Life can be painful, especially for our characters. In fact, the fallout of an emotionally wounding event such as a car accident, failing to save someone’s life, infertility, or being sent away as a child can derail their life for years (or even decades!) if left unresolved. Not only that, it can change the character’s personality, damage their relationships, and seed their life with dysfunction and unfulfillment.
This is why at the start of a story the protagonist is usually dissatisfied, lost, unhappy, or yearning for something more. They are experiencing something called an unmet need.
Unmet needs are created because emotional wounds generate a FEAR of being hurt again (which can manifest in many ways).
The result? The character holds back in life. They settle. They avoid things that can lead to their happiness because being hurt again is too big of a risk.
A fear of trusting the wrong person after a betrayal keeps Mary from seeking love.
A fear of death after a near-fatal climbing accident keeps Rodney from living life to the fullest.
A fear of losing her only child after the death of her spouse keeps Tonya imprisoned by an inflexible mindset and need to control.
Fear is powerful, but unmet needs can direct behavior above all else, meaning, if the urgency is strong enough, needs will push characters to act even if their deepest, most debilitating fears are telling them not to.
Mary’s need to share her life with someone pushes her to open herself to love again.
Rodney’s need to achieve a lifelong goal of summitting Everest convinces him to take up his passion once more, even knowing the risks.
Tonya’s need to have a healthy relationship with her daughter forces her to let go and support her daughter’s independence.
Your Character’s Arc
Now, this shift won’t happen overnight. We really must ensure that our characters go through a gauntlet of unhappiness and struggle until finally they say Enough! and act. When we do this, readers believe that our characters are pushing forward toward their goal regardless of whatever stands in their way because their inner motivation (an unmet need) is driving them to do so.
A terrific tool to understand the connection between Motivation and Unmet Needs is the Hierarchy of Human Needs, a theory created by psychologist Abraham Maslow. It looks specifically at human behavior and the drivers that compel people to act. Separated into five categories, it begins with needs that are the most pressing to satisfy (physiological) and ends with needs centered on personal fulfillment (self-actualization).
This pyramid representation of Maslow’s original hierarchy makes a great visualization tool for writers as they seek to understand what motivates their characters:
The categories are arranged by importance. So, food, water, and other primal physiological needs are the most critical to fill since they are based on survival. Next is the need to be safe, then to be loved, to be respected, and, finally, to reach one’s potential.
These needs, when met, create balance and lead to satisfaction within. But if one or more needs are absent, a hole is created, a feeling that something is missing. As this “lack” builds in intensity, the psychological pressure will grow until finally it pushes the character to seek a way to fill the void.
When a human need is diminished or missing to the point of disrupting the character’s life, it becomes a motivator. For example, a person can skip lunch and only experience minor discomfort until the next meal. But if it’s been a week since he last ate, his discomfort becomes a gnawing hole that demands to be filled, an obsession he must pursue. He might cross moral lines to steal food, resort to personally humiliating actions such as begging or digging in a dumpster, or even take foolish risks, such as eating spoiled food all because his singular focus is on meeting his need. Everything else—pride, fear, self-esteem, even safety—becomes secondary.
Sacrificing one need to satisfy others happens often, which is why there’s a hierarchy. If a character must choose between a job where he’s universally admired (esteem) or financially stable (safety), he’ll choose the latter. Or his goal to become a doctor (self-actualization) may be set aside if his wife is diagnosed with a terminal disease and he must leave school to care for her (love). Just like that skipped meal, placing one need before others usually isn’t a problem in the short term, but the longer a need goes unmet, the more disruptive it becomes until it eventually hits a breaking point. Unhappy marriages end in divorce when the pain reaches an unbearable level. An employee quits a job when workplace esteem levels bottom out or mistreatment escalates. Everyone has a “final straw” moment, after which they can take no more. How quickly it’s reached will depend on the individual and the reasons he has for being in the situation in the first place.
Change isn’t easy. In fact, it is often painful, and it takes great courage to step into the unknown. The temptation is always there for a character to stay in the safe yet dysfunctional comfort zone: to settle for less while trying to ignore the hole created by an unmet need.
If you need help understanding what unmet needs an emotional wound might create, just check out the entries in The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. In fact, here’s an example of a wounding event right from the book: Accidentally Killing Someone.
If you want to access a tool that helps you plan an unbelievably strong character arc based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Unmet Needs, try One Stop for Writers’ Character Motivation Thesaurus.
Do you know your character’s unmet need? How does it drive them toward their goal? Let me know in the comments!
ANGELA ACKERMAN is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of six bestselling resources including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. A proud indie author, her books are available in six languages, are sourced by universities, and used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers ®, as well as One Stop For Writers®, an innovative online library filled with unique tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.