Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at, and website at, The Character Therapist, at

Hierarchy of Needs
Part One

After recently brushing up on human motivation theory (no need to bore you with details, but you can do a Google search to learn more), I realized that a simple little pyramid developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow might help us figure out what our characters want.

In essence, Maslow’s theory is that there is a hierarchy, or pecking order, of human needs. This theory can be applied to your character’s lives, but misapplication might fail to suspend a reader’s disbelief.

We’ll start from the bottom of the pyramid this month and work our way up through the lower Basic, Safety, and Social needs. Next month we’ll look at the higher needs.

Basic Needs are the primary things a person needs to survive: air, water, and food. Other base needs include maintaining body temperature for survival, sleeping, keeping shelter, and staying clothed.

Cold, Hard Truth: If your heroine is starving, freezing, or being deprived sleep, she won’t be wondering if she is in love with the hero or if her 401(k) is growing fast enough. When people are deprived of the basics of life, those needs become a priority. It’s not realistic to have them musing, reflecting, or speculating about so-called “higher” needs.

Safety Needs encompass the need for security, stability, and protection. When basic needs are met, a person is free to think about “higher” order concerns, fears, or anxieties. People generally want some structure, order, and limits in their world. They want predictability and familiarity.

At this level, most adults focus on the four types of safety/security:

1) Person and Property: This is when people put alarm systems on their houses or cars or implement a neighborhood watch system. They might feel the need to carry a firearm, install motion detection lights outside their homes, and password-protect their laptops. People also appreciate grievance procedures developed on many different levels (government, work, church) to protect against maltreatment.

2) Financial Security: Adults generally seek jobs that will give them the most security while making the most money possible. People will save money by way of savings accounts, investments, IRAs, or piggy banks masquerading as a book in the library.

3) Health and Well-being. We each get only one body, and while we can alter it considerably with surgeries and the like, we had better have good insurance to do so. In order to protect against the financial crises brought on by serious illnesses, broken bones, or other health-related issues, people must have insurance or some other social program to fall back on.

4) The future. All of the above greatly affect a person’s future. People enjoy planning for the time when they won’t have to work and can enjoy doing what they want to do, but things have to be put in place while they are still working, like having a good retirement plan. It’s important to have a safety net (or as Dave Ramsey likes to say, an “emergency fund”) for when there might be a major accident or illness.

Cold Hard Truth: The importance of these two levels cannot be overstated: a person can’t fully give of themselves to others (in true friendship, romantic love, and intimacy) before these needs are met. It wouldn’t make sense for a character to pine for love when his or her basic need or safety need is not met.

If you think back to what you’ve written in previous books or manuscripts, you’ll likely see that you’ve already done this. You probably have heroines/heroes who already have stable jobs and ready access to food (I’m sure most have never put thought to this!) before they look to get romantically involved.

So once characters have taken care of themselves physically, they are ready to share themselves with others in a meaningful way, which leads to Social Needs, which encompass the need for love and belonging, both small and large. In fact, many versions of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs call this level the Psychological or Love Needs.

People want to be surrounded by friends, a sweetheart, a spouse, children, neighbors, office coworkers, church, and community. This is a need to have relationships, either through marriage, family, fraternity, gang, or club. This truly is a psychological need, one we feel with both our heads and our hearts. It’s intimacy, the need to love and be loved, in both a sexual and nonsexual way.

Of course, there are exceptions in fiction to every rule, even more so for a theory like Maslow’s. Twilight’s Bella Swan forsook her safety for love of a vampire. Anorexics regularly ignore the need to eat and the security of health to have a feeling of belonging and acceptance and control. Individuals with borderline personality disorder are so driven by emotional needs that they act in hysterical and disturbing ways, definitely capable of jeopardizing their own safety.

Next month we’ll look at Maslow’s upper level needs, so see you then!


The Character Thrapist