How to Use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Characterisation

Hello SErs! Harmony here. Back in December, Craig Boyack wrote an excellent post on writing medium, which you can find HERE. When I read the post, it reminded me of how I use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to help build in-depth characters. Here’s what I wrote to Craig in the comments …

What you say reminds me how closely fiction mirrors real life. We all live within a bigger picture, just that some of us are aware of it and some oblivious … all grist for the mill. One approach I use is to bring in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: when we’re scrabbling around at the very bottom of that triangle, desperate for food, water, warmth, shelter, and safety, then politics and higher aspirations don’t figure at all. And even that person at the very bottom is affected by the folks at the top. Using this approach helps me to slide between the small, the medium, and the big, as I need to.

I first came across Maslow when in nurse training (I won’t say how long ago that was, lol).  Below is the hierarchy …

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.” [Saul McLeod]

We can divide this five-stage model into deficiency needs and growth needs. The first four levels indicate deficiency needs, and the top–self actualisation–falls under growth needs. Once we satisfy a need, it will go away (or lose its initial intensity and significance), and we focus our activities on meeting the next need.

Deficiency needs arise due to deprivation and motivate people when they go unmet. Also, the motivation to satisfy such needs will become stronger the longer the duration without them. For example, the longer someone goes without food, the more hungry he or she will become.

Where our characters sit on this scale will affect how they respond in any given situation and to any given stimulus. Their position will determine their current aspirations. And the great thing with this as a characterisation tool is that your characters can climb up or fall down as needed.

As your characters evolve and grow throughout the story, you can use the higher levels on the triangle to determine what their aims and responses are likely to be. Likewise, this can also help place their behaviours when everything falls to pieces around them. The lower on the triangle we are, the more animalistic we’re likely to behave. The higher on the scale, the more enlightened.

This tool also links to plotting. Craig’s series of posts on Write Small, Write Medium, and Write Large, all tie in to the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and character and plot development and are well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

Thanks for stopping by. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


Harmony Kent

33 thoughts on “How to Use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Characterisation

  1. Pingback: Seven Links 5/4/19 Traci Kenworth – Where Genres Collide

  2. I love this post. It’s amazing how many of my characters spend time at the bottom. This is the zombie apocalypse, the survival situation of some kind. Even Yak Guy needed food, water, and shelter before anything else. Very useful post. Thanks for linking to my old articles too.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I can’t remember where I first saw this triangle (it’s been YEARS), and I’ve never considered it for character development, but you’re right—sliding a character through the different layers is a great way to flesh out a well-rounded arc. Great post, Harmony.

    Liked by 3 people

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