A Pint with the Professor: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Characterization

Maslow’s Hierarchy Applied to Fictional Characters

Recently, both of my youngest two children have been dealing with croup, which has reminded me just how much sense Maslow’s Hierarchy makes in everyday lives. My youngest was in the hospital briefly, which also explains the lack of posts. Sorry. 🙂

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs  makes sense in real life, and also makes sense when looking at characters in fiction stories. I recall the symphony director that worked with Metallica on their S & M album talking about how the orchestra sometimes worked harmoniously with the band, and other times worked in disharmony with the band, to create something amazing. I think the same is true in great stories. Humanity can be expressed accurately, through the careful adherence to what is known about humans, or it can be a character study of someone who falls well outside the expected norm. Either way, having an understanding of the norm is an important part of work that embodies the use of such knowledge.

The Hierarchy

In Brief

The hierarchy is organized such that each level of the pyramid rests upon the other. So that lower level needs need to be met before higher level needs are able to be met. For example, food is at the bottom, with the idea that someone who is starving is not likely to have the time to spare to worry about whether or not he or she has friends. So physiological needs have to be met before safety and security needs are worried about. Safety and security needs have to be met before social needs are worried about. And so on and so forth.

Physiological Needs

These are basic, biological survival needs. This includes:  Air, Shelter, Water, Food, Sleep, and Sex. Some argue that sex does not belong here, as it is not essential for survival. Maslow argued it is a biological imperative, the drive to procreate.

Safety and Security Needs

The need to feel secure and safe. This includes: Physical Safety, Psychological Safety, Economic Security, and Social Security. Note that this is both physical and psychological. If a tiger is attacking, one is not physically safe. If a tiger may attack at any moment, one does not feel psychologically safe.

Social Needs

This is the need to belong. This includes: Friendship and Family, and the need for Intimacy. As we learn more about the brain, it shows us more and more that we are physically designed within our brain structure to connect with others.

Esteem

This is having self-respect and the respect of others. This includes:  Self-esteem, Confidence, Respect of Others, and Achievement. Notice that we are moving definitely more into the realm of the psychological. The inner world of the person.

Self-Actualization

A person realizing their full and complete potential. This includes: Creativity, Problem Solving, Innovation, and Fulfillment. Maslow saw achievement of self-actualization this as relatively rare. Think of Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Buddha, and Martin Luther King Jr. Maslow saw most people in real life as being in that state of seeking self-actualization. Oftentimes, characters are in this state as well.

Application to Characters

One obvious application to fictional characters is their story as they strive to meet the needs of one of more levels. In dystopian novels, for example, characters are often trying to meet the basic physiological or safety and security needs. Food and a safe place to live can be compelling needs. Application need not be restricted to the lower levels, however, as there are great stories at all levels of the hierarchy. Think of a character that is striving to find a place where they belong, or people that they belong to. Think of a character trying to achieve something important, while also struggling with self-esteem or identity issues. And at the top of the pyramid we have someone finally able to solve a major problem in the story, or fulfilling some purpose or fulfilling a purpose. Perhaps they had to struggle up the pyramid as the story progresses in order to get to that fulfillment.

One thing about fiction is that characters are often larger than life, or unique. So the characters are often an exaggeration or a unique, uncommon, or even rare circumstance. While Maslow saw it being relatively rare for someone to achieve self-actualization, it happens for characters in fiction stories all the time.

Opposites React

Another way that stories can grab the attention of readers is being going against what is expected. Not everyone knows who Maslow is or what his hierarchy states, but it has really become a part of our culture. Let me give you an example: When we are announcing big news or having an important meeting, we often make sure there is food and refreshments. At work and at home, we strive to ensure our environment is safe and secure, and that comes before things like televisions. I did not research it, but I once read that Einstein wrote important papers while he was young, poor, and alone. So he was able to achieve and apply his creative genius, despite being in a circumstance where he had not met his lower level needs. Doesn’t that make a compelling story? In fact, the case can be made that many historical leaders, both malign and benevolent, cast off the traditional routes of meeting lower needs in order to reach for the upper level needs.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a great example of the application of the hierarchy. This is set up right away as the lowest districts are concerned with basic survival, such as food, while those in the Capitol have such abundant food that they are able to focus on other things like politics and fashion. In fact, that is the very control that the government has over the people, that they hold the survival of the lower districts in their hands. The lower districts are stuck in the bottom of the pyramid, while the upper districts (and the President) are free to meet their esteem and creative needs.

Another facet of this in the Hunger Games is the fact that Katniss is asked to consider the top of the pyramid, while she is still trying to get he needs met at the bottom of the pyramid. She sees herself as just surviving the Hunger Games, while everyone else sees her as fighting for freedom. They ask her to join in the rebellion, forcing her to move to the top of the pyrmaid, when really she has been focused only on her survival needs up to that point.

So a good fictional story, driven by characters can work in concert with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, or work in direct conflict with the theory. Either way, it can make for compelling and interesting characters that are fun to read about.

About This Feature: A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) bi-weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together. 

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