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What Do Your Characters Want? (Part 3)

We’ve reached the top of the pyramid! Your characters have food, water, shelter, physical safety, emotional stability, a community, self-respect, and external respect. What else could they possibly want?

At the top of Maslow's hierarchy, there's fulfillment and self-actualization:

By Chiquo [CC BY-SA 4.0]

In a general sense, this means not having obstacles (external or internal) between your character and what they need to fulfill their potential. Some people seek to get rid of or overcome any remaining obstacles; others seek to minimize what they need to feel fulfilled, for example through mindfulness and meditation. Where one person may aim to attain more money than they can ever spend to "buy" the freedom to pursue what they want, someone else may work to find contentment with what they already have, or sacrifice luxury to pursue self-actualization (e.g., a writer working a lower-wage 9-to-5 job to have time to write, rather than pursuing a more lucrative but also more time-intensive career that wouldn’t leave space for creativity).

Because this builds on everything else beneath it on the pyramid, what your character needs to find fulfillment is far more complex and individualized than something as basic as "not starving." Still, once your character otherwise has their needs met, striving for this self-actualization will be part of their underlying motivation, whether they realize it or not.

Another thing to consider is that we don't want to just attain the things on the pyramid; we want to hold on to them. The fear of losing any of these needs will impact a character's behavior, and as you go down the pyramid, that fear will become a more pressing problem. Someone wouldn't be thrilled to be working at a dead-end job (for safety and stability) instead of following their dreams (self-actualization), but they would be terrified to lose access to food and water. A character's behavior will be significantly impacted by the extent of that fear, which circles back to the need to both be and feel secure, as we discussed in Part 1.

Also keep in mind that in all cases a character's motivations don't have to be rational. The motivation has to make sense to the character. Someone who believes their physical safety is in danger will fight to protect themselves, even if the threat is objectively small or nonexistent. Someone with depression may not feel loved and connected to their community, and act accordingly, even if externally that love and community is there. 

Pinning down a character’s motivations boils down to understanding that character's subjective perspective on whether their needs are being met. This is true for every character—villains and side characters are also the heroes of their own stories. One character’s decisions don’t have to (and may not) make sense to another. And don't forget: societies are made up of individuals whose needs and goals may or may not be aligned. 
  • When a large enough group's needs aren't being met by society, we often see revolution, but when individuals are discontented, peer pressure may keep them quiet. Or they may choose to leave their community behind (if that doesn’t risk losing their other needs) and create/find another.
    • Exiled characters aren’t given a choice, but usually someone choosing to leave a community with which they’re disillusioned (like in many dystopian stories) has a choice because there’s an alternative community waiting, so there’s hope of having their needs met elsewhere. But as I said in Part 2, rare characters (e.g., hermits and recluses) may be comfortable without a traditional community.

Once you've figured out which needs aren't currently being met for your characters, you'll have a stronger sense of what their immediate goals are, of what's driving their decisions and behavior. So it will be easier to know what choices they would make in every situation they face.

Developing new characters can feel daunting, but by traveling up the pyramid one section at a time, you can create layered but cohesive characters—and complex casts of characters—that your readers will love.

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