Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 11: What is Interest?

By Barry Scobee

Originally published in the June 1916 issue of The Writer’s Monthly

A hundred ingredients are used in making a piece of fiction, but fused into a single mass they mean one thing—interest. To be bought and published it must be interesting. The question, then, is how to supply that one necessity.

Our interest in life is founded on our longings and our needs; therefore a writer must play upon our hopes and desires as a musician plays upon an instrument—high and low, commandingly and beseechingly, softly and sweetly and triumphantly.

We are interested in a man we admire. Admiring him, we in a degree desire to be like him. We care, however—even the worst of us—only for the manly traits, conduct and aspirations. We cannot admire the weak, the coarse, the dishonorable; therefore, to make a story-hero interesting we must endow him with admirable, yet human, characteristics—ones with which we can sympathize or can imitate proudly.

This does not mean goody-goody, nice-little-man actions, nor does it mean a story-hero endowed with a heritage of misfortune for which we pity him—such as giving to his sister the last cracker in the cold, cold house though he himself is suffering from hunger brought on by sending his wages to the mother who is mistreated by her second husband. We should prefer to see the character hustle up two crackers and trounce the second husband. We do not care to be like the man we pity.

Let the story-hero meet misfortune or any other obstacle in a way we should like to do—with a grin, or a fighting fist, or a bit of cleverness that shows he is not an incapable. We can’t be interested in the fellow we would not care to imitate in some respect.

A story-hero need not have all the virtues. In these the great picaresque heroes of fiction were woefully lacking. Villon, in Stevenson’s “A Lodging for the Night,” did not possess the sweet virtues of a tender and obedient bank clerk, but he did have something we admire, some cleverness and daring and an ability to care for himself. Just give the story-hero one big, wholesome characteristic we ourselves would like to possess, or fancy we do possess, and he is likely to be interesting. He may have more than one, but if a man is just average good and bad, and possesses one big, human virtue or ability we like him. Trying to arouse interest in a story-hero by contrast, by making him wholly good and his opponents wholly bad, is the work of an amateur. Just make the man human, with a character or characteristics we would try to imitate were we in his situation, and the story will twang a responsive chord in our hearts.

More than silly sentiment, more than catalogued vices and virtues, are needed to interest us. We must have our hopes and desires played and preyed upon. This is done, first, by giving the hero a touch of human kinship, by correlating us with the hero through something we admire or hope for in ourselves, then fingering up and down, back and forth, on the character’s scale of failure or fortune.

Broadly speaking, it appears that interest is divided into two classes—human interest and heart interest. The former refers to courageous deeds, to setbacks manfully met, to hard fights well won; while heart interest refers to pathos and love. Both sorts are valuable, but seemingly human interest is far more popular. However, one of the best stories that ever appeared in the Saturday Evening Post was filled with pathos from beginning to end. But in addition, there was a heroic quality which won admiration.

Synopses of motion pictures in many trade magazines show that the pleasing stories have either heart or human interest appeal or both. Photoplays will not sell without it, though if the writer can put in the “unusual twist” of plot, and the strikingly new, so much the better. The same is true of stories for the fictions magazines.

The point, then, is that the writer should consider all plot germs from the view of giving the hero a part we admire—that we, in a similar situation, would wish to imitate. Finally, make heart interest and human interest the pivotal-points in writing fiction. Look at every plot first from that angle alone. It gives the struggling writer a solid base from which to work, from which to view the world, from which to write stories that sell. It will even be a valuable agent in moulding one’s own philosophy of life.

There are still plenty of readers and markets out there for inspirational and aspirational protagonists.

Also, when Scobee here talks of “*heart*” and “*human*” interest, another way to consider those categories would be to say the main story question should be either one of achievement (will the protagonist do/get the thing?) or one of decision (will she say “*yes*” to the job on Mars?)