What makes a character come alive?
Writers have been asking this question for ages as they attempt to convince readers that little markings on a page are actually living, breathing people. This is no easy feat. You’ve likely struggled with it yourself.
You can give your character a goal, a distinct voice, and an in-depth backstory but still fail to bring him to life. Although these details will help shape your character, none of them strike the core of who he is. What’s missing?
Just one thing: yearning.
What Is Yearning?
To understand yearning, compare it to a character’s goal. Goals are external, whereas yearning is internal. It inexorably draws the character toward whatever he believes will fulfill his deepest desire. Below are some examples of character goals versus character yearnings.
Goal: Help an underground resistance leader mature and gain the skills necessary for a successful revolution.
Yearning: Know whether hope is worthwhile.
Goal: Save the world from total destruction.
Yearning: Be accepted despite Down syndrome.
Goal: Locate a lost son.
Yearning: Be a good father.
In order to feel complete, characters must satisfy their yearnings. It is at the root of who they are.
The Root of Character
Why do characters set external goals? Why do they help resistance fighters, save the world, and search for lost sons? Is it because they find those activities easier than sitting on the couch and eating potato chips?
We might conclude that their actions come from a sense of duty, but where did they get that sense of duty, and why does the goal matter to them? Experience tells us that humans do not run toward hazards. A character won’t take the plunge into uncertainty unless his soul’s yearning is bigger than the required sacrifices. His external goal must stem from his yearning. Why else would he risk pain and defeat?
Let’s veer away from the broad topic of character goals and analyze how yearning affects a character’s interaction with others. I’ll reuse my example of a mentor figure who yearns to know whether hope is worthwhile. If this character has to work with half-hearted assistants, will he be patient with them? No. He’ll push them to their limits because anything less would be insufficient to test hope. Moreover, his yearning will negatively influence his openness toward others. A pessimist is unlikely to trust others and will therefore remain aloof. His external goal won’t cause these behaviors; his yearning, however, will have a profound impact.
Who a character is on the inside defines who he is on the outside.
Discovering Your Character’s Yearning
Hopefully by now you’re convinced that you need to pinpoint your character’s yearning, but how? Though there isn’t a magic formula to unearthing it, I can offer some tips.
Tip #1: As a rule of thumb, a character’s yearning should be specific. A yearning to have a happy marriage would be more poignant than a yearning to be happy in general. At the same time, a yearning must be broad enough to last through the whole story. If your character yearns to be accepted by his family, and they accept him halfway through your story, either his yearning is too narrow or the novel is too long. The one exception would be if you’re writing a series, in which case the character could conceivably have one yearning in the first book and a new yearning in the sequels.
Tip #2: Contemplate your character’s external goal. It should be somehow related to his yearning. The connection doesn’t need to be obvious and direct, but if there’s none at all, your character’s external goal may seem meaningless. For instance, if a character has the external goal of getting a job, his yearning will probably be for stability in his life, admiration from peers, or a diversion from the monotony he faces daily.
Tip #3: Evaluate your character’s experiment in living (how he chooses to act in regard to your story’s focusing question). If you have a theme of responsibility, your story might ask the question, “What does it look like to be responsible with money?” This isn’t a message, it’s a way of outlining your story’s trajectory. Your character might answer this question by saving every penny he earns.
An experiment in living guides and molds your character, so you can probably find his yearning, or at least a clue to it, within. A character who clings to money might yearn for the respect of everyone around him (the tool to accomplish this being amassing a huge fortune).
Tip #4: Delve into your character’s backstory. To an extent, people are a product of their circumstances. A character who was beaten as a child may yearn for justice on earth, to gain a faithful friend, or to harm others for the hurt he suffered. With such a wide range of options, a character’s backstory usually isn’t the first place I’d recommend you look. However, if a character isn’t particularly emotional and defies your attempts at identifying his yearning, this is definitely the area to probe.
Tip #5: If no yearnings are jumping out at you, creating a yearning for your character is better than never resolving on the perfect one. Some characters don’t have big, flashy yearnings, and that’s okay. But everybody yearns for something, even if it’s basic—like a good reputation or peace in tough times.
How Yearning Guides Internal Monologue
If you write in first person or deep third person (or even, in a very limited sense, omniscient), you’ll use internal monologue. Internal monologue is basically the unimpeded flow of thought from your character’s brain. For instance:
Mary stepped outside into the rain. When was the last time she had felt these sweet drops of magic from the sky? Her child wasn’t here, so she would have to play in the puddles for him. It was raining, after all. She needn’t be too dignified.
Internal monologue is widely recognized by writers as one of the best ways to express a character’s personality, which leads to a telling question. Since a character’s yearning is tied to his personality, shouldn’t it have considerable impact on his internal monologue?
I hope you’re nodding your head. The only mystery is how this works.
The simple answer is subtext. Your character’s thoughts should hint at his yearning. He must never explicitly spell it out, but readers should be able to glimpse who he is and what he yearns for through his thoughts.
You probably want a more comprehensive answer than that, though. Let me give you an example.
Let’s say we have a girl from a small town who yearns for fame. When we plop her into a big city, countless thoughts will rush through her internal monologue—thoughts worth paying attention to. She’ll probably marvel at the big buildings and stare at the glamorous advertisements displaying popular figures. She may pity all the poor people back home who live paltry lives just to scrape together income so they can live awhile and then die. Her thoughts sound authentic because they proceed straight from her yearning.
Do you realize the significance of this? You just learned the secret code for writing powerful internal monologue. Not all monologue comes from a character’s yearning, but most of it emanates from it in some way, and when it does, the words will be meaningful and evocative.
Now that you have this powerful tool in your hands, be careful with it. Internal monologue must be utilized properly. Be subtle. Internal monologue that lacks subtlety is one of the largest problems I see in modern fiction. Also, don’t forget that actions speak louder than words. Your character’s thoughts provide vital information, but his actions will always reveal more about who he truly is.
Speaking of which, a character’s actions are also influenced by his yearning. But I won’t take up your time explaining this. You can enjoy figuring it out on your own. Just follow your intuition on how a character with a particular yearning would behave.
Making Characters Come Alive
A living, breathing character is not the sum of his parts. He is not merely his personality, plus his goal, plus his backstory, plus his physical appearance. For a character to come alive, he must have a fiery core from which all his traits, habits, thoughts, and actions surge forth. That fiery core is your character’s yearning. From this central point, everything else about him can be judged.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 9, 2018. Updated November 22, 2021.
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)