Writers in the Storm

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September 21, 2018

What’s Stronger Than Your Character’s Fear? Their Unmet Need

Angela Ackerman

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!

About Angela

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.

31 comments on “What’s Stronger Than Your Character’s Fear? Their Unmet Need”

  1. Very timely, as I'm trying to ramp up the conflicts for my h/h in the current WIP. As a "planster" I'm at about 13K words and still in the discovery stage.

  2. This post was especially relevant to my WIP - my MC is an abusive narcissist. Shame and Fear of loss/abandonment has led him to manipulate and control in relationships. In your essay you mentioned "being sent away" which was a circumstance he experienced as a child. This book is a sequel to The Sleeping Serpent which details his abuse. In the next book my challenge is to relay his spiritual journey and efforts to overcome this affliction. I have been unsure whether he can transform... Most mental health professionals say he cannot. But I have hope for this character.

    1. Narcissism is definitely a challenge to deal with because the character's condition is such that they believe and there IS nothing wrong with them, and it is simply that other people do not recognize their brilliance, talents, and value...and this is THEIR problem. But, I do believe that anyone can be redeemed, so I say keep digging and see what lies beneath all the layers of hurt where narcissism has become the emotional shielding for. If they can see that their gas-lighting actions and manipulation will not get them what they want most, if they want that thing bad enough, they will be forced to grow and change to obtain it. Good luck!

  3. Nice to see you here, Angela. Your one-stop-for-writers site is invaluable to me as are your comprehensive reference books. I do have a question - I find writers often select needs way down on the hierarchy - safety, survival, even love - kidnapped child, loss of job, threatened by a bear, etc. but rarely see a discussion of the higher-levels particularly the squishy one of "self actualization" - I think it may be because we're always advised to create a goal for our POV character that we can SEE, nothing abstract, it must be concrete so we know when she/he has achieved it. However, in my previous training as a psychologist, I know it's pretty damn hard to make self actualization concrete - any ideas?

      1. I agree, we often see other needs outshine Self-Actualization. But you can make them more concrete with thought because the GOAL is concrete. Imagine a retired police detective who spent his life serving the public, protecting and seeking justice for those in his city. And then one day, his neighbor's kid is on the sidewalk making chalk drawings and is run down by a diplomat who had too much to drink at lunch. The diplomat, powerful and connected, gets out of any charges. The grieving father is devastated, knowing no one will be held accountable. The cop talks to the father and learns of what happened, and he just can't stomach this outcome. He feels compelled to act. In fact, he must do something to bring this man to justice because being a cop wasn't just a job--it was part of his identity. And so even if it means risking hardship, injury or death, he must go after the diplomat and ensure he pays for the crime. His goal is this: put the man in jail for what he did.

        In this case, self-actualization is his unmet need because if he ignores this situation, he will never be able to look himself in the mirror again.

        I hope this helps!

    1. You are indeed right that often stories are built around the other needs. In the real world, self-actualization is often "sacrificed" for other needs - it is more critical to pay for Jimmy's braces than to go on a writer's retreat or we stick with a job that pays the family's bills instead of leaving everything behind and traveling the world and broadening our knowledge of other cultures and interests. I think this is often why you see other needs be more prevelent in literature.

  4. This is a great post, Angela. Like Maggie Smith said, as writers we're taught GMC. I really like the "need" you brought up. I'd say this is Bridget: "A fear of trusting the wrong person after a betrayal keeps Mary from seeking love. Bridget must learn to trust again--especially her ex-fiance who let her down.

    Adam has a need, too: After letting down Bridget and his son, he has a need to redeem himself and prove he can be a worthy husband and father. Did I do this right? Any tips from you would be most helpful.

    And yes, I LOVE One Stop for Writers, too. I've been a member for over a year.

  5. I am deep into my MC yearning - the need to feel belongingness and dealing with the fear of abandonment. In reply to Maggie Smith - I use inner dialog. My novels are not genre and are not fast paced. Think Stoner by John Williams, or James Salter or even Philip Roth for angst and the need to forgive oneself and overcome shame.

    1. Luna, I hope you found this helpful then. 🙂 It is really so important for us to get into the character's head and understand the "why" behind how they behave. When we do, we can make sure that all their actions, choices, etc. line up with who they are, and readers will always be able to navigate the story through the POV character's eyes. 🙂

  6. Your information is right in so many ways. I saw that in a woman I met. She inspired my latest two novels. Because of the treatment from her alcoholic father (safety) she ran away. While she solved her safety concerns, for 30 years she struggled with love and self respect issues. Her problems became problems for her family and friends.

  7. This is wonderful stuff Angela, and I love Maslowe. I have to look out of the corner of my eye at it, though. As a pantser, the hard mechanics aren't of use to me - but the philosophy sure helps my writing! Thank you.

  8. This post was very helpful. In my WIP, my heroine's fear and unmet need is solid. I'm struggling with nailing down my hero's. I made some progress this morning while walking the dog and chatting with my friend about it. Coming home and reading this is helping to bring it all into focus. Thanks!

  9. Angela, this is super timely for me too. I'm writing my high-risk pregnancy memoir and I am working hard to step outside myself and incorporate Maslow's hierarchy into the story. Just staying alive through blood clots, being told not to have a baby, the emotional arc of having a dangerous pregnancy (life vs. child) - it's all inherent in this story and I want to tell it in the best way I can.

  10. This is so relevant to what I'm writing now! Thank you, thank you, thank you. You've got my mind churning through character issues and making some crucial decisions for this WIP.

  11. My character's unmet need--realizing she can survive on her own. Make her own success. It's okay if the men she chooses are the wrong ones...as long as she learns from it. She can make her own decisions, find a job on her own, and survive. And if Mr. Wrong turns out to be Mr. Right, she can choose that, too. As long as she doesn't sacrifice herself in the process. We're working on that last part.


    1. Sometimes thinking in terms of the unmet need really clarifies for us the lesson our character must learn. And once we know this we can show the patterned of flawed thinking that keeps the character stuck and then the slow transformation to the realization of what will free them from this. Very glad the post helped!

  12. Hi Angela - Sorry I'm a bit late commenting, but I have to say, 'The Emotional Wound Thesaurus' is one of my go to craft books. Why? Because it fits so well with Lisa Cron's 'Story Genius'. You've saved me a lot of time wracking my brain, coming up with a misbelief (and the turning points, not to mention scene ideas) for my five POV characters in the new series I've just started writing. So, thanks!

    1. That's so terrific! And yes, I think Story Genius and The EWT are good partners. Lisa was so terrific and gave the book an amazing endorsement - we both can see how the content of our books work nicely together, and it's just not an area where there's a lot of exploration. Lisa's book is a great writing guide--I recommend people grab it all the time. 🙂

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