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Character Motivation Meets Maslow

Character Motivation Meets Maslow

The motivation that gives your character power and importance in the reader’s lives is called motivation. Conflict will hold the reader’s attention, but without the motivation, they will stop investing.

Abraham Maslow is a social psychologist; he studied people's motivation and needs and developed a hierarchy of needs. (see picture below)

As human beings, we need to have our physiological needs met every day. When they are not, it isn't easy to think beyond that level. We are not thinking of self-worth or esteem when we have been hungry for three days. Think about Peeta Mellark in the Hunger Games. As a baker’s son, he was able to be fed more regularly than Katniss. When he sits on the roof of the training center, he tells Katniss that “he doesn’t want to be a pawn in their games.” Peeta already knew about the game. He knew that he needed to stick close to his ideals. He had time to think about that because he was not as consumed with survival as Katniss was.

Authors, looking at the hierarchy, imagine the characters that you love and have come to know and measure them against it. Look for the different motivations. What is driving the characters to do what they do? You just read a great example from the Hunger Games.

We know that when our basic needs and safety are met, we are much more likely to move up the self-actualization where true fulfillment occurs. Amazing characters connect with their readers because they scale this hierarchy of needs just as we do. This is the character’s motivation to complete the task and challenge that the author sets in front of them.

The motivation for the Characters

  • Harry Potter is sneaking around Hogwarts at night, trying to discover who is guarding the sorcerer’s stone.

  • Katniss is avoiding the Careers to find Peeta.

  • Voldemort is arrogant and evil, that we are cheering for Harry to destroy him.

TWO Key Questions for Character Motivation

  1. Do the actions of your characters align with the established needs and personalities?

  2. If your characters are acting out of character, what unmet needs do they want to fulfill?

Your character must act in believable and human ways to make the best connections to your readers and keep them coming back for more. (Anyone writing a Trilogy out there? This is key to the success of your book series).

Here are some more examples of Character motivations:

  • Harry’s desire to beat Voldemort

  • Katniss’s and Peeta’s motivation to survive the Hunger Games

  • Gollum’s motivation to get back the Ring

  • Samwise’s desire to fulfill his duty to Frodo

  • Aragon’s motivation to ensure that he will not fall to the temptation of his bloodline

Remember that conflict (both internal and external) means little without the character’s motivation. Readers will connect with your characters if they are humanly believable. Start Writing!

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