The motivation of your characters is what will push your plot along. Motivation can be as simple as wanting a cup of coffee or as complex as trying to take over a country or a planet. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be used to break down motivation into understandable chunks. Understanding your character’s motivation makes it easier to plot what actions they will take under differing circumstances.
Level one: Physiological Needs
These are the most basic needs for human survival: food, water, sleep, air, warmth in cold weather and protection from the sun from in the heat. If these needs aren’t met, the individual will die. These are the most powerful motivations, but often they are forgotten in the excitement of a story. Even the pure-hearted protagonist needs to eat and rest sometimes. A good example of this would be Abdullah’s crossing of the desert in Diana Wynne Jones’ Castle in the Air, when the poor boy comes close to dying of heat and thirst.
Level Two: Safety
Once the basic needs are met, an individual is now concerned with the issues of safety and security needs. Personal security is a desire to be safe from things like dangerous animals or war. Financial security is a desire for enough money to purchase personal safety and basic needs, and medicines and care to ensure an individual’s health and well-being. This can be the underlying motivation for what appears to be a greedy need for making money. Mr Shen in Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds at first appears to be an old miser, but it turns out his motivation was from a need to secure his family.
Level Three: Love and Belonging
Love and belonging can mean family, or the intimacy of close friendships, or romantic love. It is this need that creates peer pressures, bullying, and may create a feeling of isolation. This need can be just as powerful as the need for safety, when people remain in abusive relationships, or get into dangerous situations due to a need for acceptance by a gang or group. It is the motivation of many YA protagonists, from Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) to Micah (Justine Larbalestier’s Liar), and every romance book ever written.
Level Four: Esteem
This is self love, self confidence, and the need for the respect of your peers. This may manifest itself as a need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. This is often the motivation used for villains, or anti-heroes. It can relate directly back to level three, and a lack of acceptance that creates a lack of confidence. Just about every quest tale relates to this level; think of Bilbo in The Hobbit.
Level Five: Self Actualization
No one can reach their full potential, as a writer, as a queen, as a mother, as a teacher, without self actualization. This is the mastery of potential, using determination and discipline. Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is all about the main cast meeting their potential; Schmendrick as a wizard, Molly Grue as a woman, Prince Lir as a ruler, even Amalthea becomes a unique unicorn who has learnt how to regret. As a motivation for a character, this can be the hardest to define.
None of these levels are completely cut and dried. A character can have a blend of these needs as the underlying impetus to their motivations. If you are uncertain about what is motivating one of your characters, try breaking their motivation down using this hierarchy. And motivations can change throughout the length of a story, as one need is met, another will arise.
Some add a final level (Maslow did in the last years of his life) … spirituality, and the need to find something bigger than yourself. This is the level that can be the hardest to achieve … and the most satisfying to fulfil. It is this level that makes The Lord of the Rings one of the best loved and most memorable books ever written.