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Importance of a Brilliant Backstory

Importance of a Brilliant Backstory

by James R. Alburger (Acting Magazine Contributor, Voice Acting)
Author of The Art of Voice Acting. Find more articles
by Alburger at www.voiceacting.com

Backstory can be defined as the events or history that has led to this moment in time, or the moment in time during which the story in a script is taking place. There are two basic forms of backstory:

1)       Your personal backstory and

2)     The character’s backstory.  

And each of these has two basic elements:

1)  Long-term backstory – the history of events that have brought you (or the character) to this moment in time, and

2)  Immediate backstory – the specific event that occurs immediately before the first words out of your mouth (or the first word in a script). Of the two, the immediate backstory is the most important for a voice actor. But you may want to define a long-term backstory for your character as well to provide more substance.

 When performing a voiceover script, you will find it much easier to allow the character in the script to come to life. Your character’s backstory is critical because: 

·          It tells you exactly who you are talking to

·          It gives you the essential information about the character’s past that you need to effectively portray your character

·          It provides a reason, or motivation, for the story that is taking place

·          It establishes the emotion and feelings your character is experiencing

·          It always answers the question “Why?”, which is ultimately the reason your character is speaking  

Sometimes a script will clearly define the backstory while other times, you may have to make it up. If the backstory is described in the script – take advantage of it! If you need to make up a backstory, be as detailed as you can be. The more real the backstory is, the more real your character will be and the easier it will be for you to get off the page with your performance.


Here are a few tools you can use to make your backstory more real:  

1.       Use visualization to create a vivid mental image of the scene for the immediate backstory

2.       Use sense memory techniques to recall an experience from your own life that is similar to the emotion or feeling your character is expressing in the script.

3.       Observe the physical sensations that come up when you recall a past experience. Hold onto that physical tension and speak from that place in your body as you MOVE during your performance.

4.       Remember that Movement Orchestrates Vocal Expression

5.       Use a lead-in line to verbalize the backstory and to bring you up to full speed for the first word of the copy  

The more effectively you can create a backstory for your character, the more real your character will be in your imagination. The goal of voice acting is to allow the real you to step aside and allow the character in the copy to speak through you, expressing the mood, emotion and feelings that are in the script.  

Shirley MacClaine was once asked to describe her thoughts on acting. Her response was: “It’s all about listening and forgetting who you are”. Remember, its not you saying the words on the script – its the character in the copy who is really saying those words. Learn to “forget who you are” and let yourself step aside so the character can become real. 

Listen to how your character is speaking and make adjustments as needed, but be careful not to impose your personal attitudes on the character. You need to develop your performing skills to a point where this becomes automatic and you don’t have to think about it. When you reach that point, you will be able to bring any backstory – and character – to life.

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