Why does it work? Because we identify with people we worry about. And you really, really want readers to worry about your story characters!
Before you can ramp up the conflict, you need to know what is most important to your central character--what the character would risk everything to protect or obtain. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can help. (If you’re unfamiliar with Maslow, click here for more info.)
Maslow’s theory assumes that people will attempt to fulfill their most basic needs before moving on to satisfy their more advanced needs. The pyramid below illustrates the different levels, with the most basic human needs at the bottom, building toward the highest psychological needs at the top.
Physiological needs. This is the bottom and most basic level, what every human being requires for survival, including food, clothing, and shelter. Take away any of those and your character’s life is in serious jeopardy. Think Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games, or Tom Hanks’s character in the movie Cast Away. Adventure stories usually rely heavily on survival needs, as do romantic suspense novels like Debby Giusti’s MIA: Missing in Atlanta.
Safety and security. The second level is one step above (pardon the pun) merely surviving. This is the need to believe that what makes us feel safe and secure won’t be taken away from us. It can include everything from financial security to health and well-being. In Tina Radcliffe’s novel The Rancher’s Reunion, the hero is living with Huntington’s disease, but not really living because he’s letting health worries separate him from the woman he loves. In A House Full of Hope, by Missy Tippens, the heroine is a single mother of four who worries that the hero’s arrival in town will result in her family’s eviction from their home.
Belonging. Inherent in every human being is the need to share physical and emotional closeness with others. A few weeks ago I watched the Hallmark movie based on Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning, about a young Amish girl who defies her parents and then is shunned by the entire community. The resulting emotional isolation this character suffered was heartbreaking. Janet Dean’s hero in Wanted: A Family exhibits his need to belong by attempting to find the mother who abandoned him.
Esteem. A step above belonging is the need for self-respect, to be not only accepted but also valued by others. The need for esteem or recognition can drive people to attempt things they might not ordinarily do. A good example is Charity O’Connor, from Julie Lessman’s A Passion Redeemed. Charity feels insecure in her family’s love, and she lets jealousy of her sister Faith drive her to seek validation in unhealthy romantic relationships.
Self-actualization. This is a fancy term for reaching your full potential--or, from a Christian perspective, fully becoming the person God created you to be. Ultimately, that should be the goal for every story character. Not that we should show them reaching perfection by the end of the book, but the reader should believe the characters are continuing to grow and change for the better as a result of the challenges they’ve faced. Look at the heroines in Mary Connealy’s Sophie’s Daughters series. In each novel the heroine must grow beyond her own weaknesses until she finds fulfillment--first through her reliance upon God, then believing in herself, and finally as a strong, confident partner in a satisfying romantic relationship.
The most riveting stories take the central characters through varying levels of needs. As one need is met, the next problem may knock the character backward a level or two. In my novel A Horseman’s Heart, the hero finds belonging and closeness with the heroine and begins to feel valued and important, only to have an unexpected encounter threaten his sense of security and cause him to wonder if it’s time to move on again.
Let’s talk! Can you see using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to create interesting problems for your story characters? Which level(s) do you find your characters working through most often? Would bumping them back a level or two boost your story conflict and possibly prevent the dreaded “sagging middle”?
Leave a comment on today’s post to be entered in a drawing for A Horseman’s Heart.
Special-ed teacher Sheridan Cross has trust issues of her own, so when Kip shows up with a horse to donate to the family’s equine therapy program, she can’t help but be suspicious. A cowboy a thousand miles from home and living out of a horse trailer? What’s wrong with this picture?
When Sheridan’s mother offers Kip a job as barn manager, Sheridan decides she’d better stick close enough to keep an eye on things, never expecting she’ll soon have eyes only for the handsome cowboy. Can they trust their hearts and find true love, or will their troubled pasts come crashing down on their dreams?
Watch for A Horseman’s Gift, book 2 in the Horsemen of Cross Roads Farm series, coming soon!