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?