Human Motivations: Fodder for Fiction

by Olive Balla


Olive Balla245

Some say when a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the earth, the air moves on the other side. That’s more than just an ancient saying—it’s physics. Science tells us for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s a law of the universe. We writers make use of that law of cause and effect in establishing motivation for our characters. We pair up needs and desires with the actions taken to fill them. The more needs and desires, the more layers to the plot.

But what catalysts will result in any given human behavior? Why, for example, would one of our characters smash his car into a roadblock? Why does our protagonist wash his hands every fifteen minutes? How can we make the actions of our villains believable?

No problem. Just review the pyramid of human needs as identified by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, fill your shopping cart, and proceed to the checkout counter.

According to Maslow’s theory, we must satisfy the needs at each level of the pyramid before moving up to the next higher level. The catch is that humans may choose to fulfill those needs through positive or negative means. How your characters meet their needs is up to you.

  1. The lowest stratum of the pyramid covers biological and physiological needs such as air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and sleep. Science tells us that when humans undergo prolonged deprivation of any of these needs, such as might be experienced in a concentration camp, the need for food and sex are the last two drives to go, and then only just before death. The struggle to secure these needs may result in love triangles, jealousy, and theft, to name a few. Or it may result in marriage, a good work ethic, ambition and striving to excel.
  2. The next level deals with safety needs such as security, order, law, limits, and stability. Recognizing that there is safety in numbers, every culture has developed rules by which its inhabitants must live. Even anti-social groups have established ground rules, laws, and norms. Just ask anyone who’s been in prison—or worked in one.
  3. Once we have managed to deal with the first two levels, we can move up the ladder to the next one dealing with the need to belong and love. Humans are a gregarious lot. We need relationships. The family unit was established to meet these first three needs. So were gangs. Like the old Three Dog Night song said, one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.
  4. The penultimate level of need includes self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, and prestige. This need may lead to entrepreneurial ambition, and the drive to learn new things. It may also lead to manipulative, controlling behavior, and obsession with money and/or possessions.
  5. At the top of the pyramid are the self-actualization needs. Humans are built with the drive to realize their personal potential: they seek fulfillment, personal growth, and peak experiences. At this level we find altruistic behavior, mentoring, heroism, and religious fervor.

Because humans are creatures of endless complexity, we may fulfill more than one of these levels at a time. For example, the CEO of a charitable non-profit may not only be fulfilling his need for self-actualization, but for wealth and status. And the school bully (or even the physically violent parent) might be fulfilling the need for dominance and control.

Psychology tells us every human behavior has at its root the goal of survival. And that doesn’t apply only to physical survival. Humans do strange or even horrible things to survive emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and socially. Find someone suffering pain from the loss of any given need, and you’ll find someone willing to do almost anything to find relief from that pain or fear. Enter self-medicating behaviors such as alcoholism and other substance use and abuse in an effort to reach and then maintain what science calls homeostasis, or balance.

According to New York’s Gotham Writer’s Workshop, every character must have a desire he struggles to fulfill. The grandness of that desire is not as important as how badly the character wants it. It could be anything as mundane as the desire to quit smoking. Or it could be as dark as the desire to get rid of a rival. The absence of desire makes for flat characters.

So, look over Maslow’s amalgamation of human needs and drives. Choose one or more, spoon in a dollop of desire, and you’ll have the makings of a deep, multi-faceted character worthy of your writing time.


AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at omballa.com.


This article was originally published in the June 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.


4 comments on “Human Motivations: Fodder for Fiction
  1. Amy Reece says:

    Nice post! Complex characters are much more interesting and this is a great reference on how to create them.

  2. Peggy says:

    Love your posts. They are fodder for my hungry writer’s soul! Thanks for so much useful information.

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