Oftentimes, a writer will find themselves stressing over the specific details of a character such as what they wear, what color shirts they prefer, what sort of car that they drive, their hair color, and all of the physical descriptions that you can think of. However, if you get caught up in the physical, you forget that the importance lies in the depths of the character. It’s okay to let the reader do some of the work. In Drown by Junot Diaz, we see how setting and other narrative description can help build a powerful and dynamic character.
We see this technique used from the very first paragraph of the book in “Ysrael”. Our narrator is describing his setting compared to the ‘campo’ that he and his brother would end up going to. It is simple enough to come out and say that he enjoyed the old summers, but as readers, we wouldn’t feel it. So instead, he ‘shows’ us how he feels. “We were close to the colmado; you could hear the music and the gentle clop of drunken voices” (3). The narrator could have described just the drunken voices and maybe dizzying music wafting into his ears, but he uses ‘music and the gentle clopping,’ and these are soft, positive words. He continues to describe the setting, “…rosebushes blazed around the yard like compass points and the mango trees spread out deep blankets of shade where we could rest and play dominos…” (4). To the minds-eye, this adds to the positivity. There are beautiful rosebushes that ‘blazed’ around the yard. He compares them to compasses, which lean to direction, but also movement, future, and moving forward.
There are these mango trees and not just shadows but comforting ‘blankets of shade’ were they could ‘rest’ and ‘play’. There are so many positive words to describe it; the reader can assert that the narrator is very fond of the place, about which he is speaking, while on the reverse, he says “In the campo, there was nothing to do, no one to see” (4). All of the positive words that describe the previous, immediately give stark contrast to this statement. He obviously does not like the campo, but Diaz never says ‘he hated the campo’. This is more effective.
Setting isn’t the only way to do this and Junot Diaz shows this very well. In his story ‘Aurora’ we see the narrator describe a romance. Again, we could have him come out and say that he has a difficult relationship with her. The story is in present tense, so that would be easy to make into one of his thoughts. As usual though, it is can be more effective to show it rather than to just saying it. It builds the characters depth and engages the reader. For instance, “One of Our Nights’ starts off, “We hurt each other too well to let it drop” (52). This both describes how he feels about the relationship, or a particular situation, and makes you keep reading. It effectively gives us just enough information to render the reader with a question that we will have to continue on to find the answer to. “She breaks everything I own, yells at me like it might change something, tries to slam doors on my fingers…” (52). Breaks, yells, slam. All of these are sharp, negative words. We even feel his confliction when he walks back into the room and Diaz has him say “I go into the sala wanting her to be there but she’s gone again and I punch myself in the nose just to clear my head” (53). We do get a little telling, ‘I go into the sala wanting her to be there…” but then Diaz strengthens it by showing the conflicting thoughts, ‘I punch myself in the nose just to clear my head”.
Pick anywhere, and in this novel you can find moments like this, from when, in ‘No Face’ Ysrael compares the streets that he ‘fights evil’ (160), to the greener pastures that he hopes lie in Canada where he will receive his operation. Diaz gives us a stellar example of how characters should be built by packing page after page of gorgeous narrative description that builds his characters every step of the way.
You can do this too in your own writing! Go ahead, place your character somewhere they either really love or really hate and show that emotion to us.