Junot Díaz is the author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the John Sargent, Sr., First Novel Prize; the National Book Critics Circle Award; the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Now through November 30, Figment and the National Writing Project are sponsoring a contest for writers that Díaz is judging. Click here to find out more.
There are countless approaches that can help us create a strong voice for our characters. This is only one approach and it is not by any means authoritative. It is more a suggestion than anything.
When I wrote Oscar Wao and when I was thinking about the voices of say Yunior and Lola -- foremost on my mind was the question of audience. As we all well know: who we are talking to shapes fundamentally not only what we say but how we say it. I always tell young writers: sit in a private room alone with your best friend talking about some craziness and listen to how she speaks. And then have the phone ring and your best friend pick up and it is her boss from a job she needs and listen to how quickly her voice changes. The character of her voice changes just as much as the content of what she will reveal. Even her vocabulary will be different! We see this again and again; all of us have thousands of masks we deploy in our lives. An important question when writing from a character’s point of view is: what mask are they going to use on the audience? For example, in my book Yunior talks always like he’s in a car with his best friends on their way to the Shore. He's brutally uncensored, he feels like no one is really going to try to tell him to be quiet. Lola is equally honest but I'm not sure she's operating under the same intoxicating sense of freedom.
Junot Díaz Credit: George Vaysgant
Which brings us to the next element in how I approach voice: what is the character's relationship to their own telling. What motivates their telling, what do they expect to get out of it. We know that a person looking to exonerate themselves sounds totally different from a person who is looking to punish someone for something messed up they did. This aspect of voice -- the relationship, the emotional motivation -- allows us to see how Yunior and Lola, despite their shared honesty -- diverge radically as narrators. As a narrator Yunior is both defiant and a show-off. He's also very guilty about what he has done to both Oscar and Lola and yet for all his guilt he's not willing to cop 100-percent to his role in the siblings' pain. Yunior therefore hides as much as he shows. The fact that he's telling someone else's story really helps him in this game of now-you-see-me now-you don't.
Lola on the other hand isn't playing any games. She isn't trying to push anyone's buttons (which Yunior just loves to do.) She's just trying to tell her own story -- an important point -- just trying to explain how it was with her and her mother and her family, a topic she finds incredibly difficult. Unlike Yunior Lola is all about being vulnerable as a narrator. She's less about seeming cool or brilliant (showing off) than about being honest and human -- by human we mean being honest about the parts of her that are flawed and weak and not always on point. Lola is trying to present herself not as a victim or a hero but as a human being and that can only be achieved by revealing the deepest parts of herself -- by showing her vulnerability. Yunior reveals his vulnerabilities but only on very rare occasions, as a strategy, but with Lola this is the only reason she tells her story and that motivation impacts her voice more than the fact that she's a young, tough Dominican gal from Paterson, NJ.
Also consider the impact of gender on these matters: Yunior is a Dominican boy of a certain kind. He's used to being listened to by both men and women. Not always of course -- he is after all a poor immigrant of African descent in a country that loves to belittle and marginalize the groups from which he hails -- but still in his own world he has male privilege. Lola on the other hand doesn't have that privilege. In fact she's not used to being listened to by anyone, even other women, even her own mother. That's something else that gives these two's voices their unique registers.
It's easy to get lost in the curses, in the Spanish, in the sharpness and pungency of these characters' language, of their self-representation, but for me what defines Lola and Yunior's voices most clearly is the relationship they have with what they are telling. Yunior's relationship with his telling is more fraught and ambivalent (and I would argue self-serving) whereas Lola is not trying to impress anyone or pass for anything; she's more driven by a human need to bear witness, not only to her own humanity but to that of her family.
You want to write good characters with an unforgettable voice? In my experience it won't kill you if you first figure out the character's relationship with the telling, with the story, before you even think about what kind of words, what kind of languages, what kind of attitude these folks will be slinging.
Sometimes this shit all happens inside your head without any thinking. It just all comes together at once. Good for you. But sometimes you got to think this shit through, you have to ask yourself what's missing from a voice and for those of you who are looking for those kind of answers I'm hoping this little discussion will be less an answer than a start.