On this blog space, I previously reviewed two books on psychology for screenwriters, (“Roles and Traits to Wrinkle Your Characters”) to which I now link for anyone reading this article who missed out. What I’m writing about today concerns the same factor in writing fiction pieces for the screen which led me to purchase those two excellent books in the first place. But, today, I’m writing about another approach to developing character which I’m thinking may be useful before consulting the pages of those books.
I went “hermetic” many months ago in seeking effective ways to help guide screenwriters in making their decisions on critical aspects such as concept, character, and all that flows from these twin pillars of storytelling. I found I wanted to search outside the many publications on screenwriting, per se, with which I was already acquainted. I felt there were certain basic, ingrained motive forces in the human character which might serve as a guide to setting up compelling conflicts which, if properly identified, might help even thoughtful novices to quickly write much more professionally, if they were utilized in molding characters, than some of the broader suggestions I have encountered in my vast readings.
An example of what I wanted to avoid would be a typical form I’ve seen elsewhere, for the writer to fill out and plug in blanks having to do with a character’s Sex life; Ethics & values; Drive & Ambition; Frustrations & Disappointments; Temperament; Family Life; IQ; Attitude toward Life, etc., etc. Although, as a writer, it’s good to know as much about your characters as possible, I find myself looking at forms like this and growing impatient with myself, while drawing mostly blanks. I skip them and feel kind of guilty or inadequate for not “doing that work”… so, I wondered if there might not be a better approach.
Responding to this problem, I felt it would be useful to start with essential human drives and pick out some really elemental qualities that are universal to the human being — which is what the writer needs to tap, anyway, in order to reach a broad audience— and begin fleshing out the more circumstantial aspects of a character’s life once I knew the character’s “beating heart” or essential drive. Besides being useful in developing a rounded character, I also sensed that identifying some core element and working out from there would be enormously helpful in defining the story world’s arena of conflict, thereby helping me hone in on the theme of the story. To have powerful characters clashing in a well-defined world over a powerful theme gets the writer a long way down Quality Road on the way to the land of Story Development!
So, I thought about the question, “What must we have, as human beings, for life?” I was already aware of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, so I felt that revisiting that paradigm would be a great place to start defining my system.
From low to high in the pyramidal ranking, the pyramid defines human motives as involving the following:
SURVIVAL – the prowess to gather the means to eat, rest safely, and escape predators
SAFETY AND SECURITY – the ability to protect that which enables us to survive
LOVE AND BELONGING – a connection to a group, such as a family or a community
ESTEEM AND SELF-RESPECT – the need to be recognized for one’s efforts and achievements
A NEED TO KNOW AND UNDERSTAND – curiosity, scholarship, soul-searching
AESTHETIC YEARNING – creativity and artistry
One glance at the pyramid, from the broader lower end of physiological essentials to the rarefied top end of self-actualization (with physical security, social life, and personal ego as the intermediate layers between those two), reveals all the priorities we human beings strive to attain, each narrowing slice on the pyramid ascending on the broader base of the prior layer of needs, each “higher rank” leading away from the primitive and the common to the more rarefied and individualized It’s useful to bear in mind, too, that as soon as we have the needs of one level satisfactorily addressed, we begin to yearn for something “sitting on the next shelf up” in the hierarchy of needs. . These ranks handily define human struggle! A repressor strives to create unawareness for that reason; after all, better not to let yearnings for too fine a life disturb the work schedule of the servants. “Keep ‘em in their place!” Liberator characters will encourage that yearning to bring about new, and hopefully finer manifestations in the possibilities of life. “Break your chains and become free!” But any one of the layers contains, by itself, the kernel of a complete story. These needs are a great starting point for any type of story because they define the arenas of conflict we, as human beings, are constantly engaged in.
Somehow, continuing research led me discover what I felt was a great corollary to Maslow’s pyramid. I learned that market researchers Kim Cramer and Alexander Koene of Positioneringsgroep, The Netherlands, polled more than 8,000 Dutch respondents to profile more than 195 brands in 23 product categories, producing a study called “23+1.” The aim of their study was to ascertain the answer to the question, “Why do some brands simply feel better than others?” Based on their findings, they defined twenty-four motive drives in people which are useful for marketers to define their brands so as to appeal to the primal urges, and seven broader “types” of people who will respond to similar stimuli. Twenty-three of these drive types might be called “proactive” or “positive,” with the “+1” or twenty-fourth type being a form of psychological retreat, the “Escapist.” The following are the Types according to “23+1,” along with their corresponding motive arenas within the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.
- Ensuring bare existence – air, water, shelter, care for the body, prevention of disease.
- Safety & Security – Haven, risk reduction, stress reduction, stable, safe surroundings.
- Physiological well-being – Physical power and stamina, health, strength, vitality, performance.
- Order & Structure – Familiarity, order, organization, rules, cleanliness, certainty.
Hierarchy of Needs arenas for Conservator characters: Physiological; Safety; Love & Belonging.
- Curiosity – Adventure of discover, learning, developing insights, seeking answers.
- Competence – Mastering skills, abilities, crafts, proficiency.
- Performance – Gain via effort, achievement, accomplishment, ambition.
- Competitiveness – Aggression, finding superiority, fighting, vengeance, combat.
Hierarchy of Needs arenas for Pioneer characters: Safety; Esteem; Self-Actualization.
- Individuality – Being different from others, distinct, self-expressive.
- Independence – Self-control, autonomy, freedom, responsibility to self.
- Self-esteem – Self-acceptance, confidence, pride, optimism in one’s own capabilities.
- Acknowledgement – Seeking acceptance, appreciation, confirmation, respect, rewards.
Hierarchy of Needs arenas for Spirited characters: Love & Belonging; Esteem; Self-Actualization.
- Status – Striving for power, prestige, and privilege.
- Possession – Owning objects, materialism, greed, hoarding, keeping in reserve, conserving.
- Power – Influence over others, command of resources, leadership of other people, dominance.
Hierarchy of Needs arenas for Driven characters: Safety; Love & Belonging; Esteem
- Sexuality – Urge to physical ecstasy, blissful union, erotic temptation, lust, seductiveness.
- Aesthetics – Cultivating beauty in appearance, surroundings, expression in arts.
- Creativity – Composing, designing, imagination put into action, mental freedom.
- Play – Physical or mental stimulation for pleasure, humor, celebration, sports.
Hierarchy of Needs arenas for Sensualist characters: Love & Belonging; Esteem; Self-Actualization
- Care for loved ones – Caring for parents, children, spouses, cuddling, pampering.
- Intimacy – Familiarity, loyalty, solidarity, confidential communication, sharing.
- Loyalty – Moral commitment toward family, religion, culture, group, friends.
Hierarchy of Needs arenas for Nurturer characters: Physiological; Safety; Love & Belonging
- Idealism – Empathy, compassion, honesty, justice, altruism, social conscience.
- Escapism – Retreat, diversion, daydreaming, fantasy, withdrawal, escape from responsibility. This is the “23+1” factor, a person who so desires a perfect world of beauty, ease, and tranquility that s/he seeks to escape from the flaws of the real one rather than accept the challenges of dealing with reality.
Hierarchy of Needs arenas for Exalted characters: Love & Belonging; Esteem; Self-Actualization
I feel this avenue of exploration offers rich possibilities for quickly defining story worlds, character traits, types of conflicts, the stakes, and the theme. We see these types of clashes in movies all the time —a “Pioneer” clashes with a “Nurturer;” a “Conservator” with a “Sensualist,” a “Spirited” with a “Driven,” etc. Two “Nurturers” clash over priorities, two “Drivens” are rivals for the same prize or partners with divergent ideas about what they’re striving for, or two “Exalteds” clash over philosophical approach to life when it comes to aesthetics vs. escapism. Drawing from this well of possibilities, it becomes much easier to imagine details such as a character’s family life, IQ, etc. within the total context of story development.