Friday, August 30, 2013

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for writers

Modeled after Unity image
Unmet needs drive your character's choices which drives the story. Which makes Maslow's neatly organized hierarchy of needs a useful tool.

Begin with a primary need. (Holly Lisle in Create A Character Clinic suggests throwing a dart at the chart until you find a need that fires your imagination. If you're fresh out of darts, you can click the randomizer below.) Add in some secondary needs. Use it for obstacles to throw in your character's path.

In many descriptions of Maslow's hierarch it's said until the needs of one level are met, a person can't move onto the next level. That doesn't mean perfectly met. It means met above some all-consuming worrisome level. It means she's comfortable enough to move that need down in priority and turn her thoughts to higher needs. People can pursue knowledge without friends, gather beauty amidst poverty, create art because of fears. And what that worrisome level looks like will depend on personality. An introvert may be fine with a couple of friends, while an extrovert may feel lonely with only half a dozen.

Your character may act on a need when the threat isn't even current. If your character was traumatized by unmet needs in the past -- abandonment, starvation, harsh criticism -- she can still carry that fear, channeling energy into protecting something that feels more vulnerable than it is. Her fear may blow minor threats out of proportion or be triggered by seemingly innocuous events. She can react as though the threat were real and imminent.

If your character's life has been stable and she's pursuing higher needs, rattle her confidence by endangering a lower level need. Thought, energy, time, resources get channeled away from the primary need to more basic needs. Or you can create an interesting conflict as the character debates whether to save her family or the plummeting cable car, her own life or the final copy of the Revised Codex of Mylar the Hermit.

The list of needs is probably enough to spark your imagination but I needed a push so I brainstormed some obstacles that might block the needs.

Need that's nagging at your character:

  • How much discomfort from other unmet needs can she put up with to work on this?
  • How much can you take from the needs lower than this before she stops pursuing this need?
  • Which other needs does she need most? Why? What would she do if you put one of the other needs in mortal danger?
  • Choose two needs. The higher need is what she wants from life. The lower is what life has thrown at her as an obstacle. How does she react?
  • Choose two needs. If she lacked one of these throughout her childhood, how does that affect how she views the world and pursues the other? What if it wasn't just lacking but denigrated? Does she want it more? Does she actively scorn it? Does she feel guilty for wanting it?

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Level 1: Physiological needs. What your body needs to keep functioning.

If lack of these threatens to shut your character's body down, she's functioning at Level 1. A character on this level is fighting for survival. Her thoughts will fixate either directly on getting some or on changing the situation so she can get some.

  • drowning
  • water filling a closed compartment
  • a leak sucking out air in a plane or space ship
  • being choked or smothered
  • snowbound
  • shipwrecked
  • vegan or herbivore in a place where only meat is available
  • lost in the wilderness
  • stuck in any isolated environment -- space ship, colony, research station -- where survival depends on periodic resupplies of food, water, air from outside
  • dumped into the desert
  • drought
  • river dammed upstream
  • lost at sea
  • imprisoned where jailers control water, food, air, sleep ...
  • well poisoned
  • noise from the neighbors
  • insomnia
  • being deliberately woken as torture
  • colicky baby
  • drugged
Homeostasis (keeping the body's temperature and chemistry at functioning levels)
  • trapped next to an erupting volcano
  • lost in a blizzard or the Arctic
  • ship falling into the sun
  • dropped into a vat of acid
  • trapped in a burning room
  • lack of shelter or clothing to protect from dangerous environments
  • drug addiction
  • poisoned
Excretion (being able to poop and pee :-)). A bad guy could give your character a disease that, um, plugs him up, but more reasonable for a story is getting to a place to go. England's Prince Philip ended up with a bladder infection after not taking a break during several hours of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration.
  • unable to get privacy while disguised as the other sex
  • trapped in a social situation where leaving is rude or notable
  • following a person or staking out a location
  • unclean or unsafe toilets
  • under the control of an autocratic coach or trainer
Stimulation and Activity
  • solitary confinement
  • sensory deprivation tank
  • "lock them up for eternity" transdimensional prison super villains always escape from
  • old folks home
  • a weekend symposium on the dullest topic your character can imagine
Reproductive sex (Relationship building sex is Level 3.) More of a species need, but still a biological drive that can consume some people's thoughts in some situations.
  • No one to reproduce with
  • Bad gene pool

Level 2: Safety needs. Living free from threats. Safe, secure, protected.

If she feels her body isn't in imminent danger of ceasing to function ;-), she can direct her thoughts, energy and other resources to feeling safe.

Safety is having order, law, limits, stability. Safety makes meeting needs easier. The further your character lives to the right side on spectrums below, the less safe she'll feel. The more time she spent  and the more helpless she felt there, the more unsafe she'll feel even after the threat is gone.

If she grew up feeling unsafe, or had an experience that traumatized her sense of safety, how does that affect her current needs for safety? How does it affect her pursuit of higher level needs?

enough resources for everyone
not enough or unequal access to resources
responsive leadership
mob rule, tyranny, lack of leadership
secure family
dysfunctional family
fair peacekeeping and justice systems
corrupt or biased systems
peaceful environment
war-like environment
predictable natural environment
unpredictable natural environment
  • abusive family
  • slavery
  • unsafe work conditions
  • trapped in dangerous work (can't escape, pays too well, no other skills)
  • inadequate shelter or clothing
  • dangerous but beloved hobby or profession
  • lost in a land of predators
  • alone
  • famous fighter others seek to challenge themselves against
  • assassination target
  • a special and useful talent that also damages her body each time she uses it
  • an erratic boss or one who doesn't like her
  • not part of the guild that controls who gets work
  • her skills aren't up to what the job needs
  • her job is becoming obsolete
  • doing her job well would mean her job becomes obsolete
  • new employee just hired with better skills or better at sucking up
  • jealous co-worker
  • looming deadline
  • jobs are available only to those of a particular class, religion, race, sex
  • job based on a belief system she's questioning
  • a task violates her morals
Resources (basics, materials, money, time, etc.)
  • access to supplies or even basic necessities controlled by another
  • unexpected shortage and rationing
  • scarce, unavailable, dangerous to get or priced out of reach
  • not available where she is
  • debt or recurring medical bills that sucks up her income
  • spendthrift spouse
  • addiction, either hers or family member's
  • unstable money system
  • culture or religion forbids using certain resources
  • culture or religion forbids non-members from using certain resources
  • her own nature makes certain resources unusable
  • resources reserved only for the "pure"
  • caught between getting what's needed and doing the right thing
  • doing the right thing would take longer than time allows or endanger a loved one
  • government, religion, or community punish different beliefs
  • keeping position requires obeying orders that betray personal morals
  • fundamentalism on the rise
  • has betrayed morals so many times she feels it's hypocritical to follow them now
  • what's right, what's moral and what's required aren't the same thing
  • standing up for morals would draw dangerous attention
  • the end requires justifying the means
  • lesser evils creates a better chance to end a greater evil
  • local morals are different from personal morals
  • a choice between saving the one over the many
The family (What would harm family members. Being separated or not having a family is the next level.)
  • a job where her family could be threatened to gain her cooperation or to torture her
  • bickering parents
  • kidnapping
  • spouse who wants a divorce
  • parents dead and siblings in danger of being split up
  • a job or needs of one family member that requires family to live separated
  • religion that requires cutting ties with family members who disagree
  • a job that requires the family to live in dangerous conditions
  • a personal choice that would damage the reputation of the family
  • self-destructive choices
  • dangerous or secretive job that causes too much strain on the family
  • a decision that creates a rift in the family
  • chronic illness
  • polluted or toxic air, water, land
  • contaminated food
  • virus spreading through the community
  • survival requires more from her than she's capable of (harsh environment or she's weakened)
  • primitive medicine and incompetent doctors
  • unhealthy working conditions
  • health care is too expensive
  • committed to completing a task that few others can but that is harmful
  • beloved work that's damaging to health
  • war or natural disaster
  • valuables that would draw thieves
  • dangerous neighborhood
  • debt that threatens repossession and foreclosure
  • renter whose livelihood depends on being able to use the property someone else owns
  • police are corrupt
  • her presence draws the danger she's hiding from to her
  • monster or bad guy magnet
  • caretaker of others' property who then push it to the limits

Level 3: Love and belonging needs.

Once your character feels safe enough -- which another character might feel is not safe at all! (great for conflict and contrast) -- she has spare mental energy and resources for connecting.

If she grew up without love, feeling unloved, on the fringes of groups she could not join, lost what she loved, or had her friendship or affection betrayed, how does that affect her current needs for love and belonging? How does it affect her pursuit of higher needs?

If she grew up where love was doled out unequally, either she was privileged or deprived, how did that and does that affect her? How did she compensate or rationalize? How did it affect her view of those who got less or more love? If she grew up receiving love erratically -- a caretaker's mental illness, drug use, immaturity, instability -- how did that shape who she was and is? How does it affect her pursuit of love and belonging now?

  • lack of social skills
  • scary
  • afraid to trust
  • "wrong" race, class, sex, religion (all of which might have clothing, accent, manners, customs that make the differences more noticeable) to be accepted by the community
  • tainted by family's choices or own past
  • holding attitudes or (fringe) beliefs that aren't accepted
  • new in town or moving often
  • feels she needs to impress people to draw friends
  • shy or introverted or private
  • command position
  • famous
  • job that interferes with leisure time
  • fear of dependency
  • (over?) values her independence
  • feels unworthy of love
  • dull
  • lack of self-esteem that results in attention grabbing, seeking adulation of fans 
  • a dangerous job that might endanger those close to her
  • fears friendships would take too much time
  • holding secrets she doesn't want to chance revealing
Family (what prevents a family from forming, or separates one member)
  • acceptance in the family is contingent on conforming
  • orphaned
  • rift from differing political, religious or cultural beliefs
  • cut off by distance or war
  • dangerous or unpredictable job
  • fear of being tied down
  • fear she won't be able to commit
  • job that requires too much committment
  • lack of stable life
Sexual intimacy (in addition to what would get in the way of forming friendships)
  • vow of chastity
  • morals that put conditions on relationships
  • unusual needs
  • unattractive
  • asexual
  • associating sex with sinfulness and indecency
  • diseased
  • cursed
  • that much closeness might reveal secrets she's keeping
  • married and loyal to someone for whom intimate relations is dangerous

Level 4: Esteem needs.

Growing up in a cloud of negativity, feeling worthless, incapable, not old enough, not strong enough, not good enough will create truckloads of baggage for a character to work through.

If she grew up with her sense of worth to herself or to others under constant assault, how does that affect her now? Did she compensate in some way to hide her damaged esteem? Does she appear to not care? Did she put on a mask that gets her praise and acceptance?

Is the regard she has for herself worth more to her than having the regard of others? Does she need more of one than the other? Why?

  • self worth is tied to being needed by others
  • lacking the special skills needed to be useful in the family or culture
  • tainted by past choices
  • skills she has are no longer useful in society
  • can't support herself, dependent on others
  • can't find or keep a job
  • pariah whose family is now suffering too
  • condemned by the public when she reveals who she really is
  • made a bad decision that the public won't let her forget
  • artistic creations she puts her soul into are rejected by the public
  • age or disease is sapping talent
  • prevented (because of sex, culture, etc. or from over protective caretaker) from gaining experience
  • never had the opportunity for experience
  • has experienced too many failures
  • a past choice ended up causing a devastating loss
  • task requires skills well beyond anything she's been able to do or that she's repeatedly failed at
  • task requires dependence on unknown factors and people
  • what's at stake is huge
  • lost the mentor she depended on
  • lost the skills, senses or technology she's always depended on so only has her natural self
  • needs to remotely direct someone else to do something she could do easily
  • fear of failure
  • fear of success and the changes it might mean
  • fear of a potential she'll need to live up to or be locked into pursuing
  • fear of the responsibility that often comes with mastery
  • fear of the attention and regard that comes with mastery
  • requires special training she doesn't have access to (which needs time, money, freedom, being the right race, religion, etc.)
  • has reached mastery but lacks official recognition (which needs time, etc. as above)
Respect for others
  • jealousy
  • surrounded by incompetents
  • no one else has the same high standards
  • others have different goals
  • others have different morals
  • too self focused to even notice others' accomplishments
  • perfectionist
Recognition and Respect from others
  • hiding her true identity so doesn't want attention
  • shy so attention embarrasses her
  • doesn't feel what she does is special since it comes so easily to her  
  • feels what she does is fun but frivolous so doesn't deserve much attention
  • her fluff is recognized but her serious works are ignored
  • wants to do what she enjoys without the fuss of the responsibilities of a formal position or title
  • doesn't want others assuming the right to critique her if she's a public figure
  • doesn't want the accountability to others that's involved
  • doesn't want a reputation she needs to keep living up to
  • doesn't want the constraints that an official position would come with
  • wants her actions to reflect only on herself, not on others a status might require her to represent
  • doesn't want her family bothered by the choices she made that they disagreed with
  • her culture honors teamwork, not individual achievement which is seen as self-serving
  • fears being seen as arrogant or self-serving
  • desire for status based on believing being impressive will gain her friends
  • doesn't want others to depend on her
  • doesn't want to endanger others
  • can think clearer if she's the only one harmed by her choices
  • much easier to get things done alone
  • doesn't feel ready to make decisions for others
  • would take the fun out of it 
  • doesn't trust others as much as she does herself
  • doesn't feel it's her forte
  • enjoys the job but doesn't care enough about those who would depend on her

Level 5a: Knowledge and Understanding needs.

If she grew up where knowledge and understanding one's self were reviled, how does that affect her needs for understanding now? If knowledge she didn't want was pushed on her, how does that affect her  relationship with it now? How does her past experience with knowledge affect her pursuit of higher and lower needs?

  • lacks mentors
  • lacks access to knowledge (not available, lacks resources or freedom from responsibilities to pursue it)
  • knowledge is forbidden to her
  • knowledge she wants is forbidden to everyone
  • would need to make moral sacrifices in order to pursue the knowledge she wants
  • would take too long
  • doesn't see enough value in it for what she'd give up to get it
  • would need to set aside parts of her life that she values
  • would need to entrust what she values to others while she takes time off to study 
  • would need to leave her family and what's familiar
  • lacking self confidence in ability to learn and understand
  • overly dependent on experts, memorizing rather than thinking
  • religion or government requires obedience and acceptance, not understanding
  • a learn-by-the-seat-of-her-pantser in a land of book worshipers
  • brings back bad memories of punishment and feelings of inadequacy tied to forced education
  • more knowledge would make her different than the people she cares about and feels a part of
  • doesn't want to change who she is, who she identifies with
  • seen as elitist, etc. (See Aesthetics.)
  • lacks others who share what she values
  • doesn't like the meaning of her life that she's discovering
  • warring between the meaning of the life she was born into and the life she wants for herself
  • the meaning of the life she was born into or fell into is at odds with a new philosophy/religion she  is exploring (either an established one or an understanding that's unfolding to questions she's asking)
  • fears the life she should have she can't actually have; doesn't have the resources, doesn't have what it takes, has too many obligations, it feels too alien
  • doesn't like the self she's seen; which may be stronger, weaker, differently talented, suited to a life she doesn't approve of, a person she doesn't recognize
  • her heritage is different (and unwanted) than she always believed
  • her true heritage will pull her away from the family she loves
  • fears awareness of her weaknesses, especially those she can't change, will make her less confident
  • fears awareness of her strengths will lock her on a life path she doesn't want to be on (yet)
  • worked hard to suppress and compensate for her weaknesses so doesn't want them dragged into the light for examination
  • the strengths she's uncovering are considered weaknesses in her culture
  • fears the obligations and lack of choice if she pursues who she really is
  • culture emphasizes what connects the group rather than individual needs

Level 5b: Aesthetic needs.

If she grew up where aesthetics were reviled, how does that affect her current needs for aesthetics? Did it increase her need so that beauty is practically a necessity? Does she feel guilty for wanting it? How does it affect her pursuit of higher and lower needs?

Beauty, Balance, Form
  • seen as frivolous
  • seen as elitist, above one's station
  • seen as sinful
  • seen as degenerate in a society where equal is equated with same, where "better" is arrogant
  • seen as a betrayal of own culture
  • her taste judged as poor, unrefined
  • preferences formed in a very different culture

Level 5: Self-actualizaton needs.

A character working on this level is working towards her full potential. Her focus is no longer on soothing fears and filling holes in her psyche but working on ideals outside of herself like truth, justice, beauty, wholeness. Which doesn't mean some of the lower level needs won't pop up to nag at her, only that she's reached a level where's she's comfortable enough to put energy into realizing her potential.

Maslow believed humans were naturally driven to be the best us we can be. What gets in the way are unmet needs and the long-term damage they can cause, especially if it happens in childhood.

This and the Transcendence level were what everyone on Earth (supposedly) operated at in the Star Trek universe.
The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. -- Captain Jean-Luc Picard
There's still room for conflict! The rest of the world won't drop their needs to get out of your character's way. The universe won't speed up or slow down. Sometimes she'll need to choose between two paths that won't work together.
A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.  This need we may call self-actualization. -- Abraham Maslow 
Which says more about the human drive to become better than that the drive is limited to Self-actualizers. Often artists make art even when -- and sometimes because -- lower needs aren't met. For some art is a response to and an outlet for the pain of unmet needs.

Can you create a character working on this level without turning her into a Mary Sue? (Star Trek had Wesley Crusher!) At what level of discomfort can your character work with to still focus on being the best her she can be?

One of the criticisms of Maslow's list is that it's very western-culture-centric. Cultures that value group harmony over personal achievement won't think much of putting autonomy and self-fulfillment so high in the hierarchy!

  • her culture requires choices that go against her personal code
  • the nature of her species pulls her one way while the society she's growing up in pulls a different way
  • pulled by morals she grew up with even though they don't work in her new life
  • wrestling with morals that keep tradition alive but don't make sense in current times
  • confused by doing the right thing and the moral thing
  • wrestling with how far loyalty should stretch
  • has done so many bad things she's not sure what the right thing is any more
  • society rewards those who don't stick out too much
  • government punishes free expression
  • culture finds tradition comforting and connecting to each other and the past
  • fear of doing anything unplanned
  • fear of failure so needs to plan
  • culturally conditioned to believe that anything based on feelings rather than thought consideration can't have value
Problem solving
  • since she's used to having the "right" answer handed to her, lacks experience in tackling problems
  • problems aren't puzzles to tackle; problems are something to be avoided
  • society discourages questioning
  • culture encourages harmony and not making waves that would disrupt others' peace
Lack of prejudice
  • prejudicial attitudes are so ingrained and automatic she doesn't realize
  • has never met the people she's prejudging and doesn't realize how much of her knowledge comes only from opinions of others
Realistic, embracing facts
  • facts aren't as comforting as what feels right
  • facts are overwhelming and experts say contradictory things
Personal growth & Self-fulfillment
  • selfish to put to put that much time and energy into one's self
  • with her time taken up by obligations, she's lost sight of what she personally finds valuable
  • elitist since it isn't productive
Autonomy & Independence
  • In a culture based around extended families, autonomy is less evolved than knowing how to work with others

Level 6: Transcendence needs.
This is the mentor level.

Helping others to self-actualize
  • not having anyone who wants her help
  • government is repressive of experts
  • only the elite can have access to your character

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