Ever heard of Maslow? The guy with the pyramid scheme of needs, not Egyptian, but psychological. A hierarchy that starts from your gut, your grumbling stomach, and climbs up to the lofty peaks of self-fulfillment. Physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, self-actualization – it's a step ladder to the stars, but you've got to start in the muck.
Welcome to the unexplored badlands of character development, where your protagonist is the seed and Maslow's pyramid, your gardening manual. We're on the hunt for the marrow of the human condition, the fundamental needs that drive every man, woman, and their dog.
This is not your typical psych 101 detour. It's the crimson-veined cross-section of your character's heart. It's the psychological underpinnings of their actions, it's the broken shards of their desires. By the time we're done, you'll be pulling at the puppet strings of your characters like a master, making them dance to the primal rhythm of human needs.
Get ready. This ain't a joyride. It's a spelunking expedition into the cavernous depths of human motivation. It's a chance to get your hands dirty, to understand what makes your characters bleed, cry, laugh, and live. You might just learn a thing or two about yourself along the way. Strap in. It's going to be a wild ride up Maslow's pyramid. But remember, you can't skip the base and shoot for the stars. Even Hemingway knew, you've got to tend to the roots first.
Understanding Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a widely recognized psychological theory that explains human motivation. According to the theory, human needs are arranged in a hierarchical order.
The hierarchy is divided into five levels, each building on the previous one:
- The most basic physiological needs, such as food, water, and shelter. These needs are essential for survival, without which the human body cannot function properly. Without proper nutrition and hydration, the body becomes weak and vulnerable to diseases. Without shelter, the body is exposed to the elements and can suffer from hypothermia or hyperthermia.
- Safety needs. These needs include personal security, employment, resources, and health. In order to feel safe, humans require a stable and predictable environment where they can develop a sense of control over their lives. This level of needs also includes the need for law, order, and justice.
- Love and belonging needs. These needs include the need for friendship, intimacy, family, and a sense of connection. Humans are social animals and require meaningful relationships in order to thrive. Without love and belonging, humans can feel isolated and lonely.
- Esteem needs. These needs include the need for self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and respect from others. Humans have a natural desire to feel good about themselves and their accomplishments. Without self-esteem, individuals may feel inadequate, inferior, or unworthy.
- Self-actualization needs. These needs include the need for personal growth, creativity, and fulfillment of one's potential. Humans have an innate desire to achieve their full potential and live a life that is meaningful and satisfying. This level of needs is the highest level and represents the pinnacle of human achievement.
A character who is motivated by physiological needs may be driven by hunger or the need for shelter. In the movie Cast Away, Chuck Noland, portrayed by Tom Hanks, is stranded on a deserted island and must find ways to satisfy his basic physiological needs, such as food and water.
A character who is motivated by safety needs may seek security and stability in their lives. In the Harry Potter series, Harry's parents are killed by Voldemort, and he is forced to live with his abusive relatives. He seeks safety and stability by attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
On the other hand, a character who is motivated by love and belonging may go to great lengths to form relationships with others. In the movie Her, Theodore Twombly, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is a lonely man who falls in love with an operating system. He seeks love and belonging by forming a relationship with the OS.
A character who is motivated by esteem needs may strive for success and recognition in their careers. In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, Andy Sachs, portrayed by Anne Hathaway, is motivated by the desire to succeed in her career and earn the respect of her boss.
A character who is motivated by self-actualization needs may seek to fulfill their creative potential or pursue their passions. In the movie Whiplash, Andrew Neiman, portrayed by Miles Teller, is a drummer who seeks to become a great musician and fulfill his creative potential, despite the harsh methods of his teacher.
Many successful works of fiction have used Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to create compelling characters. Here are a few examples:
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
The Harry Potter series is a great example of how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be used to develop complex and relatable characters.
Throughout the series, we see characters motivated by different levels of the hierarchy.
For example, Harry is initially motivated by safety needs, as he is fleeing from the abusive Dursley family. Later, he becomes motivated by esteem needs, as he strives to prove himself as a wizard and gain the respect of his peers.
Hermione, on the other hand, is initially motivated by self-actualization needs, as she is driven by a desire to learn and achieve academic success. As the series progresses, she becomes motivated by love and belonging needs, as she forms close relationships with Harry and Ron.
Breaking Bad TV Series
Breaking Bad is another example of how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be used to create compelling characters.
The series' main character, Walter White, is initially motivated by physiological needs, as he is diagnosed with cancer and needs money for his medical bills. As the series progresses, he becomes motivated by esteem needs, as he becomes increasingly powerful and respected in the drug trade. However, his motivation ultimately shifts back to physiological needs, as he seeks to provide for his family after his death.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic novel that uses Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to create complex and relatable characters.
The main character, Scout, is motivated by love and belonging needs, as she seeks acceptance and approval from her father and other authority figures.
Her father, Atticus, is motivated by esteem needs, as he strives to live up to his own moral code and gain the respect of his community.
The novel also touches on safety needs, as the characters must deal with the threat of violence and racism in their community.
These examples demonstrate how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be used to create nuanced and engaging characters that resonate with readers.
Pros and Cons
While the hierarchy provides a framework for understanding the basic needs that drive human behavior and can be used to develop more complex and nuanced characters, there are also potential drawbacks to relying too heavily on the hierarchy and neglecting other factors that contribute to a character's personality and motivations.
Let's explore the advantages and disadvantages of using the hierarchy as a tool for creating compelling and realistic fictional characters:
- Realistic motivations: By using the hierarchy, you can create characters with realistic motivations that resonate with readers. The hierarchy provides a framework for understanding the basic needs that drive human behavior, which can be used to develop more complex and nuanced characters.
- Cohesive plotlines: The hierarchy can also be used as a framework for plot development. By structuring the plot around the different levels of needs, you can create a cohesive and structured story that is grounded in human psychology.
- Conflict and tension: By creating characters with conflicting needs, you can add tension and conflict to their stories. These conflicting needs can create obstacles and challenges that the characters must overcome, which can add depth and richness to the plot.
- Character growth: The hierarchy can also be used to create character growth and development over the course of the story. As characters face new challenges and experiences, their needs and motivations may change, which can lead to growth and change in their personalities and behaviors.
- Universal framework: The hierarchy is a universal framework for understanding human behavior that can be applied to characters from any culture or background. This makes it a useful tool for writers who want to create characters that are relatable to a broad audience.
- Clear character arcs: By structuring a character's motivations and goals around the different levels of needs in the hierarchy, you can create clear character arcs that are easy for readers to follow. This can help readers to become invested in the character's journey and feel a sense of satisfaction when the character achieves their goals.
- Building empathy: The hierarchy can be used to create characters that are sympathetic and relatable to readers. By understanding a character's basic needs and motivations, readers can empathize with their struggles and root for them to succeed.
- Creating tension in relationships: The hierarchy can be used to create tension and conflict in relationships between characters. For example, a character who is motivated by esteem needs may clash with a character who is motivated by belongingness needs, leading to conflict and tension in their relationship.
- Adding depth to characters: By using the hierarchy as a starting point for a character's motivations, you can build on this foundation to create more complex and nuanced characters. For example, a character who is initially motivated by physiological needs may also have other underlying motivations, such as a desire for security or a need for love and belonging.
- Stereotyping characters: One common drawback when using the hierarchy is that it becomes all too easy to create stereotypical characters based on their needs. For example, a character who is motivated solely by physiological needs may be portrayed as a homeless person, while a character who is motivated by self-actualization needs may be portrayed as an artist or musician. While these stereotypes can be useful starting points, they should not be the only defining characteristics of a character.
- Oversimplification: The hierarchy can be criticized for oversimplifying human behavior by reducing complex motivations and emotions to a set of basic needs. While the hierarchy can be a useful starting point, it's important to remember that human behavior is often more complex and nuanced than the hierarchy suggests.
- Cultural and individual differences: The hierarchy may not apply universally to all individuals or cultures. Different individuals and cultures may prioritize different needs or have different ways of satisfying the same needs. It's important to consider individual and cultural differences when creating characters and understanding their motivations.
- Lack of specificity: The hierarchy can be criticized for being too broad and lacking specificity. For example, the hierarchy doesn't account for individual differences in the types of needs that people prioritize or the strategies they use to satisfy those needs. This can result in characters that feel one-dimensional or unrealistic.
- Limited applicability to some genres: While the hierarchy can be a useful tool for developing characters in many genres, it may not be as applicable to certain genres, such as science fiction or fantasy. In these genres, characters may have needs that differ from those in the hierarchy, such as the need for magical power or the need to survive in a harsh environment.
- Overreliance on psychology: The hierarchy is based in psychology, which may not be the best fit for all genres or styles of writing. Some writers may prefer to focus on other aspects of character development, such as backstory, relationships, or personality traits.
- Limiting creativity: While the hierarchy can be a useful tool for developing characters, relying too heavily on it can limit creativity and originality. Characters who are motivated solely by the needs in the hierarchy may feel predictable or stereotypical, which can detract from the overall quality of the story.
While there are some potential drawbacks to using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for character development, overall it can be a useful tool for creating compelling and realistic characters, as long as you keep in mind that there's a lot more to a character than the needs they wish to meet.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
While Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be a useful tool for character development, there are some common mistakes that you should avoid:
- Neglecting other factors. Relying too heavily on the hierarchy and neglecting other factors that contribute to a character's personality and motivations can lead to characters that feel one-dimensional. While the hierarchy can be a useful framework, it's not the only way to develop complex and engaging characters. It's important to consider other factors, such as personality traits, backstory, and relationships with other characters.
- Forgetting the importance of growth and change. Characters should grow and change over the course of the story. While the hierarchy can be a useful starting point for a character's motivations, it's important to allow for growth and change as the character faces new challenges and experiences. A character who is initially motivated by physiological needs may grow to become motivated by higher-level needs as they overcome obstacles and develop new relationships.
- Neglecting the importance of context. The hierarchy is not universal and can be affected by a character's individual context. For example, a character who is experiencing a life-threatening situation may prioritize physiological needs over safety needs, even if they have already satisfied lower-level needs.
- Ignoring the complexity of human motivation. The hierarchy is a useful framework, but it's important to remember that human motivation is complex and multifaceted. Characters may be motivated by a combination of needs, and those needs may change over time.
By avoiding these common mistakes, you can leverage Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to create complex and relatable characters that will resonate with readers.
Using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in Your Writing
When it comes to using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in your writing, there are several ways to approach it:
- Consider each of your characters' needs and motivations in the context of the hierarchy. What are their physiological needs? Safety needs? Love and belonging needs? Esteem needs? Self-actualization needs? By understanding these needs, you can create more nuanced and complex characters that feel more real to your readers.
- Create conflict and tension in your story. For example, if two characters have conflicting needs, this can lead to friction and drama. Perhaps one character has a strong need for safety and security, while the other has a need for adventure and risk-taking. These contrasting needs can make it difficult for the characters to connect and form a relationship. Alternatively, if a character has unfulfilled needs, this can lead to impulsive or risky behavior. For example, a character who is desperately seeking love and belonging may be more likely to fall for someone who is bad for them, or to make other poor decisions in the pursuit of acceptance.
- Use the hierarchy to structure your plot or story arc. For example, you could start with your characters' physiological needs and move up the hierarchy as the story progresses. This can create a sense of momentum and help keep your readers engaged. Alternatively, you could use the hierarchy to create a sense of tension or conflict within a single scene or chapter. For instance, if a character's safety needs are threatened, this can create a sense of urgency and danger that propels the action forward.
- Consider the hierarchy when crafting your setting or worldbuilding. For example, if your story takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, your characters' physiological needs (such as access to food and water) will be much more pressing than their need for self-actualization. On the other hand, if your story takes place in a utopian society where all of a character's basic needs are met, their primary concerns may be focused on self-actualization and personal growth.
- Use the hierarchy to create resonance with your readers. Because the hierarchy is based on universal human needs, readers are likely to recognize and relate to it on a subconscious level. By incorporating the hierarchy into your writing, you can tap into these shared experiences and create a sense of connection with your audience.
- Use the hierarchy to explore themes related to personal growth and fulfillment. For example, you could use the hierarchy to examine the different ways characters pursue self-actualization. Some characters may find fulfillment through creative pursuits, while others may seek to make a difference in the world through activism or philanthropy. By exploring these different paths to self-actualization, you can provide your readers with insights and inspiration for their own lives.
- Use the hierarchy to create a sense of contrast or irony in your writing. For instance, you could create a character who is wealthy and successful, but still feels unfulfilled because they have not achieved self-actualization. Alternatively, you could create a character who has very little in the way of material possessions, but who is content because they have strong relationships and a sense of belonging.
- Use the hierarchy to create a sense of universality or timelessness in your writing. Because the hierarchy is based on fundamental human needs, it can be applied to a wide variety of contexts and time periods. By incorporating the hierarchy into your writing, you can create a sense of resonance and connection with readers from different backgrounds and cultures.
Incorporating Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs into your writing can add depth and richness to your characters and plot. By considering your characters' needs and motivations in the context of the hierarchy, you can create more realistic and relatable stories that resonate with your readers.
How to Incorporate the Hierarchy into Your Writing Process
In order to effectively incorporate Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs into your writing process, it's important to start by understanding the theory and its different levels. Once you understand the hierarchy, you can begin to consider how it can be applied to your characters and plot:
- Create a chart or diagram that outlines each of your characters' needs and motivations in the context of the hierarchy. This can help you visualize the different levels of needs and how they interact with one another. For example, you may have a character who is motivated by both safety needs and love and belonging needs. This can create tension and conflict within the character, as they struggle to balance these competing needs.
- Use the hierarchy as a framework for your plot. For example, you may have a character who is motivated by physiological needs, such as hunger or thirst. This can be the starting point for your story, as the character sets out to find food or water. As the story progresses, the character may encounter new challenges and obstacles that relate to the different levels of needs in the hierarchy. By using the hierarchy in this way, you can create a cohesive and structured plot that is grounded in the psychology of human motivation.
Pro-tip: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is just one tool for character development. While it can be a useful framework, it's not the only way to develop complex and engaging characters. You may also want to consider other factors, such as personality traits, backstory, and relationships with other characters.
Incorporating Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs into your writing process can help you create more realistic and relatable characters and plotlines. By understanding the different levels of needs and motivations, you can create complex and multifaceted characters that will resonate with your readers.
Writing a Character that Climbs the Hierarchy as They Grow and Develop
One of the most effective ways to use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in character development is to create a character who climbs the hierarchy as they grow and develop throughout the story. This can add depth and richness to the character's arc, and can create a sense of progression and accomplishment for the reader.
To create a character that climbs the hierarchy, you will need to think carefully about their motivations and desires at each level of the hierarchy. At the beginning of the story, the character may be motivated primarily by physiological needs, such as hunger or the need for shelter. As the story progresses, they may begin to fulfill these needs and move up to the next level of the hierarchy, safety needs. For example, they may secure a stable job or find a safe place to live.
As the character climbs the hierarchy, their motivations and desires will change accordingly. They may become more concerned with love and belonging needs, and begin to form meaningful relationships with others. They may strive for esteem needs, seeking recognition and respect for their accomplishments. Finally, they may begin to pursue self-actualization needs, seeking to fulfill their creative potential and find meaning and purpose in their life.
Creating a character that climbs the hierarchy can be a powerful way to engage your readers and create a sense of momentum and progression in the story. However, it's important to remember that growth and change should be gradual and realistic. A character who suddenly jumps from the bottom of the hierarchy to the top may feel contrived or unrealistic. Instead, focus on creating a gradual and believable progression, with setbacks and challenges along the way.
By creating a character that climbs the hierarchy, you can create a rich and engaging character arc that will leave your readers satisfied and fulfilled.
Pro-tip: Remember to make the character's growth and change gradual and realistic. Instead of having the character suddenly jump from the bottom of the hierarchy to the top, focus on creating a believable progression with setbacks and challenges along the way.
Here are a few examples of characters from fiction that have climbed the hierarchy of needs:
- Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games: At the beginning of the series, Katniss is motivated primarily by physiological needs, as she is struggling to provide food and shelter for her family. As the series progresses, she moves up the hierarchy, becoming motivated by safety needs as she fights for survival in the Hunger Games arena. She also forms meaningful relationships with other characters, fulfilling her love and belonging needs. Finally, she becomes motivated by self-actualization needs as she fights to overthrow the corrupt government and create a better world.
- Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby: Jay Gatsby is initially motivated by esteem needs, as he seeks recognition and respect from others. He throws lavish parties in an attempt to impress others and gain their admiration. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Gatsby is also motivated by love and belonging needs, as he is deeply in love with Daisy and seeks to win her back. His pursuit of Daisy ultimately leads to his downfall, but he is able to achieve a sense of self-actualization by the end of the novel as he comes to terms with his past and his relationship with Daisy.
- Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol: At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is motivated primarily by esteem needs, as he seeks wealth and success at the expense of others. However, as he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, he begins to move up the hierarchy. He forms meaningful relationships with others, fulfilling his love and belonging needs, and becomes motivated by self-actualization needs as he seeks to make amends for his past mistakes and become a better person.
These characters demonstrate how the hierarchy of needs can be used to create complex and engaging character arcs. By understanding the different levels of needs and motivations, you can create characters that feel more real and relatable to their readers.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool for writers looking to create compelling characters. By understanding the hierarchy and using it to develop characters' motivations and desires, you can create relatable and realistic characters that your readers will connect with.