Speech Patterns Are Key to Creating Characters—Here's What Actors Need to Know

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Photo Source: “The Sopranos” Courtesy HBO

In most cases, a flat, emotionless tone is a career killer; when Arnold Schwarzenegger uses it to deliver “I’ll be back” in “The Terminator,” it’s a genius character choice. Top-level actors understand that it’s not all about what’s being said, but how it’s said. For aspiring and early-career performers, knowing the intricacies of speech patterns is an indispensable skill they can wield in their quest for success.

Below, we delve into what speech patterns are and why they’re so important. We’ll also share insights from actor and filmmaker Neil Chase, and Emily Maguire, managing director of Reflections Talent Agency.


What is a speech pattern?

A speech pattern is the distinctive way a person or character talks. “This includes accents, rhythm, tone, and pitch, which are essential for performers to convincingly portray and differentiate their characters,” Chase explains. 

Maguire highlights that speech patterns “convey the inner workings of a character that a performer is playing.” She continues, “Two individuals may have the same accent, but each may have a different speech pattern…. In understanding [your speech pattern], you can adapt your delivery to suit the needs of the character you are playing, helping you to deliver a more truthful and compelling performance.”

What are the key components of a speech pattern?

Inflection: Inflection refers to the variation in pitch or tone while speaking. It adds nuance, emotion, and depth to your words. For example, a rising inflection at the end of a sentence can convey uncertainty or a question, while a falling inflection can denote confidence or a statement.

Maguire points out the use of inflection by Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless.” As rich Beverly Hills high-schooler Cher,  Silverstone employs an upward inflection and frequently uses the word "like". This "upward talk" and increased pitch make all of her statements sound like questions and add naivety to the main character, which hides her true intelligence until the end of the movie,” says Maguire.

Speech Rate: The speed at which one speaks is another vital aspect of speech patterns. It influences the rhythm and pacing of communication. Think about how the speedy, rapid-fire delivery of “Gilmore Girls” emphasizes the comedic tone; compare that to this scene from “No Country for Old Men,” where Javier Bardem’s low, careful grumble draws out the tension in the scene. 

Clarity: Clarity refers to the precision and intelligibility of speech. A performer must balance between maintaining clarity and staying true to the character's unique way of expressing themselves. Take Tom Hardy’s voice in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Although his gruff delivery occasionally borders on hard-to-hear, it also paints a picture of a loner who barely speaks and has spent years living in a sandy wasteland. 

Emotive Mood: The emotional tone or mood conveyed through speech is a defining element of speech patterns. Performers must be adept at adjusting their emotive mood to suit the character or scene requirements. This may involve adopting a joyful, somber, or intense tone as the situation demands.

“Actors spend so much time memorizing their lines for an audition, they often forget to spend time thinking about how the character might speak,” Chase says. “In short, they end up sounding like themselves instead of how the character might sound.”

A versatile performer who can adapt their speech patterns can tackle a broader range of roles. This adaptability is a valuable asset in the competitive industry of acting. “The way you speak plays a crucial role in auditions and interviews with agents,” Maguire says. “First impressions count and, sometimes, you only have a small window of opportunity to create a positive and lasting impact.”

How to adapt speech patterns for different roles

Gary Oldman in "Slow Horses"

Gary Oldman on “Slow Horses” Courtesy Apple TV+

In learning to adapt different speech patterns, Chase suggests watching great performances and identifying the subtleties chosen by the performer on-screen. “Daniel Day Lewis and Gary Oldman instantly come to mind. No two roles for either of these actors look the same or sound the same. A truly great actor is a chameleon, able to alter the way they look, talk and carry themselves in order to best fit the role,” he adds.

However, Chase emphasizes that emulation is only a starting point. You must make any role your own by altering speech patterns until you find the one that works best for a role. “And above all…rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!” advises Chase. To add depth and authenticity to any performance, Maguire urges performers to consider these four key factors: 

Location: “When deciding on the speech patterns for a character, it's crucial to consider their geographical location and the cultural traditions of that region,” says Maguire. “For instance, some cultures prefer direct communication, while others favor a more indirect approach. These cultural norms can significantly affect a character's speech patterns, tone, pitch, and use of inflection.”

Time period: “How might the era of your character's speech pattern be influenced by that period's language and communication styles? For example, if the character is from the 19th century, they may use more formal, rhythmic, and elaborate language compared to a character from the 21st century. Industrialisation, class, and status also inform the characters' speech patterns,” says Maguire. 

Brevity: “Determine whether a character speaks formally or informally, as it can affect the breathing and speed of their speech and provide the audience with a better understanding of their personality,” says Maguire. “Formal would be slower and more precise, and informal would be spontaneous and more relaxed. Consider if they are speaking to peers or superiors. Alternatively, informality can also indicate familiarity.”

Vocal cues: “Vocal cues such as sudden silences or unexpected changes in tone can also add depth to a character's performance,” says Maguire. “Does a timid character suddenly find their strength and voice and consequently increase their pitch and speed? Vocal clarity can also indicate honesty, while secretive behavior can lead to changes in tone. Monotone speaking can indicate disinterest, while a softer tone can convey sadness. Consider the horror genre; villains may alter their speech to conceal their true intentions until the end,” she adds.