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What Do Your Characters Want? (Part 1)

When developing characters, we often talk about understanding their motivation. While people—and well-developed characters—are complex and unique, when broken down to the fundamentals, the same basic things motivate all people, whether your story is set in our contemporary world, in another time, or even in another world you create from scratch.

Some fundamental motivations include: survival, fear, and desire. While the way your character acts as a result of a given motivator will depend on things like personality and ethics, being aware of these common underlying motivations can help you understand which choices your characters would make and why. It can also help your characters be compelling and relatable whether they're heroes, villains, or somewhere in between.

One easy way to put your characters' motivations into perspective is to consider Maslow's hierarchy of needs:

By Chiquo [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Today we’re going to focus on the base of the pyramid, labeled in the image above as “Basic Needs.” These basic needs will often take center stage with poorer characters, dystopian and post-apocalyptic scenarios, or any other situation where resources are limited. When these fundamental needs aren’t met, everything above them on the pyramid becomes irrelevant.

The foundation of the pyramid concerns physical needs: food, water, shelter. Without them, we can't survive, so if your character doesn't have access to these, their actions will be all about getting them. That could mean stealing, scavenging, finding whatever income source they can, or even revolution or war. Of course, it can also mean using or developing survivalist skills, and possibly making desperate choices (like drinking urine).

The way your character responds to a lack of basic needs will depend on the specific situation—on what obstacle stands between them and the nourishment they need—and what experience your character has dealing with scarcity. A city girl will make different choices than one who grew up fending for herself in nature, even if you strand them on the exact same island. Whatever the circumstances, if access to things like food and water is denied or threatened, getting those will be the priority.

Once their physical needs are met, your character can focus on safety, which includes both:
  • Physical safety: reasonable certainty that your body is not in danger of injury or severe illness.
  • Emotional safety: freedom from things like emotional abuse, but also feeling secure that your physical needs and safety will continue to be assured. 
    • Financial security comes into play here in many societies, and so will things like knowing you have access to medical care if you ever need it.

Decisions made for the sake of establishing or holding on to safety can include things like taking self-defense classes, staying in an otherwise miserable job for the paycheck, hoarding resources (financial and otherwise), or literally trying to escape a dangerous situation.

Keep in mind that emotional security depends on the character’s perspective, not necessarily the reality of their circumstances. In other words, they have to both have (physical) and believe in (emotional) the stability of their environment.

Bringing it back around to the fundamental need for food: someone who’s always had to fight for every scrap will approach sharing very differently than someone who’s always had enough, even if they’re dropped into the exact same circumstances. One will approach the situation from a place of emotional security while the other will not. If they find themselves in a place of scarcity, the former character may seem na├»ve, reckless, or wasteful while the other seems practical. But if they’re in a place of abundance, the first will be comfortable and unconcerned, whereas the other may seem paranoid, e.g., hoarding food though there’s plenty to go around.

One more thing to keep in mind when developing your characters and societies is that human beings are complicated, and we’re influenced by our relationships. So it helps to think of a character and their loved ones as one unit: if their significant other or child doesn’t have enough food and water, that may be equally pressing to the central character’s needs, depending on the character. So when creating your characters, consider your MC and the people they love and/or for whom they feel responsible (if any) as one entity. If there isn’t enough to meet the entire unit’s needs, then there isn’t enough.

This need to provide for loved ones ties into the “psychological needs” categories, which we’ll talk about next time!

Click here to read part 2.

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