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Thursday, April 1, 2010

T3 - Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Basic Needs

What does some guy named Abraham Maslow have to offer writers about how to develop their characters?

SO glad you asked!

After recently brushing up on human motivation theory (no need to bore you with details, but there it is if you want to Google it), I realized that this simple little pyramid developed by Maslow might help us figure out just what our characters want.

Maslow's theory was that there is a hierarchy, or pecking order, of human needs. In turn, I thought how appropriate to apply this to our character's lives. My plan for this new series is to start at the bottom of his pyramid, since these needs are what comes first, and then work my way up a level each week.

So this week we start at Basic Needs.

Basic needs are the primary things a person needs to survive, like air, water, and food. If forced to choose between water and food, a person will instinctively choose water, because a body can live for weeks without food, but only days without water. Water is a stronger need than food. If being strangled in a banquet hall full of food and you are starving, you're going to opt to try to breathe rather than try to stuff your mouth. Air is a baser need than water.

The body needs certain salts, proteins, sugars, and vitamins and minerals, as well. If our body is low on sugar, then we crave cakes and cookies. If it's low on salt, we want potato chips. If we're low on vitamin C, we want things high in vitamin C, like orange juice. Keeping a pH balance is also important, as allowing our body to get too acidic or too base will kill us. We also have the need to excrete wastes (whether it's carbon dioxide through breathing, sweat, urine or #2), avoid pain, sleep, and be active.

Humans also need to maintain their body temperature right at or pretty darn close to 98.6. If your character is thrown overboard off the shore of Northern California without a wetsuit, he won't last 30 minutes. So keeping his temperature high, as well as not drowning--which would interfere with his need for air--becomes the A-1, top priority. Nothing else will matter.

One could (and Maslow did) make an argument for sex to be included here, as well as sleep. The sexual drive in humans is strong, and studies have been done that show sexual drive can literally drain energy away from other goals. I believe this drives womanizers. They don't need the higher need of love and belonging, but they can't deny their sexual desires, so they don't even attempt to try.

There is also the lesser, basic need for clothing and shelter, although the human body could still exist without these. They still fall into this category, however.

How does this apply to writers?

SO glad you asked!

In reality, if you have a heroine who is starving, or freezing, or being deprived sleep or food...she isn't going to be wondering at that particular time if they might possibly be in love with the hero or if their 401k is growing fast enough. When a person is deprived of basic needs, the basic need becomes a priority. It's just not realistic to have them musing, reflecting, or speculating about so-called "higher" needs.

In Maslow's on words, "For the man who is extremely and dangerously hungry, no other interests exist but food. He dreams food, he remembers food, he thinks about food, he emotes [feels] only about food, he perceives only food and he wants only food."

This is in the moment, of course. As soon as the need is satisfied, the character will have other, higher needs replace it (see the pyramid). We'll be covering these higher needs in future posts, so stay tuned!

Wordle: signature


PatriciaW said...

I was introduced to this pyramid early in my professional life and it stuck with me. What I find interesting is how people handle/approach upper needs when one of their bottom needs suddenly becomes unmet but they still have obligations or desires in an upper level.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

i'll definitely be covering that later, patricia. :) i got excited thinking how useful this could be for writers.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.