Tag Archives: the human condition

Writers: What Motivates Your Characters?

While using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to analyze the effects of the ill-advised social and economic lockdown tactic under which we’ve been suffering for many weeks, it occurred to me that the challenge of writing plausible fiction about realistic characters could also benefit from application of the same paradigm.

Change: The foundation of character development and story arc movement.

If change does not occur to fictional characters, their story will go nowhere. In my post Spare Change“, I showed how to evaluate the general extent of change that characters must experience in their personalities or their motivation, by using a tool called a Punnett Box.

Today’s post uses Maslow’s Hierarchy to illustrate the layers of the human condition which form the motivation for behavior.

The pyramid is a study of drive. Each layer of the pyramid contains elements that must be reasonably satisfied before a person can turn full attention to satisfying the needs of the next higher level.

The layers are not mutually exclusive: the boundaries between them are permeable, so there can be some amount of movement back and forth between two adjacent levels. Therefore, a person can begin to experience the urgency which fuels the drive to achieve goals that support the achievement of Safety while still actively seeking to keep Physical Needs satisfied, as long as those efforts are successful.

Feeling that more advanced level of urgency is what underlies planning for the future; for example, it takes a lot of time and energy to start over afresh every day seeking food, water, clothing, shelter, and an opportunity to reproduce. Such were the daily challenges that faced people when they were still hunter-gatherers. The innovation of agriculture – first accomplished with simple digging sticks, and later infinitely enhanced by the invention of the plow – alleviated much of the uncertainty attending human existence, as better nutrition helped lower the death rate and increase the birth rate. This permitted people to better plan for the future, and to strive to thrive, not merely survive, which enabled the establishment and advance of civilizations.

The social structures that accompany the rise and evolution of civilizations can be regarded as part of the process of becoming “civilized” – essentially, the gradual “domestication” of human nature, even as human beings domesticated animals. While this “taming” of people has been defined differently during various times and in most places, and is still far from complete, the steps of the pyramid can be seen to echo the path of progress or improvement in the human condition, the struggle for which underlies all the conflict and change that must accompany character development in fiction.

Being completely pushed off the pyramid has been a perennially popular plot for three centuries: Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe, 1719), The Swiss Family Robinson (Johann Wyss, 1812), The Mysterious Island (Jules Verne, 1875), The Martian (Andy Weir, 2011), and the movie Cast Away (2000) have each explored how isolated individuals or small groups of people may realistically try to solve that problem by using their bare hands, what’s between their ears, and the technology of their times. This scenario can also be a premise for stories with fantasy, dystopian or post-apocalyptic settings.

But not every story needs to challenge its characters in such a massive way. During a character’s climb up the pyramid, acquiring a longing for or losing one’s grip on a cherished goal, achievement, or state of being that appears in the Hierarchy of Needs can be the change that motivates behavior, no matter what the genre of the story. This is because the pyramid’s levels are a way of describing what can happen in the lives of real people, and the more the reader can identify with a character and his or her dilemmas, the more plausible the plot will be.

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Defying Mrs. Grundy.

Irony at its best.

I get a chuckle out of contemplating how writing gurus and publishing gatekeepers, by their sourpuss anathematizing of the adverb as an unnecessary part of speech, and by their stigmatizing proverbs, colloquialisms and idioms as “clichés” (all of which writers are told they must avoid using, or expunge from their writing), unwittingly transform themselves into poster children for the ultimate idiomatic expression: “Mrs. Grundy.”

If the Grundyists of the wordsmith world had their way, all writing would be as drab and unfocused as a week of winter rainstorms.

Proverbs, colloquialisms and idioms developed over millennia of communication. They paint pictures in the mind which are based on real human experience, thereby fostering reader empathy for fictional characters. In this way, they bring vibrant color to dialogue, in a manner which no amount of “turning the air blue” with profanity and obscenity can do.


No matter where their origins, or what language they speak, everyone comes up with these gems. I studied Hiberno-English usage when I wrote Irish Firebrands. Now, I’m  studying German idioms as part of the research for my work-in-progress, The Passions of Patriots, a prelude to my first novel (in which a character had discovered an ancestor’s involvement in the First World War). I’m impressed by the imaginative ways Germans have developed to express the experiences that occur in all people’s lives.

It’s not for nothing that the Bible admonishes, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). The familiar phrases that are used in every language are also like highly polished precious metals which can adorn our writing like beautifully wrought antique jewellery.

What are some of your favorite sayings?
Have you used proverbs, colloquialisms, and idioms in your writing?
If you write fantasy which has an imaginary language, does it have traditional sayings your characters use?

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If Life Imitated Art.

IRISH FIREBRANDS: A Novel ~ and Other Works by Christine Plouvier, Indie Author

“I just wish she knew that if there were two persons, who were imperfect and they knew it, and they weren’t afraid to admit it – if those two persons cared enough about one another to lean upon one another, they’d be stronger together than they were separately – like a flying buttress and a cathedral wall.”
– Irish Firebrands
, Chapter 32

Feminist theory about appropriate sex-roles notwithstanding, I think there’s a strong case for female “fixing” behavior to be mostly a matter of “nature” over “nurture.” By this I mean it’s hardwired in women, as a means to perpetuate the species: it’s the “mothering” instinct. Nurture comes into how that instinct is expressed: bearing or adopting children; teaching or mentoring; interior decorating or supporting a cause; nursing people or growing plants; keeping pets or loving “bad boyfriends.”

175px-Karate_icon.svgIn this vein, eliciting possessiveness on the part of a male is also…

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