Copyright 2013 Peter Maranci
We're not all natural-born actors. But there's no reason to have dull or indistinguishable NPCs. There's a wealth of source material out there, and you probably already have a lot of it in your head.
When NPCs all sound the same, players are unlikely to care about them much. If they each have a unique voice and attitude, the party will really wake up and pay attention. Few of us have the talent to make up unique new personalities on the fly. But by basing NPCs on pre-existing templates, a GM can slip right into character and "voice" without missing a beat. And we can draw on some of the most gifted actors who ever lived.
Take Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Ygor, the man who had been hanged in Son of Frankenstein (you can look him up on YouTube). With or without the bone in his throat, his manner of speaking, grim sense of humor, and aura of malice and cunning make him instantly memorable. Apply those qualities to an NPC in your campaign, and you'll add a strong element of interest.
Of course, you don't want to be too obvious. If every Dark Lord sounds like Darth Vader, players are going to get jaded, or even cynical. It might be fun to mix up those stereotypes, and base your Dark Lord (or whatever) on Piglet from Winnie the Pooh! As long as you tag each NPC in your mind with their associated template character, you'll have a backup image that will make it a lot easier to improvise in character.
Draw on what you know and love best. If you enjoy a character from TV or the movies, you're likely to do a better job portraying an NPC based on that character. It's probably a good idea to steer clear of characters that might be too well known by your players, of course; as an older GM running for younger players, I've been able to draw on sources that are completely unknown and original, to them.
But even relatively familiar archetypes can seem different and unrecognizable when played by the GM - in part, depending on just how accurate your portrayal is. This is one instance where less-than-perfect acting ability can actually be an advantage! And it's also quite possible to introduce one or two alterations, or even to do a judicious amount of mixing. For example, a nervous sniff added to an NPC based on, say, Bob Dole (am I dating myself?) can make him virtually unrecognizable to almost any player - and yet memorable.
Even if the players do recognize the source of an NPC, it's not the end of the world - nor even of that NPC! A lot of classic old voices and personalities are recycled in the media, and that's rarely considered to be a problem. The only time that it could be problematic is if the NPC has a secret or plot element which is based on the source, and which might be guessed by the players. Yet even that might be used by the GM to manipulate and manage the group's expectations. For example, you might take old Ygor, below, and make him a gentle and misunderstood soul who never harmed a fly. When the party asks him to help them dig up a grave, he might pray for them, or turn them over to the authorities!
Nor should you restrict yourself to media sources. I'm constantly on the watch for personalities and patterns in the real world. There's a boy who lived in the house behind ours. He had a high-pitched voice that could shatter glass, and whenever he saw us he instantly started shouting my son's name over and over. When he spoke to the rest of us, it was as "Sebastian's Dad?" or "Sebastian's Mom?". And he never, never, never stopped talking.
So it wasn't long before my players ran into a mysterious winged boy-creature who became very attached to the troll-warrior. His constant high-pitched questions became a source of mingled amusement and annoyance to the group - but they became very attached to him. They haven't seen him in many months, but they still talk about him fondly.
Over time, you can develop and expand a whole stable of bit players and stock characters in your head. As long as you don't depend too heavily on too narrow a range of those characters, you'll develop a reputation among your players for being a GM of a thousand voices - and they'll never know that most of those voices aren't yours..
Copyright 2013 by Peter Maranci. Revised: October 19, 2013. v.1.0