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What Do Your Characters Want? (Part 2)

Last time we talked about the basic needs of our characters: food, water, shelter, physical safety, and emotional safety. For many characters, these will be a given. They may not be living a life of luxury, but they aren’t constantly worried about literally starving or being physically attacked. So we move up the pyramid to psychological needs:

By Chiquo [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The first of these is a sense of community and belonging. Rare characters may feel completely at ease when entirely separated from others, but most often people desire and seek emotional connections, with family, friends, or a larger community. Being entirely ostracized or physically cut off will impact your characters psychologically. So will feeling cut off, like in situations where they can't express themselves honestly to those around them, e.g., needing to keep a big secret, or even having to keep all their private thoughts hidden 1984–style. Your characters will seek out ways to connect (including but not limited to finding romantic love) and to maintain those connections, which plays a part in the drive to protect those they care about.
  • Keep in mind: Once a community already exists, loved ones become part of the central “unit” discussed in Part 1, influencing how your character evaluates whether the needs lower on the pyramid are being met. But a character without those ties in place will think first about physical needs, then about security, and only then about developing emotional connections.

This is why people bond over things like following the same sports team—they're inclined to find a reason to connect. But it's also why peer pressure and patriotism can be so impactful. We don’t want to end up disconnected from our community, which can mean anything from family to country. So we do what those around us want, even if perhaps we don’t agree it’s the best choice. This impulse is partially driven by the lower levels of the pyramid since losing our community can also mean losing physical and emotional safety, or even access to things like food and water. This is why banishment is considered such a serious punishment.
  • Similarly, in some cases characters will band together—form a community—for the sake of safety. Their community becomes a tool to ensure their security. In dystopian stories, for example, you’ll often see people who don’t particularly like (or even trust) each other forced to work together for survival. This is still about the physical need of security, and only after that security is assured will those characters consider the psychological need of community, in the sense of emotional ties. In some cases, they’ll have developed an emotional connection with others in the forced community—remember, people are complicated and inclined to connect—but the original community would arise out of the physical need, not the psychological one. This distinction will of course impact any given character’s choices.

In extreme forms, this need to belong can get dangerous—think hazing rituals, blind obedience, or participating in the perpetration of genocide. But this also plays into everything from giving to an office charity drive to choosing what to wear (e.g., no business suits on the beach; no bikinis in the office). This desire for community is also why people who feel disconnected from those physically close to them feel such joy when finally finding “their people”—in a special club, an online forum, or even with just one person who understands them.

Ostracized or isolated characters may also invent a surrogate connection to fill this need. This can mean everything from anthropomorphizing inanimate objects (think Wilson from Cast Away) to creating imaginary friends and overidentifying with fictional characters. Or developing long-distance connections (like a pen pal), if the option exists.

Overall, people need to feel understood and valued. Even characters who externally take pride in being unique or the “odd one out” will still try to find where they belong, as well as friendship and (platonic and romantic) love.

Next we come to self-esteem and self-respect, which are frequently but not always tied into external respect and recognition, as well as social definitions of achievement. This is closely intertwined with the need for connection and belonging, since often our markers of success and achievement—things that lead to both external respect and self-esteem—come from our loved ones’ and/or our larger community’s values.

So this, too, plays into things like peer pressure and patriotism, both because our community’s opinions can impact our self-esteem (easy example: body image issues) and because what our community has pressured us to do may not sit well with us, challenging our self-respect.

Self-respect being impacted by external opinions also explains why some characters will pursue goals set by someone else (like a high-paying career, or the more ambiguous ideal of honor) rather than prioritizing their own dreams. Or they may need constant adulation from large groups to feel valued. Others will intentionally work on separating their sense of self from external factors, on finding their own definitions of accomplishment. For example, a middle-aged character who lived their life according to society’s values (e.g., a home, a career, marriage, children) may feel driven to leave all that behind and reconnect with themselves, to figure out their own priorities so they can find freedom from social pressures and thereby improve their self-esteem.
  • Ideally they would do this without losing their community and sense of belonging, or they would likely need to find a new community along the way.

In general, two needs being at odds like this is what creates conflict. Many stories explore the consequences of a character’s self-respect (adhering to their moral beliefs) being at odds with another need (food, safety, community opinion), but this is the case with any two needs (e.g., community opinion vs. food). Maslow’s hierarchy can help you understand why a character would make a specific choice when forced to decide. Remember: the lower on the pyramid, the more important the need. So a character may very well choose community over self-respect. Similarly, the more scared they are of starving, the more likely they’ll choose food and water over most anything else.

Next time we’ll discuss the last segment of the pyramid and some final tips. Meanwhile, don’t forget to check out Part 1 here if you missed it, and post any questions or comments below!

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