesse] and Instagram [RexiconJesse] and Reddit [u/RexiconJesse] and Good Reads [Goodreads.com/RexiconJesse]. Also Facebook.com/RexiconJesse

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