Letter Review believes that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful tool for constructing plot, whether that’s in a short story, a full novel, a play, or a screenplay.

First of all, let’s explore where this theory might be most useful.

Most plots feature a protagonist with a central objective.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help you to select compelling central objectives.

So what is a compelling central objective. In this instance Letter Review is defining compelling as an objective that the audience wants the protagonist to achieve.

For instance, if a character says ‘I’m trying to give up alcohol to be a good father’, most people who hear that will be supportive of the character, or find that character’s objective compelling.

This is where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes into play. It is arguable that because the items at the bottom of the pyramid in Maslow’s theory are more urgently and desperately needed, the audience will find the search for them more compelling. 

Who was Abraham Maslow? 

Maslow was an American psychologist who is believed to be the tenth most cited psychologist of the 20th Century. This means reputable people talk about him ALOT.

He was a psychology professor at Brandeis University, Brooklyn College, New School for Social Research, and Columbia University.

Basically, this guy was a highly respected psychology professor whose theories are important and respected! Yay.

What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

All the info you could ever want is on the wiki page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs

I’ll focus on the areas I think are most important and useful below.

The hierarchy is a study of human motivation. Maslow proposed that in order for a human’s motivational concerns to proceed to a higher level of the pyramid, each level of the hierarchy must be entirely satisfied. 

It’s clear that the second part isn’t true. But what is likely true is that humans, by and large, seek things out in life in the order that is proposed by the hierarchy, and when they don’t they get into trouble. 

Letter Review is proposing that objectives that arise from the base of the hierarchy are easier to make compelling. 

What are the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? 

Physiological Needs

At the very base of the pyramid are things that human beings need most urgently to survive in a literal, physical sense. 

These are things that we will prioritise above all other concerns, and the motivations that arise in this category are urgent.

Physiological needs include access to air, water, food, sleep, health, clothes, and shelter. 

Letter Review proposes that any motivation arising from this level of Maslow’s hierarchy will be a compelling motivation for an audience. 

For instance, the novel and film ‘The Road.’ Or any story arising in the survival genre. The Man and the Boy in McCarthy’s tale The Road desperately seek to meet their physiological needs in a hostile landscape. 

Watching any character desperately struggle for ‘air’ is going to be compelling. Take Castaway, or any tale that could be described as Robinsade (or the genre that has grown up around tales influenced by Robinson Crusoe – which you should read). 

How many of your favourite tales feature a character struggling to meet these needs?

Safety Needs

Next comes safety needs! This level includes personal security, emotional security, financial security, well-being.

While not as urgent, and therefore perhaps less compelling than the previous category, safety is still a fundamental desire and motivation for most humans!

Think of all your favourite films where the central objective of the protagonist arises from this level of motivation! 

Action films and superhero films etc are usually based around the need for safety, aren’t they? For instance, protecting the life of the President, or perhaps saving the world from an existential threat! 

Central objectives that arise from this level will usually be extremely compelling.

Love and Social Belonging

This level is often referred to as just ‘belongingness’ and refers to family, friendship, and intimacy.

Once we’ve taken care of the first two levels and we’re feeling safe and warm and rested and fed then we start seeking out friendship and love and family.

Although no longer arising from the base of the hierarchy, these are still fundamental and compelling human desires. Do you think it’s possible to lead a fulfilling life without these things?

Think of Castaway again for a second. We watch old mate Hanks struggling to find the things he needs to survive on that island.

Turns out he’s really good at it, and finds a way to keep going. However, once he’s found a way to survive, his attention turns to returning to all the people he loves! 

Do you agree that motivations arising from this level are still compelling and urgent, but require a little more work to sell to an audience?

For instance, they are not as universal and unconditional as the previous levels. Watching someone that we know nothing about achieve things at this level might not actually be compelling for an audience.

Whereas watching someone we no nothing about try to find air to breathe is pretty much always going to be gripping.

For us to want a character to find family and love, it’s probably true that we have to think the person in question is a good person, and deserving of love. Aristotle says in Poetics that for a character to be good their motivation has to be good. 

One way to cheat this slightly is to make motivations arising from this level more closely aligned with motivations lower on the hierarchy.

For instance, ‘Unless this character finds love and companionship they are likely to kill themselves.’ Now you’ve set up that a motivation arising from this level is directly linked to the level below, that of safety. Interesting huh?

Esteem

There are two levels of esteem. The esteem you win from other people, including respect, awards, prestige etc. And internal respect, which is described as a higher level of esteem. This can include a need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom.

Can you see how these motivations, while still beautiful and interesting, are less automatically compelling. Watching someone we hate trying to find the respect of their peers sounds like a boring story. 

Watching someone that we don’t know strive for competence in a skill sounds dull.

Any of these motivations can be compelling of course. Take independence, perhaps the film Gandhi is a good example of this. We watch Gandhi bring about the independence of his nation from the British Empire.

It’s compelling because of the moral force of the argument that an individual and country should have the right to self determination, or to determine their own fate. 

The point I’m trying to make here is that these motivations are still compelling, but more work is needed to make them as compelling as the motivations arising from lower levels of the hierarchy. More convincing, and more nuanced story work is required!

Self Actualisation

This level of motivation is about being all that you can be. We strive to be the best version of ourselves, apparently. Once we have satisfied all the previous levels we perhaps begin to think about how to make the most of our skills, and contribute to society in the most meaningful way possible. 

This level includes creative urges, parenting, utilizing and developing talents and abilities, pursuing goals.

So watching someone trying to be the best singer in the world can be interesting, but to make the story truly compelling you will find the writer will probably mix in a lot of things from the lower levels of motivation.

Take ‘A Star is Born’ for instance. It’s kind of about self actualisation, but it turns out it’s all really about survival in a much more basic and compelling way (don’t want to ruin the end for anyone who hasn’t seen it!). 

The Best Way to Use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Your Story

What Letter Review is suggesting here is that motivations that arise from the lower levels of the hierarchy are going to instantly win your audience over to the side of the character, because they will want the character to achieve that goal, and will cheer them on. Instant hero!

Motivations that arise from higher up the hierarchy can also be deeply compelling, but consider mixing in some motivations arising from further down the pyramid.

Think of the life of Vincent van Gogh for instance. A story about someone who is trying to be the best painter they can be. Pretty interesting. But you have a very compelling story once you mix in that he suffered from poor mental health and that his desire to paint perhaps arose from a desperate attempt to find beauty and meaning in the world, and to make something of his own suffering.

Now we’ve really got a story about someone trying to survive, which is a universal instinct from the bottom of the hierarchy, which everyone can relate to. That’s a compelling motivation and story!


Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.