Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Who Was Maslow

American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy. This five-stage model Maslow created explains how human needs are organized along a stratified structure from biological needs to self-actualization needs. Succinctly put, Maslow theorized that needs, such as physiological and safety needs, were basic needs that must be met before humans could advance to more social needs such as friendship and intimacy.

Moving up the scale, Maslow tipped the pyramid with the need he termed “self-actualization,” the desire we have to achieve our fullest potential as a human being. Once a person has met the lowest survival needs, he can turn his attention to the higher ones. Yet, relatively few people achieve self-actualization. The highest rung of the pyramid requires requires brutal honesty, fierce independence and great personal awareness.

Neel Burton

Maslow’s Hierarchy For Writers

Maslow’s hierarchy represented an intuitive and insightful theory of human motivation, and writers have used it quite successfully to chart the arc of change in a character throughout a novel.

As you begin to think about how to motivate your character, give some thought to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Your character’s motivation will stem from his deepest anxiety. He may fear death, sparking motivation to seek safety. He might then look for a place to belong, joining a team or tribe. Then once he’s seeded into a group and comfortable, he might begin to move up and achieve the prestige and power that comes with experience and recognition. Each new level of the pyramid brings with it new challenges and new motivations.

Examples In Fiction

One of the best examples in fiction comes from The Hunger Games. The heroine, Catniss Everdeen, is in a literal fight for survival when the novel opens. The action of the novel doesn’t move gracefully up the pyramid, however. It darts back and forth between the levels; sometimes pausing at recognition long enough to cast the glamour of heroism on Catniss before plunging her into the flames of safety and survival once more.

The Arc Of Change

On each level, you explore the character’s weakness(es) and provide brilliantly orchestrated iterations of change through which your heroine advances. This is what we call The Arc of Change. You might have to go back and forth three times or more to show the character’s struggle. In fact, it’s best if you can make your character hurt, fail and really have to fight for the prize of self-actualization. A hard-won victory is so much more gratifying than an easy win. Especially when it’s in a novel.

Revisiting The Hierarchy

The novel doesn’t have to end with your character becoming some sci-fi version of Ghandi. She needn’t be covered in blood and hooked up to a ventilator after saving the solar system from destruction and arriving at her personal epiphany. She just needs to have faced her demons, death them back and arrived at some kind of arrangement that allows her to go on. And she needs to have learned something about herself in the process. So the next time (if there is a next time) she finds herself hurtled into the arena, she’s better prepared mentally and physically to scale the slippery slopes of Maslow’s pyramid.