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.

The Oedipus Principle: Don’t Run from Your Fears

“Fear of getting hurt, ironically, increases your risk of getting hurt.” — Ed Latimore

In the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, the play’s eponymous hero, Oedipus, was born to the king and queen of Thebes. At his birth, a prophecy was given — that Oedipus would one day kill his father and marry his mother.

The king and queen were horrified. Such a child could not be allowed to live, so they gave him to a slave to be set out upon a hilltop to die — barbaric sounding, but common practice for unwanted babies at the time.

However, the slave who was given Oedipus took pity on him. Instead of leaving Oedipus out to die, he gave him to a friend — a shepherd — to be raised and nurtured as his own. And so he lived, and he grew from baby to boy to youth, never knowing that he was the prince of Thebes.

One day, as a young man, Oedipus was walking down the road towards Thebes when a man in a horse and carriage attempted to pass him along the road. It was the king, but he did not announce himself as such, and Oedipus didn’t know. When the king demanded that Oedipus move out of the way so he could pass, Oedipus refused, and a fight ensued. In the melee that followed Oedipus killed the king; then continued on to Thebes and married the king’s widow, who was his mother.

Perhaps the prophecy would have been fulfilled if they’d kept the child. Perhaps not. But the actions they took to avoid the prophecy led directly to its culmination.

There’s a psychological condition referred to as Oedipus Complex. Clinically, its definition is the desire to kill (or otherwise subdue) the parent of the same sex, and bed the parent of the opposite sex. However, there’s a second principle to draw from the story of Oedipus — I call it the Oedipus Principle.

The Oedipus Principle is that, when you want to avoid something, you move so far away from your feared outcome that you run straight into it from the other side.

For example: being so afraid that you’re unattractive that you become awkward and stiff and uncomfortable in your movements, which in turn diminishes your attractiveness. You would have been perfectly fine if you’d only been comfortable, but your endeavors to avoid being unattractive only move you closer to the outcome you fear.

Or — being so afraid of being alone that you get married young and recklessly, only to set the foundation for a rocky relationship that ends badly and leaves you alone in the end, just as you’ve been trying to avoid all along.

A friend once told me, “we have a tendency to manifest our worst fears in our life” — and it’s true. As a general statement, what we hold onto and focus on is what we create. More pragmatically, the actions we take in response to a fear are often overreactions, and they move us closer to the things we’re afraid of, not farther away from it — just as Oedipus’s father was so afraid of being killed by his son that he sent him away — so far away that he ran into him coming from the other direction on the road to Thebes, and walked straight into the fulfillment of the prophecy.

Exercise Day 3

The Passage:

Just forget for a minute that you have spectacles on your nose and autumn in your heart. Stop being tough at your desk and stammering with timidity in the presence of people. Imagine for one second that you raise hell in public and stammer on paper. You’re a tiger, a lion, a cat. You spend a night with a Russian woman and leave her satisfied. You’re twenty five. If rings had been fastened to the earth and the sky, you’d have seized them and pulled the sky down to earth. — Isaac Babel

Analysis: There’s a beautiful inversion going on here between the second and the third sentences. The sentence about the Russian woman evokes layers and layers of imagery and has layers and layers of significance — so much said, in so few words. There’s so much contrast — that second/third sentence interplay, the contrast of autumn vs. twenty-five, the timidity versus ferocity. Stylistically, the long and short sentences. Rich and sparse.


Just forget for a minute that your world is stunted and there’s grease on your hands. Stop thinking like you’ll always be fixing engines and never be good enough for the world outside this town. Imagine for one second that people pay you because they love you, and that you’re only alright with your hands. You’re buff, you’re charismatic, you’re poised. When you step out of this shop, the whole world turns and takes heed. You’re James Dean. The wind blows out your hair and the sky is damn big and the world is even bigger, and you’re only here because you want to be.

Notes on ‘Papa Hemingway’ by A.E. Hotchner

Papa Hemingway¬† is a biography, written by one of the men who was closest to Hemingway, a journalist and writer named A.E. Hotchner. Hotchner met Hemingway in 1948, when he was sent down to Cuba to meet with the author and commission him on behalf of Cosmopolitan to write a story. Hotchner believed so completely that he was going to be rejected that he sent Hemingway a note letting him know he’d been sent but that he wasn’t going to call on him. Hemingway called him instead, took him out for drinks, agreed to do the story, and planted the seeds of a friendship with Hotchner that would last until his suicide in 1961.

Hotchner tells Hemingway’s story entirely from his third-person perspective, showing only snapshots from the times they spent together in the years subsequent to their meetings, and filling in the rest of the pieces with phone calls and correspondence. He makes small spaces for analysis, but the majority of the book is filled with pure recounting; portraits of Hemingway himself.

Hotchner is a master at description, and at capturing the essence of people. Hemingway comes alive on the page — his character, his personality, his preferences and his habits. His presence is so vivid you can almost watch the pattern of its breathing. Hotchner writes in a mode similar to that of his friend: rich in detail, but sparing in language — precisely enough to make you understand, and no more.

“These Cuban girls; you look into their black eyes, they have hot sunlight in them.” – Ernest Hemingway

The book, in both a specific sense and a broad one, hits on fundamental truths. Specifically, it hits on the truths of Hemingway’s character — though they’re never explicitly explained or perhaps even understood, you can feel their presence. Broadly, it hits on truths of human nature, and of the nature of an artist — tempestuous, moved, curious, hungry, full of stories and never satisfied with what’s already been accomplished.

Following Hemingway from Cuba to Key West to Ketchum, Idaho, across Europe and through lengthy tours of Spain, Hotchner captures the evolution of an artist — starting at the midpoint of Hemingway’s life, after the penning of some of his most famous works — and then riding his slow spiral from prowess to self-sabotage. He recounts the early glory years through Hemingway’s own retellings — reminiscings on wild parties, grand adventures, bloody wars, past lovers, ex wives — and he looks at his evolution of a writer through Hemingway’s own eyes.

In their travels, they revisit places Hemingway used as settings for his novels, and you see both the place and the work through his eyes. Over the years, the story slowly unfolds of the real people and events behind the novels — the rich fabric of Hemingway’s life upon which he drew to craft his work.

“My credo is to write as well as I can about things I know and feel deeply about.” — Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway had a deep sense of life, and also a deep thirst for adventure — and a certain restlessness that moves throughout the pages of the book, becomes disorganized at the end as Hotchner recounts the events leading up to Hemingway’s suicide: a shot to the head one morning in his study in Ketchum, Idaho, in the summer of 1961.

He had a taste for good liquor, beautiful women, and for testing man’s fortitude against the forces around him, a theme that crops up again and again in his works and can be seen perhaps most prevalently in Old Man and the Sea. When he died, he left his “big book” — the magnum opus he’d always planned on writing — as a dream unrealized.

In the words of Hemingway:

“All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you’ve read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and then it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people and the weather. If you can give that to readers, then you’re a writer.” — Ernest Hemingway

Five stars.

If you enjoyed this book, you may also like:
-Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
-The Collected Short Works of Ernest Hemingway
-Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan
-The Long Valley by John Steinbeck

“I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won’t kill myself. When a man is in rebellion against death, as I am in rebellion against death, he gets pleasure out of taking to himself one of the godlike attributes, that of giving it.” — Ernest Hemingway, 1954