I hear the question all the time for characterization, “What does the character want?” I like wants. Wants are interesting. Everyone wants something. It is a great thing to think about in terms of motivation, and even more fun when a character thinks that they want one thing, but really wants another.
But what about what the character needs?
I wonder if needs are just less interesting than wants because we humans all need the same basic things, but we all want so many different things, but I think it is still a useful question when working on characterization.
I think almost everyone has heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory presented by Abraham Maslow in a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation.” See that motivation. It makes sense that needs would be a strong motivator, stronger than wants. And if we think about wants a little deeper, we’d see that every want is connected to a need, and sometimes that underlining need is obvious, and sometimes it isn’t.
Maslow categorized the basic human needs into different levels, and while the human brain is complex and multiple needs on multiple levels can be motivating us at the same time, in general, one level of needs has to be met before we will “deeply desire” the next level (according to Maslow). Notice the deeply desire. Just because someone hasn’t met the first level of needs (physiological) doesn’t mean they don’t need companionship or safety or respect. Only when you are starving, that need for food becomes the most important. Humans are complex, and my far from expert opinion is that we need all of these levels, but some are just more pressing than others.
So here are the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with the most fundamental needs first (source).
1. Physiological needs breathing, water, food, sex, homeostasis.
2. Safety Security of: body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property
3. Love/Belonging Friendship, family, sexual intimacy
4. Esteem Self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others
5. Self-actualization Morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of fact
I think that by figuring out where your character is on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can identify the underlining need driving your character’s wants and maybe achieve a deeper level of characterization. Might be worth thinking about.
Of course like every brilliant idea, someone else has beaten me to this; here’s the link to see another perspective.