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“Does your protagonist want something?”, a creative friend asked me this week, when meeting up for coffee and talking about writing and storytelling and what not. Those kinds of meet-ups always result in something good is my experience now. “Yes, of course”, I replied. “Mine doesn’t”, she said, mentioning her struggle with writing a short story.
A few hours after, I thought ‘that’s not true that someone doesn’t want something, everyone wants something’. Even if it’s just to stay in the very situation they are in now. Just because someone doesn’t want to move, get out of their chair, do something meaningful, even do the dishes, that doesn’t mean they don’t want anything. At the very least, they want to stay in the situation they are in. That is something. Even if they don’t know that or actively choose it. So then I messaged her to just throw something at him*, that threatens the very comfortable situation he is in, not wanting anything, forcing him out of that situation, simply put, the ‘inciting incident’ and sure enough, he will want something. And do something. He will do anything to get back to his old situation, in which he didn’t want anything, other than his situation to remain the same (which isn’t necessarily a good situation). Although that may sound like nothing, it is definitely something.
(*and again, when writing ‘him’ I mean both male and female, I am all for more and stronger female characters and protagonists).
Together with my own struggle of simplifying the story, I realised then that defining that ‘something’ can still be difficult. The question ‘what do we want’ is so big that it’s impossible to give a simple answer. Because regarding to what? I can think of many different things I want right now: I want it to be quiet in the morning when I can sleep in. I want a burger for dinner. I want to write a good screenplay. I want to have enough money so I don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck. I want to see Finding Dory when it comes out in the movie theatre in a month. I want it to be warm and sunny weather, so I can sit outside more. I want to find that guy that’s right for me, who I can do life together with. I want brownies, good fitting jeans, go to Disneyland again, a nice job, go running again, climb Mont Blanc, pyjama’s that wear comfortably, more good friends, Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, have more courage, be less insecure, the battery of my phone to last longer, win an Oscar, be fit again, to go on vacation, find the perfect conditioner for my hair, world peace. You see what I mean? And note that I’m not mentioning things I already have right now, because when we ask someone what they want, they rarely mention something they already have, but those are in fact also things they want, as I mentioned before.
Then I thought of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory of human motivation portrayed in a pyramid, which you can read more about here. Basically this theory is simplifying it and focuses on 5 levels of needs and suggest that the most basic level needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. The levels are:
Level 1: Physiological needs
Level 2: Safety needs
Level 3: Love and belonging
Level 4: Self-esteem
Level 5: Self-actualisation
This doesn’t mean our focus can’t be on several levels at the same time, but the likelihood of our focus being on let’s say self-esteem (level 4) when we have no food on our table or a roof over our head (level 1) is very small. I’m guessing self-esteem probably wasn’t on Leonardo di Caprio’s character’s priority list when he was having that one-on-one with the bear in The Revenant (2015). Just saying.
When you now hold up the question ‘what do we want’ next to Maslow’s levels of needs and ask it again at each level, it seems to become much simpler to answer (although I’m not sure on which level some of my aforementioned wants fit). And especially when writing a story and figuring out the motivation and needs of your characters. But we need to take it a bit further, because don’t we all want everything on every level? When we rephrase the question, we can simplify it even more and ask it in this way:
What is our main character or protagonist lacking at level 1, 2, 3, 4, 5? Or threatened to lose at any of these levels?
If the character is lacking something at for instance level 1, the story will likely be revolving around that. If his safety is being threatened, being on level 2, we probably see a story focused on that. And so on and so forth. And chances are, many stories we see revolve around several of these levels, but not many will focus on needs from all these levels. At least not in a movie I can think of, perhaps in a long running series, where you usually have a bigger time span and more issues to capture. Could you even categorise stories into each level then, what they are mainly about? Which brings me back to the subject of theme! Unbelievable. Now that I am thinking about theme with Maslow’s pyramid in my mind, it is much clearer and much less complicated somehow. Because I now understand at what level a certain theme is and which of the needs are not a problem, perhaps even more important if you want to simplify a story.
I wonder now also if there is a connection between the needs on certain levels portrayed in a story and people liking these stories, relating to them, based on their own needs and wants, what they are lacking. On the top of my head I’m thinking that a lot of stories are focusing on levels 2 and 3, safety needs and love & belonging. Am I right? But we all also love stories, perhaps even more, of people focusing on reaching their potential, on becoming who they desire to be. We all know how difficult that can be. Do we then like those more than all the other stories, because it is so high up in the pyramid and feels like the utopia of getting what we want? This sounds like something to be studied on another occasion, but it’s interesting though.
So, back to my story. Can I put my story in Maslow’s pyramid? On what levels is my protagonist lacking something? What are his needs? Does he have enough food on the table, clothing, shelter? Is he safe? Does he have enough finances? Is his health threatened? Is he loved? Does he love? Does he have friends? Does he have a good relationship with his family? Is he accepted? What about his self-esteem and self-respect? Is he confident? Is his main focus on his status, recognition? Is he focusing on who he desires to be, to reach his full potential? I don’t know about you, but all of a sudden, by asking these kinds of questions about the protagonist, relating to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the story, any story, is becoming much clearer and with that much simpler. Especially also what it’s not about. Wow.
I’m sure I’m not the first person that is thinking about this, that is connecting Maslow’s theory of human motivation to the art of storytelling, screenwriting, making movies, but at this moment I’m too tired to research more about that connection online. And it doesn’t matter really. I know I am making this discovery for myself, well, I should say making the connection for myself, brought on by having learned about psychology in the past and more about storytelling and writing in more recent times and talking about motivation with a friend this week, and whadda ya know: my brain is connecting them all. What an amazing piece of machinery. And bringing me closer yet again to telling the story, any story, in a better way. Wasn’t expecting this kind of great progress after last week. Happy with it needless to say.