Maslow & Writing

25 Apr

“The characters seem one-dimensional. I don’t get a feeling for the [insert hero or heroine] as a person.”  Writers and readers want complex, finely drawn characters in the fiction they read.  They want to “get” them. Characters with gut-level needs that resonate with the reader provide involvement and investment in the story. What does a psychologist have to do with a good character?

I discovered Maslow when I was brainstorming with my son on a project.  I asked him what people would need if we were catapulted backwards because of technology failures worldwide.  He told me about Dr. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which was based on two groupings: deficiency needs and growth needs.

Born in 1908 in New York, Maslow, a PhD in Psychology, studied the human condition. In the course of his research, he came to believe that the deficiency needs had to be fulfilled before people could move on to the next growth level. This was an alternative to the depressing determinism of Freud and Skinner. He felt people were basically trustworthy, self-protecting, and self-governing. Humans tend toward growth and love.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Needs Level:

1. Physiological – Food, water, sex, bodily comforts. These are the most basic of needs. If people don’t have food and water, they die. Lack of these needs motivates us to alleviate them. Then we may think of the next level.

2.  Safety/Security – We need to feel safe and secure in where we are living. If we are not, we feel anxiety and fear. If we don’t feel safe, we can’t advance to the next step. Ex: An abused woman is constantly concerned for her safety, so love and belongingness have to wait until she no longer fears for her life.

3.  Love and Belongingness – When your first two levels of needs are satisfied, you begin to want a lover, friends, children, and a community of friends or coworkers. You want to be accepted, respected, and loved.

4.  Esteem – There are two types of esteem. The lower tier is the need for respect of others, the need for status, fame, glory, and attention, even dominance. The higher tier is the need for self-respect including such feelings as confidence, competence, achievement, mastery, independence, and freedom.

At any time, you can regress to a lower need level if your survival is threatened. You lose your job, terrorists strike your country, you get divorced, etc.  Also, if you have had significant problems along your development—a period of extreme insecurity or hunger as a child, the loss of a family member through death or divorce, or significant abuse or neglect—you “fixate” on that set of needs for the rest of your life.

Growth Level:

The growth level is self-actualization or “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Here you can maximize your potential, seek knowledge, peace, aesthetic experiences, etc.

Sound like any of your characters?  It should. Most of us don’t know anything about Maslow’s theories, but when you build character conflicts and arcs, you try to get down to the deepest part of your characters. This is how to build great characters whose challenges, fears, and successes resonate with all of us. So, if you feel you’ve missed something in creating your hero/heroine/villain, check out Maslow’s Hierarchy. It’s a good building block to better characters.

Abraham Maslow, copyright 1998 by C. George Boeree; small revisions, 2004

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, copyright 1997, Robert Gwynne

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, copyright 2004, William G. Huitt


Posted by on April 25, 2011 in writing


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14 responses to “Maslow & Writing

  1. johannaharness

    April 25, 2011 at 5:36 AM

    Great recap of Maslow and the connection to character development!

    • Janis

      April 25, 2011 at 7:21 AM

      Thanks. I try to remind myself of these when I write.

  2. Carley Ash

    April 25, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    This is great Janis. I hadn’t thought about Maslow’s needs in connection with my characters.

    • Janis

      April 25, 2011 at 9:16 AM

      Carley, I find it interesting that we, as writers, actually do give our characters these needs. We just don’t put a label on it. It’s like The Hero’s Journey because people seem to be hard-wired to “know” certain things. Fascinating.

  3. Clarissa Southwick

    April 25, 2011 at 9:40 AM

    For years, I’ve been telling everyone you are the psych genius of our critique group, and today you proved it. This is a wonderful way for writers to deepen their characters. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Janis

      April 25, 2011 at 10:33 AM



  4. Peggy Staggs

    April 25, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    I have this in the very front of my Characterization notebook. It’s a great tool on how to break a character down to their black moment. Thanks.

    • Janis

      April 25, 2011 at 10:35 AM

      It’s lovely that people have the same needs. We are the same in many ways.

  5. Liz Fredericks

    April 25, 2011 at 11:19 AM

    Janis – This is great content for the blog. Thank you for summarizing Maslow so well!

    • Janis

      April 25, 2011 at 1:22 PM

      Thanks, Liz. I like the pyramid and how it clearly delineates the progression.

  6. maryvine

    April 25, 2011 at 2:57 PM

    I’m using this as I take one last peak at my wip. Good information. Thanks, Janis!

    • Janis

      April 25, 2011 at 3:28 PM

      Glad it might help.

  7. lynn mapp

    April 25, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    Janis, Janis, Janis. Thank you for sharing this. You know I have this, but…it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. Writing. Big sigh.

    • Janis

      April 26, 2011 at 7:12 AM

      You’re welcome. Yep, writing is a thing.


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