What Does Your Hero Yearn For?

I’m not talking about story goals here. This is something deeper, more at the core of his being. James Scott Bell writes about this in his book Conflict & Suspense.

The hero may not even realize it’s present. It’s something he doesn’t have but yearns for. Businessman Running with UmbrellaBell defines yearning as a desire for something without which the person feels incomplete. And he may not even be aware the yearning is there until a story event triggers a response based more on the yearning than on the event itself. This could lead to behavior, an overreaction or under reaction, that makes little sense to the other characters and to the hero himself.

This yearning is in your hero’s history, perhaps something from his childhood. Whatever it is, it predates the story. When he comes into the story, he’s already carrying trouble in the form of this unfulfilled yearning. This gives you all kinds of possibilities for unpredictable actions by the hero as the unspoken yearning influences his behavior and relationships with others.

man prayingFor example, say your hero yearns for a strong father figure because his father left the family when the hero was a boy. In your novel, he might have a hard time seeing the antagonist as the villain because he develops a strong emotional attachment to the man early on. As the villain is slowly revealed, the hero rebels against what he sees and may even attempt to shield the bad guy, defend him, rationalize his behavior. Or he may feel betrayed which can send him down another path in the story

Next time you feel stuck with your hero, dig deeper into his history. See what unexpressed yearning he’s hiding from himself—and from you.Now the tension and potential for a tragic outcome is heightened as the hero’s yearning, and resulting idolization, of the villain conflicts with the reality of who and what the villain really is.

5 Replies to “What Does Your Hero Yearn For?”

  1. Thanks for the timely insight. The pieces are in place in my protagonist’s history to result in the yearning, but it wasn’t producing the undercurrent I desired. I like your suggestion of unpredictable actions that can result. Now to go write some more!

  2. “Bell defines yearning as a desire for something without which the person feels incomplete.” Love this! Characters must have strong desires outside of the plot to be real and relatable.

  3. Yearning – Yes, that’s the right word! It’s the powerful undercurrent that makes characters so real and appealing. It’s also a great source of tension, as you said. Nice post, Henry.

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