I often look for similarities in great stories to see what works. One aspect that I see very often is that powerful stories resolve “the loneliness problem.”
Normally, we are never told that our protagonist is lonely, but it’s there in the background: Scrooge is a miserly old man in a musty house. Harry Potter has no mother, father, or friends. Frodo lives all alone in his own aging mansion, and so on.
The loneliness problem can be solved in any number of ways:
The protagonist might find his or her true love. In heroic stories, for some reason, that doesn’t often come to pass—though Disney loves to do it in tales like Shrek. Some classics have a very romantic twist, like Romancing the Stone.
But just as often, these stories end up being buddy movies. The whole theme of the first Harry Potter novel revolves around how to become a friend to others, and how to gain friends. Later, the friends unite into a band of warriors, as is common in heroic fiction.
Over the weekend, my family watched the first Jurassic Park movie. The protagonist is a rather lonely archaeologist who during the course of the movie seems to deepen a romantic interest in a woman, take on two surrogate children, become friends with a master of chaos theory, and so on. He doesn’t just end up with one relationship, he gets them all!
Just as often, a lonely child goes out in search of a parent. Sometimes they will find that parent, but just as often they will find a surrogate—someone who acts as a guide and parent to them. For instance, in The Professional, a young girl has her family murdered and falls in love with the hitman next door. He teaches her his craft, and later gets killed, leaving her to go out and make it on her own—which is the end-goal of heroic tales.
Rarely do we ever see the protagonist end up alone. One example of course comes in Gone with the Wind, where the heroine wins love, but because of her selfish, spoiled ways, loses it again.
In other words, it seems that people are terribly, terribly lonely. We may not always be aware of it, but we crave parents, family, friends, lovers, and even children. The truth is, we’re always seeking to build new relationships and deepen old ones.
So when you’re devising your stories, consider how well your potential novel handles the loneliness problem.