Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as it Pertains to Fiction

Alternate title: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as it relates to fiction — because it does. It has a direct correlation to the interestingness of the stories you tell.
Just as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs dictates the things in life we find most compelling (or that carry the most emotional weight), so too does it dictate the things we find most fascinating in stories — because fiction imitates reality.
The farther up the hierarchy the elements of the story, the less your reader will care, and the more melodramatic and frivolous your story will sound.
If your character doesn’t make it to soccer practice, you have to give the story extra layers of drama for it to actually matter to the reader. It runs the risk of feeling melodramatic — like you’re giving too much weight to a very small thing. The character’s life won’t be drastically different if he’s late. He’ll wake up tomorrow and he’ll look the same. His standard of life will still be the same.
On a subconscious level, your reader knows this. The melodramatic story will lack emotional appeal. It will fail to fascinate.
This is why myths are so powerful. They speak to us on a visceral level; at the base level of what makes us human. They’d feel melodramatic if we wrote them in our own time and place, because the circumstances are contrived, but in the ancient world (where the framework of the world was that of gods and goddesses and monsters and the furies) such things were part of the fabric of life, and to err bore heavy consequences. On a deep psychological level, even in a world far removed, we understand the weight, and we’re drawn to it. Our emotions are stirred and we want to know what happens, even feel a desire to alter the outcome (the indicator of a truly good story).
To write a truly good story, you have to strip it down. Write about the essentials — the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. Things like food, shelter, life — base survival.
This is (part of) why it’s easier to write about the blue-collar world than it is the white collar one. (Another reason is the simplicity and the familiarity, but that’s the topic of a future essay). It matters.
Let me give you two examples:
In the first, our character is a well-off young salesperson who is trying to close a deal with a big company. You feel a sense of emotional attachment — you want the character to succeed. But the stakes are low. He’s so far up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs already that it doesn’t really matter what happens. Even if he loses, he’ll still be alive tomorrow, drinking his mocha on the way to the office and crafting a better sales pitch.
Interesting? Yes. Deeply compelling? No.
In the second story, our character is a farmer. He grows tomatoes, and five years ago, he had an edge in the market — his crops were coming in right when they were in high demand, and his family did well. But now the market is oversaturated with tomatoes in August (the month his ripen), and prices are down. His incoming crop will barely be enough to keep the family fed.
This still isn’t as primal as, say, a story of someone fighting to survive after a plane crash in the wilderness, or a story about a soldier in the thick of a war. Those are true primacy. But this one is much closer. It’s dealing with a base level need — food — and arguably two, if shelter also becomes a concern.
In the first example, if your character gets chewed out over the phone, his insecurities uncovered and lashed into with a knife, you’ll care. You’ll feel sorry for him. But the weight of the consequences is much stronger if your character in the second story has his entire crop wiped out by an ill-timed hailstorm.
Think Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway — deeply primal. The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck — a story of people fighting to maintain both life and dignity. Base-level stories both — and therefore both deeply compelling.
This is not an absolute across the board. It is possible to write high-level stories that bear the same emotional weight. But if you do, you must make sure you’re tying them back to the things we most primally care about — because those are the things that will make your story deeply compelling and true, and that will make your readers want to keep listening.

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