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Thursday, January 6, 2011

T3 - Character Motivations, Part 1

Today starts a new 4-week series on character motivation. I'll be drawing from the Learned Needs Theory of psychologist David McClelland (1961). He developed a theory that, boiled down, essentially posits that humans have three types of motivating needs, acquired over time and shaped by experience and cultural background:
  1. Need for Power
  2. Need for Affiliation
  3. Need for Achievement
There are many other theories out there, some espousing more needs than others, but they pretty much all boil down to these three, which should be music to a writer's ears! How much easier, then, to nail down the driving motivation behind your characters? Let's flesh out that "M" column from Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation and Conflict.

If a person has a high need for power (N-Pow), they have a need to make an impact using influence and control. They are most satisfied when their environment and surroundings move in a direction due to their direct involvement. This need could find roots in the person's workplace, church, government or military.

These people are usually good speakers, like to be at the center of attention, demanding in nature, competitive, and ambitious in life. They aren't concerned with getting recognition or approval from others. They just want people to agree with them and comply with them, as that meets their power need.  People skills, compassion, and flexibility might not be their forte.

N-Pow can be expressed in two ways:


Social power is also called institutional power. These people want to further the efforts of the organization they work for, root for, or invest in. They want to direct the efforts of their team, whether financial gurus, cheerleaders, or powerhouse companies, to achieve a greater good.

They want their efforts to be effective and tasks to be accomplished, so they seek the upper level management positions as a way to accomplish this, not because they want to contribute to their status and gain. These individuals are hesitant to abuse their power. They are less narcissistic and welcome consultation and advice. They don't stockpile status symbols to flash about.


Personal power isn't viewed by others to be as desirable as social power. Why? Because a person seeking personal power wants control over people. They aren't necessarily interested in a greater good. They are after their own goals and just want to have power over others to meet those goals.

They aren't as concerned with being effective or making a difference, so they might not make the best managers or CEOs. They typically have less self-control and might exercise their power impulsively. They might be rude, manipulative, and drive about town in fancy cars and $3k suits. They want the people under them to be loyal to them, not the organization.

    It might be important for you to note that men with a high N-Pow express their motive in different ways from women with high N-Pows. Men typically show higher levels of aggression. They are more susceptible to drinking heavily, participating in competitive sports, and being sexually exploitative. Women tend to channel their N-Pow in more socially acceptable ways, like being responsible, caring, and concerned.

    I'll cover the Need for Affiliation and Need for Achievement in the next two weeks and then do a wrap-up for week four to discuss how you can "interview" your characters to determine which need is higher for them than the others. Till then!

    Wordle: signature


    Keli Gwyn said...

    What a great series, Jeannie. I look forward to the rest of the posts.

    Would you consider giving us examples of a man and a woman who have a high N-Pow that most of us would know, such as public figures or literary characters?

    Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

    Hey Keli!

    A good example of social power would be Nelson Mandela. He gained great political power, but used that influence to bring to light some unacceptable social problems and further his great desire for peace and equality on earth. He could have used his just for his own gain and gratification but he furthered an ideal for the greater good.

    As for personal power examples, that's a bit harder. I think everyone knows people in their own lives that fit this bill...people who step on others, run roughshod over others, manipulate people so that they come out on top. I could start listing my perception of political leaders that do this, but run the risk of alienating some readers! LOL!

    Keli Gwyn said...

    Nelson Mandela is a great example of power used for positive purposes. Thanks.

    As you said, I can think of people I've known who used personal power poorly. No example needed.

    Jillian Kent said...

    Oh Jeannie,
    Don't know if I can wait that long. My current historical female lead is acting out again and I'm not sure what category she fits into. I'm thinking need for affiliation, but not sure:) Is that next weeks post? I'm looking forward to it. Move over Keli!

    Shannon said...

    This is really cool as it's an area I haven't read much about. I'm also using these to categories my characters and can't way to have a full set of categories to use. Thanks and keep up the good work, Jeannie!

    Jennifer Lane said...

    Great idea for a series. I just finished watching Invictus so the Nelson Mandela reference was interesting.

    Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

    i haven't seen Invictus...would you recommend it?

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