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Got Needs to Motivate?

January 26, 2010

As writer’s we’re geared to seek reasons for characters to do the things they do. I often run into characters acting “out of character” or doing something that makes no sense in terms of needs.

When looking at motivators, we must distinguish needs from wants. My mother used to say, “It won’t hurt you to want.” This was usually in connection with a ridiculous Christmas wish list, but there’s a good point in her wisdom.

Needs are human requirements that exist on a hierarchy and when not met, can prompt/motivate an individual to meet a goal to sustain life or quality of life. If our most basic human needs are not met, it doesn’t matter what we want. Thus, wants become motivators when critical needs are met.

The more urgent a need toward sustaining life, the more compelling it can be as a motivating factor. Some character goals may have more than one motivator. The character who will set aside his needs for someone else’s wants is a true hero.

What follows is Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs. In a nutshell, it summarizes needs and their urgency.

1.     Survival: The basic need to live and survive. This encompasses health-related factors such as breathing, eating, pumping blood, etc. These are things required to sustain life.

Goal: Steal bread. Motivation: Need food to live. (Les Miserable)

2.     Safety and Security:  Once basic needs are met, we need to feel safe, secure and protected. We need a roof over our heads to protect from environmental factors, capability to ensure that basic needs are not lost, etc.

Goal: Reach the castle by nightfall. Motivation: Receive protection from carnivorous forest wolves and bandits.

3.     Love and Belonging: Once we have a place to live, we need a sense of family/community/connection. Unconditional love and acceptance.

Goal: Marry the stableman instead of the duke. Motivation: Insure shared life and love from life mate.

4.     Esteem and Self-Respect: We need recognition for achievements, to be looked up to, to earn love and respect for things we have done in our life. We need to matter. This includes how we view ourselves as well as how others view us. Let us also remember here the famed words of Eleanor Roosevelt: No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.

Goal: Enter the Golden Heart. Motivation: Receive validation from peers for writing/raise chances of publication. Goal: Query ten agents by X date. Motivation: Sell manuscript.

Goal: Build a table. Motivation: Satisfaction and pride of doing a project on own. Need something to eat off of….

5.     The Need to Know and Understand: We have a naturally curious desire to know how things work, fit together, etc. This is a natural thirst for knowledge.

Goals: Take class on Query letters. Motivation: Learn best way to approach an agent. Goal: Not to over-research my next book. Motivation: Finish book in this century without unnecessary research that is also a form of procrastination for me (okay, I couldn’t resist that oneJ).

6.     The Aesthetic: We need balance, order in life, and a sense of being connected to something greater than ourselves. This also encompasses the spiritual realm. Goal: Write goals and schedule for writing project. Motivation: Organize work to insure completion.

Goal: Spend one hour per day in contemplative prayer according to the rules of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Motivation: Strengthen bond with God.

7.     Self-Actualization: We need to develop our talents, skills and abilities. Humans, in general, constantly strive to attain their maximum potential whether they are publicly recognized or not. This include the need to communicate who we are/express ourselves.

Goal: Meet with creative partner weekly to identify strengths and weaknesses in manuscript. Motivation: Write the best story I possibly can. Goal: Take class on taking writing to the next level. Motivation: Again, write the best story I possibly can.

 Maslow’s hierarchy is a short but powerful list. Since its development, more complex hierarchies have been developed, but they all fall back to the Granddaddy list here. Knowing our characters needs (as well as our own) allows us to more fully develop and understand our characters. Thus, we can relate them to our readers in terms that make sense.

 Until next time, happy writing!

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