Saturday, November 3, 2012

Week 45 - Hierarchy of Needs

4 Nov - 10 Nov:

Our characters need goals, right? Things that drive a plot forward, and make characters behave in certain ways?

In Breathing Life Into Your Characters, Rachel Ballon, Ph.D. stresses the importance of motivating our characters, and includes a hierarchy of needs as proposed by behavioural scientist Abraham Maslow.

Simply put, this means that us humans will strive for things in a certain order. When one level is satisfied, we move on to the next one. This is worth noting when we devise plot and drive characters.

1. Physiological Needs: water, food, clothing, shelter. Humans will go to great lengths to sustain life. Many tension-filled stories are based on this highest level of need (e.g., The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, The Mosquito Coast).
2. Safety and Security Needs: This follows closely from the first need. Humans want to feel safe. A difference exists between feeling safe and being safe, of course. The perception of threat can be a powerful character motivator (and result in more people owning guns, but that is another issue).
3. Affiliation Needs: This is the highest sociological need, that is, the need to be accepted, loved, physically close to others. This is a common character motivator for young adult and children's stories.
4. Esteem Needs: Once our affiliation needs are satisfied, we begin to look for recognition that we are exceptional for some reason. We want parents, peers, and other significant groups to see that we are special. Fame and fortune are popular character motivators for some authors.
5. Self-Actualization Needs: To get to here, we will be fed, safe, accepted, and feeling good about ourselves. The 'self' need includes those things that make us feel like we are achieving something, or realizing our potential, or doing what we, in our hearts, want to do (like writing?).

It's my guess that Mr. Maslow knows what he is talking about. A man lost in the desert is unlikely to be worried about the writing course he's always wanted to attend; a woman living the good-life is unlikely to eat her dog because she is hungry - crazy perhaps, but not hungry.

The moral of the story here is simple: we, as writers, need to motivate our characters in accordance with the basic laws of human nature, or risk losing our readers through lack of believability.

And what do we do when our character's goals are in order, and we've shown our readers we understand human nature (a little)? Why, we up the stakes, of course.... (See Week 33 for how to mess around with our character's goals to build suspense.)

Exercise 91. Ballon advocates building characters from the inside out, and to use the writer's experiences to give life to characters. Recall a specific time as a child when you felt driven by one of the needs proposed by Maslow. Free-write on the memory, using all senses. Try to incorporate what you wanted to do, or did do, to satisfy the need? Lend your memories to one of your characters.

Exercise 92. Make up one or more simple scenarios based on the basic needs. Now list the possible reactions of different personalities striving to meet that need. For example, a woman has a young child and little money. She may; a) borrow from family, b) work low-paying but respectable jobs, c) work high-paying illegal jobs, c) steal, d) beg, e) contrive to hook a wealthy man, d) place her child in foster care... and the possibilities go on. What would your characters do?


  1. This is one of my goals as I wade through the muck of revision. I really need to show my character's needs better and up the stakes. It's also the part that is scariest for me. I don't have a clear picture of the "how" yet. Maybe I'll pick another theorist to motivate my characters. Maslow is too hard. ;)

    1. Yeah, I'm finding 'maintaining urgency' (or the impression of urgency) quite a challenge.

      I'm considering writing the key motivators on sticky notes and plastering them somewhere visible to constantly remind myself what's at stake for each player.

      It might not be science, but hey, it might work.

    2. That's similar to a strategy I'm going to try. After I get the initial read-through and organization finished, I want to set up index cards with chapter and scenes and key moments in each, to make sure they're, in fact, there! If not, I need to put 'em in, or I may discover I need to increase the heat for the ones that are there.

      There is a NaNoReviMo group formed-- specifically for folks tackling revision-- a kind of support and goal-setting group. Let me know if you're interested in hopping on board.

    3. I reckon the type of objective approach you're adopting is the way to go.

      NaNoRevMo is a great idea and I could definitely do with some pointers. Pity it's not December since I'll have two drafts to edit by then... well, that's the plan, anyway. I trust you'll be sharing on A Thought Grows. The new look's great, by the way.

  2. GREAT post, Egg! These are things I consider when developing characters...their psychological profiles. I've always been a "what makes them tick?" kind of guy.

    I'll have to check into Maslow. Oh...I put Bird by Bird on hold at the library...just got a call yesterday that it's in.

    See you in the world of Nano. :o)

    1. Cheers, Mike. Sometimes I lose sight of what my characters are striving for and go off in la la land. You sound like you keep things well in perspective.

      Lamott's a nice light read for your busy Nov... if you get time to read it. :)

  3. Thanks for the pointers. How ever when I write, I do not pay attention to what the goals of my characters are. In a very small book that I wrote (self published through Lulu ) the characters seem real because I was feeling what the characters were feeling. I wrote this book namely "Medicine Fruit" as a result of the frustration I felt when I could not do anything for my friends who lost their health insurance because they lost their jobs. The characters were a combination of different feelings I was going through.

    1. Thanks for your comment and congratulations on your book.

      I think you've nailed it. I haven't finished Ballon's book, but she strongly advocates giving emotional 'realness' to characters by drawing on personal experience.

      It's so easy to get caught up in action-packed scenes without addressing the 'why' of how our characters are behaving. It sounds like you have the emotional drive for this not to be an issue.

      Good luck with Medicine Fruit. I'll check it out.