How to Use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Fiction

Much like us, characters have needs that range from the most universal and essential for survival to the personal. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory for understanding how people’s needs affect their actions and identities.

You can use this psychological concept for character development, too. Planning characters’ motivations will help you diversify your story’s cast and what drives each character. Keep reading to learn more about Maslow’s hierarchy, and how Plottr’s character template will help you give characters depth.

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What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is named for one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century: Abraham Maslow. Over the course of his career, he made many contributions to humanist psychology, including his development of a hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s main area of focus was how people develop their identity. He saw self-development as depending on people having their most basic needs met first.

For example, the lower level physical needs, such as hunger, must be met before someone is able to attain higher levels of growth (such as the ability to indulge in artistic/aesthetic and other less life-or-death pursuits).

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs diagram
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — Theory Diagram

One example of how Maslow’s hierarchy works: authors need food and shelter first in order to be able to write great masterpieces.

You can use Maslow’s hierarchy to understand what your characters need at each stage of their journeys, and how realizing those needs will help them attain higher levels of growth and self-actualization.

Why Should You Use Maslow’s Hierarchy for Your Characterization?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a framework to understand characters’ deepest drives and desires. It will help you brainstorm plot points and themes that relate to what your characters can’t live without.

You might love using Maslow’s hierarchy for character creation if:

    • You struggle to plan plot points that connect desire to action. Perhaps you have some ideas for major events your characters will experience, but filling in the gaps is tough. Maslow’s hierarchy will help you think about different categories of need, from basic safety to love and esteem

    • Your characters need grounding in reality. Fiction doesn’t have to be just like real life, but the best characters come across as realistic and relatable. By consulting Maslow, you’ll ensure some very human qualities that readers identify with

    • Your characters’ backstories need more substance. The flaws, goals, and fears that guide your characters’ behaviors have origins. With Maslow’s hierarchy, you can identify what needs were (and are) unmet in someone’s life to inform their choices, fears and flaws

    • Your story lacks emotional depth. People don’t just want to read your story; they want to live in it. Knowing what characters crave and fear losing will give them emotional complexity

Maslow’s theory is especially helpful when crafting believable villains, heroes and survivors, since it helps you imagine a “why” behind their actions and reactions.

In genres where a protagonist and villain duke it out, using Maslow’s hierarchy will help you create fascinating contrasts between needs that drive heroic and selfish choices.

The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory suggests that needs consist of five levels. In general, a person isn’t able to progress to satisfying the next level of need unless a lower level’s needs are met.

For example, if your character suffers food insecurity, and doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from, they might not have the energy or courage to pursue other desires such as romantic love at the moment. There are other priorities more crucial to survival.

Let’s go through the five levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, one at a time.

    1. Physiological Needs: This is the most basic of human needs. How are your character’s biological needs for survival — food, shelter, clothing, sleep — being met?

    1. Safety Needs: Once a character’s physiological needs are met, they can think about level two: safety and security. This level also encompasses the character’s sense of financial, emotional, and social security.

    1. Love and Belonging Needs: With levels one and two fulfilled, your character can move on to level three: belonging. Here’s where you can explore friendship, trust, intimacy, acceptance, and love from a place of safety.

    1. Esteem Needs: Next, we can tackle status and prestige — your character’s place in the world. Level four focuses on your character’s need for self-esteem and respect.

    1. Self-Actualization Needs: Finally, we’ve arrived at the pinnacle of self-development. When your character reaches level five, they have achieved (or are nearing) their full potential.

Sometimes, in life and in fiction, a person’s drive to meet their current needs will dominate their choices and behavior. Other times, those motivations may even elude the person’s own awareness.

Plan which needs are conscious vs unconscious for a cast full of a rich sense of psychological realism.

Example Using the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Character Template

To show how you can use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for your character development in Plottr, we’ll use James J. Braddock. He is the main character in the 2005 movie Cinderella Man about a washed-up boxer who returns to fight in a heavyweight championship.

    1. Physiological Needs: The story opens during the Great Depression, where retired boxer James Braddock is struggling to provide food and shelter for his family. James invests all the time and energy he has into ensuring his family’s survival.

    1. Safety Needs: James realizes the only way to ensure the ongoing security of his family is to box once more, saying, “I’m not the first guy willing to die to feed his family.”

    1. Love and Belonging Needs: Though their efforts to meet their basic needs are far from easy, the Braddock family stays together, keeping each other close and meeting their shared needs for love and belonging.

    1. Esteem Needs: When James goes back to boxing, he has to leave behind who he once was and start from the bottom. It takes time to build this confidence back, but as his rediscovered career begins to pay off, his esteem starts to build.

    1. Self-Actualization Needs: By embracing his recent rocky past and successfully fighting for his family’s needs (and his own), James becomes a better fighter, knowing he’s fighting for the people he loves in a way he never did before.

If you go back and watch the film, you can see how James is affected by the most acute need at each moment in his story. You’ll notice how the obviousness of each need changes, too, as James moves through his character arc. How can you apply this example to your own writing?

How to Use the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Template

Ready to give this template a try? Let’s walk through a step-by-step guide on just how to do that. First, you’ll need to purchase Plottr or sign up for a free trial.

Once you have Plottr set up on your computer, here’s how to add the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Character Template to your project.

    • Step 1: Open Plottr to start a new project or open an existing one

Use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Character Template with Plottr Step 1

    • Step 2: In the open project, select the Characters tab at the top, then create a new character (or open an existing character)

Use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Character Template with Plottr Step 2

    • Step 3: Click +Add Template in the editing panel and select Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from the list. Then it’s time to click the Choose button!

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Character Template in Plottr

    • Step 4: Select each box and start typing to add the details of your character’s needs

And there it is! Simple, yes?

If you want to add more details to your character profiles, you can use additional Plottr character templates to guide you. This template pairs well with these others:

What Does Your Character Need Next?

Now that we’ve explained Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, want to try it out as a brainstorming tool? Check out the template in Plottr. Once you’ve given it a go, let us know your thoughts in the comments or in our Facebook group for writers or comment below. We can’t wait to hear what you think!

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    2 thoughts on “How to Use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Fiction”

      1. Hi Lando, what a great question! So Revenge wouldn’t typically fit in Maslow’s hierarchy as it’s not a universal human need, more of a situational/context-dependent desire. I would say it can fit with several tiers though. for example, someone might need physiological safety before they can even contemplate revenge, as they may need space/security to even be able to begin to process a trauma that leads them to desire revenge. Then when it comes to esteem needs, a person may pursue revenge believing that it will restore their own self-respect (or earn the respect of others).

        I hope this helps! I would recommend going through each tier of Maslow’s model and trying to brainstorm a situation where revenge would connect to that base need.

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