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You Want What You Can't Have
What the character most wants in the world is something out of reach.
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(permanent link) added: 2013-06-30 17:00:17 sponsor: xdidy (last reply: 2013-07-09 16:51:12)

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"Too often, the thing you want most is the one thing you can't have."
-Meredith, Grey's Anatomy

This trope is Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Note that this isn't just someone wanting something they can't have, this is someone wanting something, at least in part, because they can't have it. This is often discussed in-universe. When the story is a romance, this often overlaps with Star-Crossed Lovers. In an action story, it is likely to center on the hero's greatest failure and his inability to fix it.

If the protagonist actually finds a way to get what he wants, he might find that Wanting Is Better Than Having. If he gets bitter about it, this might turn into Sour Grapes.

Examples:

Literature
  • Harry Potter. This is part of what's so enticing about the Mirror of Erised. It shows you what you want most, but for some people, that can never happen. Dumbledore says that some people get caught up in the mirror until it ruins them, because it's the only way to get a glimpse of what they want. For example, Harry sees his parents, still alive.

Live-Action TV
  • How I Met Your Mother
    • Robin doesn't want kids. Really, she doesn't. She's never wanted kids in her life. Until she realizes that she's infertile.
    • She also doesn't have strong feelings for Barney, who has been chasing her for entire seasons...until he finally gives up on their relationship, and decides he doesn't want to be with her after all.

Music
  • Eminem's song "Superman".
    "You want what you can't have, ooh girl that's too damn bad"
  • Inverted in Sinead O Connor's song "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got":
    I'm walking through the desert
    And I am not frightened although it's hot
    I have all that I requested
    And I do not want what I haven't got

    I have learned this from my mother
    See how happy she has made me
    I will take this road much further
    Though I know not where it takes me

  • Commented on in The Eagles' song "Desperado":
    Now it seems to me some fine things
    Have been laid upon your table
    But you only want the ones that you can't get

Theater
  • In Into the Woods, the two Princes Charming (brothers) fall in love and marry Cinderella and Rapunzel who are fascinating because they elude them, but after the "happy ending" of the first act, their hearts wander to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty because they're an unattainable challenge. One of their songs includes the line "Agony! Beyond power of speech, When the one thing you want is the only thing out of your reach..."
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