How to use the six basic human needs to make your characters come to life, part 1
The key to writing strong, believable characters is to really know and understand your characters as if they’re living, breathing human beings.
You want to know your character’s background, what makes them tick, what has happened to them to make them who they are today, what they dream about for the future, and more.
You need to know all this even if it’s not in your story. I keep separate journals for each of my main characters so I can write about them and write from their point of view.
One tool that has helped me delve deeper into my characters’ motivations comes from human needs psychology which has defined six basic human needs.
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has written a great article on these needs, “Tony Robbins: 6 Basic Needs that Make us Tick.” The six needs are:
- Certainty: The need for stability, security, comfort. Robbins says, “It’s our need to feel in control and to know what’s coming next so we can feel secure. Our need for certainty is a survival mechanism. It affects how much risk we’re willing to take in life—in our jobs, in our investments, and in our relationships.”
- Uncertainty/Variety: The need for change, new stimuli, and the unknown. Robert Pagliarini, author of The Sudden Wealth Solution, says high uncertainty people need the excitement that comes from variety and many interests. “Others see them as dynamic, entertaining, and fun to be around. High uncertainty people can be involved in too many things at once, bouncing from one experience to the next.”
- Significance: The need to feel special, important, unique, and wanted. Pagliarini says, “High significance people believe that happiness comes from feeling respected and for people to look up to them. They may work hard at being different or taking the leadership role. They often work hard, have high standards for themselves, and are relentless in accomplishing their goals, but because they constantly need to feel important in the eyes of others, they can seem arrogant and full of themselves. They are often disciplined, competitive, and can be perfectionists.”
- Love/Connection: The need to give and receive love. The need to feel deeply connected to others. Pagliarini says, “High love/connection people are generous to those they love and can be very protective of them. They are often nurturing, responsible, supportive, and helpful, but this can come at a cost. Some will repress their own needs and be unable to say “no” to others.”
- Growth: The need to expand, learn, and grow. Pagliarini says, “High growth people feel the need to develop themselves intellectually, emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually. They love to learn and to challenge themselves. They are typically thoughtful, calm, and dependable. Others may look up to them as a model of self-improvement, although high growth people don’t do it for the respect of others, they do it for the respect of themselves.” Robbins says, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” This is true in relationships, business, or personal growth.
- Contribution: The need to give beyond oneself and to support others. Pagliarini says, “High contribution people believe that their life is incomplete unless they are contributing to others or to a cause…Their strengths are their compassion for helping others, bravery, persistence, and generosity. They are often outgoing and enthusiastic, but can become confrontational and angry in the face of unfairness or injustice.” Meaning doesn’t come from what you get, it comes from what you give.
With this grasp of the six basic human needs let’s do a couple exercises.
Exercise 1: Read through the list and pick what you think are your top two needs. You may have a little of each but one or two needs will probably fly off the page at you.
Mine, in order from top to bottom, are love/connection, growth, contribution, uncertainty, certainty and significance.
What does this say about me? My friends and family are most important to me. Giving to my friends is one of my greatest joys. I’m a lifelong learner. As I learn and gain wisdom I feel valuable if I can contribute to others. I like to go on adventures and explore (uncertainty) but I also like to feel secure. I like the feeling that somebody has my back (certainty). I feel significant when I contribute to others, and I appreciate being recognized for a job well done.
After you find your top needs write a paragraph describing what your needs say about you and how they fit into your current life.
Now that you’ve tried this exercise on yourself, apply it to your protagonist.
Exercise 2: Read through the list again and pick your main character’s top two or three needs. Write a paragraph about how those needs show up in their life.
Example: My protagonist Caitlin’s top two needs are certainty and growth. Because of the uncertainty in her childhood, she tries to create a reliable, dependable life for herself but she also pushes herself to grow in her profession. She buries herself in work in order to avoid uncertainty or risks.
In part two of this post, you’ll take what you’ve learned about your character’s needs and delve deeper. You’ll play with different scenarios on how their top needs create their life and affect their relationships.