|Read about the writers retreat run by Isabel Huggan|
I've been thinking about what it means to captivate an audience. To begin, there needs to be the space, the will to be captivated, such as when I'm driving the car, and Emerson and Lake and I are riding to school, and they've gotten in the habit of pleading "tell us a story."
Given the space, the storyteller must have some understanding of the listeners' moods and interests. With little kids, my story had better involve physical adventure, bad guys, animals, parks or toys, and/or candy.
Then, given the space and some understanding of the audience, the storyteller creates a character to care about, and only then come the surprises of detail and event. I'm able to keep Emerson and Lake interested with ongoing tales of a brother and sister, two invulnerable kids who believe they can take on the world.
With a literary short story, the space and the mood and interests can be taken for granted: we can assume that someone picking up a literary journal, or short story collection or anthology, carries the desire to be captivated, and the mood to be thoughtful and attentive. So how do we create characters to care about?
Huggan models this for us. We are adults, unlike Emerson and Lake, and one of the main struggles of being adult is knowing we are not perfect, and we are not invulnerable. In "Celia Behind Me," a story with a straightforward structure, Elizabeth looks back on being a child whose meanness is matched by her awareness of own vulnerabilities. Her vulnerability and fear creates our interest in the story, rather than what is going to happen to Celia. We are captivated by someone willing to reveal the parts of herself that most of us struggle to keep hidden, even from ourselves.
In "Sorrows of the Flesh," a story with a more complex (I'll call it a two-part) structure, Elizabeth again exposes her own smallness, her hate for and feelings of violence toward her pet, a needy, stupid rabbit. When she realizes that her idol, Mr. Wheeler, abuses his "sweet Mayruth," she can no more hate him than she can hate herself.
And that is one of many points about how literary fiction captivates us. It's horrible, but we cannot really point fingers. The characters who captivate us bear resemblance to us--we identify with their flaws and vulnerabilities--and so when trouble comes, we need to follow until the very last line.