Why Your Character's Goal Needs to 1 of These 5 Things

Why Your Character’s Goal Needs to Be 1 of These 5 Things

Every story comes down to just one thing. Know what it is? Conflict’s a good guess (“no conflict, no story” and all that), but before a story can offer conflict, it has to first offer something else: desire. In short, story is always going to be about a character’s goal.

In previous posts, we’ve talked about your character’s two conflicting goals, based on the Thing He Needs and the Thing He Wants. Between them, these two desires drive your entire story, pushing and pulling your protagonist and the people around him until they end up in a completely different place from that in which they began the story.

But here’s another question for you: Does it matter what your character wants?

Obviously, a character’s goal has to tie into the plot in a logical way. But there’s more. In order to resonate deeply with your very human audience, your character’s goal needs to be one of five specific things.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Why It Matters to Authors

Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is a theory that suggests all human desires fall into five categories, grouped from basic physical needs to those of self-empowerment and realization: physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, esteem and recognition, and self-actualization.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

According to Maslow, the order of these five needs is also the progression humans must experience as they grow into a better awareness of themselves and the world around them, allowing them to become centered, healthy individuals. Same goes for your character. Your character’s wants and needs–your character’s goal–is going to fall into at least one of those categories, depending on where he currently finds himself in his progression from primal survivor to empowered individual.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the five categories of needs.

1. Physiological

Physiological needs are those essential to human survival. Without these, your character dies. They’re the foundation of the pyramid. If your character has to consciously think about pursuing these needs, then he’s not likely to have the time or energy to devote much thought or effort to those needs higher up on the scale. Physiological needs might include:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Shelter

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s vow to “never be hungry again” is born of her starved search for a root in the ruined fields of Tara at the end of the Civil War.

Scarlett O'Hara Gone With the Wind Vivian Leigh Never Be Hungry Again

2. Safety and Security

Once physiological needs have been met, your character’s goal will most likely evolve into a desire for safety and security for himself and those he cares about. He wants to protect his body, so he doesn’t have to consciously think about his physiological needs. Safety and security needs might include:

  • Protection against assault or injury
  • Adequate money
  • Steady employment
  • Good health
  • Protection of private property

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In The Maze Runner, Alby and the other boys build a sustainable sanctuary in the Glade in order to avoid the lethal Grievers that roam the Maze.

Maze-runner-movie-glade

3. Love and Belonging

Once basic physical needs are met and assured for the foreseeable future, your character will get to focus on his emotional needs and desires. If your character isn’t on the run or trying to keep from getting killed, then he’ll probably be dealing with interpersonal conflict in an attempt to find harmony and fulfillment in his relationships with other people. Love and belonging needs might include:

  • Friendship
  • Romance
  • Intimacy
  • Family

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In Wuthering Heights, every bit of Heathcliff’s lifelong quest for vengeance is based on his burning desire to be loved (especially by Cathy) and to find a sense of belonging in a world that rejected him almost entirely from his childhood onward.

Wuthering Heights BBC Tom Hardy Charlotte Riley Heathcliff Cathy Linton

4. Esteem and Recognition

Once your character has his physical and emotional needs reasonably met, he’s going to start wanting to feel as if who he is and what he does is worthy of respect. We all want to feel as if we’re doing a good job, as if we’re making a difference in the world around us. Otherwise, what’s the point? Your character’s goal in this category may not be immediately quantifiable as a desire for “esteem and recognition.” What readers may end up seeing on the page will be simply his desire to be President, to get someone to buy his invention, or to get an A+ on his history paper. Esteem and recognition needs might include:

  • Independence
  • Compensation
  • Respect
  • Promotion
  • Credit
  • Gratitude
  • Appreciation

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner wants to not just find a job that will allow him and his son to survive, but to become a successful stockbroker.

The Pursuit of Happyness Will Smith Jaden Smith

5. Self-Actualization

Finally, at the tippy-top of that hierarchy of needs is the desire to find and fulfill the deeper meaning in life. Your character wants to do more than just live, he wants to thrive. He wants to reach the full extent of his personal potential. He probably has most of his other needs taken care of, which allows him the time and energy to focus on discovery and creation. Self-actualization needs might include:

  • Higher education
  • Spiritual enlightenment
  • Artistic pursuits
  • Travel and experience
  • Altruistic and charitable contributions to others

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In My Man Godfrey, Godfrey abandons his riches and social position to live first as a hobo and then as butler to another wealthy family, out of a desire to find a purpose in his entitled life.

My Man Godfrey William Powell Carole Lombard

When Your Character’s Needs Overlap

Have you spotted which of the categories into which your protagonist’s story goal fits? It could be his goal actually fits into more than one category. In fact, it’s pretty likely. Life isn’t exactly as neat as Maslow likes to make it look. We may be struggling through any combination of these needs all at the same time. For example, the protagonist in Pursuit of Happyness has a main goal that fits into all the categories except Love and Belonging (and we could maybe even make an argument for that one too).

negative trait thesaurusAs Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi point out in the appendix to their Negative Trait Thesaurus (which includes tons of great examples of goals and motivations for all five categories of needs):

Please note that needs may fit into multiple categories depending upon the character’s motivation. For example, the need to acquire an education could be based on a need for security (if the character’s purpose is to escape a bad neighborhood), esteem (if the goal is being pursued out of desire to prove oneself to others), or self-actualization (if the character is seeking knowledge as a way to become more self-aware).

In many stories, an overlap between the categories can actually be an asset, since it creates multidimensional motivations and goals for your character. But even if your character’s goal only falls into one of these categories, you’ll be able to verify you’ve created a deeply realistic story, one that will resonate on a primal level with readers everywhere.

Tell me your opinion: Which of these five categories does your character’s goal fit into?

Why Your Character's Goal Needs to 1 of These 5 Things

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Rebecca Ramaglia says:

    My character will have an overarching theme of love and belonging because there’s something different about him. He will have a need for safety after his journey begins in which he will need self esteem to grow to overcome.
    His need to belong will change in book two to family instead of friendship and he may switch to the top of the pyramid then.
    I liked this because it puts a few ideas into perspective.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Maslow’s pyramid is great since it gives a ladder for our character’s to climb as they progress through the story.

  2. YoungAuthor says:

    Would a character’s search for vengeance fit under self-actualization?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Always comes back to the character’s motive. With the Heathcliff example I mentioned in the post, his thirst for revenge is largely the result of his need for love and belonging. But it could definitely result from a self-actualization goal as well.

    • spacechampion says:

      I think no. Vengeance is an interpretation of Justice, which is derived from a need for Security.

      I’ve been creating my own version of the Table of Elements that the Dramatica system of story uses, and mine is based on both Maslow’s Hierarchy as well as personality trait theories such as Big 5 and Myers-Brigg. Dramatica’s table requires way too much mental gymnastics to fit to a story for my taste. I would be interested in what you think about it, Kate!

      Mine is hosted here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1fNacEg_QUuF3U349zOYoBtmEaIgqYNT1z9HZyW_LU4eBxRGLOcqpVlSrEdOAyq6BNqRc-bJr6kUGqgZo/view?usp=sharing

      I’d say there are actually 16 categories of motivations, divided into the 4 domains of Identity, Knowledge, Sensation and Security. I could write a book on what I think I’ve discovered.

  3. I wonder which of the categories gets revenge? It is often portrayed as a kind of destructive passion, which eventually brings no real benefit, but nevertheless, it can be a very powerful engine of the plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As I mentioned in the previous comment, it really comes down the character’s reason for wanting revenge. If it’s a crime of passion, then it’s probably and a love and belonging thing.

  4. What a great post for helping us discern a character’s needs, motivation and goals. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs presented in a discussion but it’s something we addressed years ago when I worked in a corporate training department.

    I can see how it’s an excellent tool for writers when applied as you have.

    Thanks again,
    Rich

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a great tool for life in general. It can really help us see our lives and our own goals in perspective. So it translates well to fiction. Thanks for reading!

  5. Great article, Katie. I’m certainly getting a lot of overlapping character needs in my current WIP (Tracking Jane series). It makes for a very fun and challenging story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Humans are complicated. Sometimes our reasons for doing things are so complicated we can’t even sort out what they are. So it’s great when we can reflect a little of that complexity in our characters as well.

  6. Sally Ynki says:

    What if my character’s goal is to redeem something for his people? In all of his journey, he rarely lays his goal for himself, can it be counted as a self-actualization or sonething else?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like maybe a love and belonging goal. But it really depends on the character’s motivation. Even if he’s doing a selfless act, there has to be a personal reason why he’s doing it.

  7. I really liked how you pointed out that each of the levels are, or could be, a progression from one to the next. So if a character started out with the foundation level, through the story he can work upward through each of the levels. It kind of lays out almost like a goal structure, depending on the story of course. That was really helpful to see it put that way. Thanks.

  8. I always found Maslow’s pyramid to be a bit simplistic, but it’s an excellent place to start. One way I like to use it is with the Psychosis: whereby a person treats non-physiological ideals as more important than physiological needs. A person who has a phobia will treat that particular situation as more important than food and drink, even if they’re starving and dehydrated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point. Personal priorities can definitely outweigh the hierarchy here and in very interesting ways.

      • I think Dyego was saying that someone may value the “levels” in a different order than Maslow presents them.

  9. thomas h cullen says:

    Here’s a deepest of ironies: relative to the list on offer, the goal of The Representative is arguably about what’s the least meaningful, yet relative to its own “literal” context is in fact the most profound, and inspirational.

    (Side note: just saw Gone Girl……thought that had some of its story content’s core components been utilised differently, it could’ve been a far better movie.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There really is no “least” meaningful when it comes to a story. Whatever the story is about is most meaningful within that context.

  10. I think that my character’s main goal is “love and belonging,” but she doesn’t know that she needs those things yet. And I think in the revision I have to take the story further, it kind of leaves off with her attaining that goal, but I cannot see her moving up the pyramid at all.

  11. My YA WIP is about how teenagers react to social economic changes in their high school when their teachers go on strike. I knew that the story revolved around self-actualization (discovery of their viewpoints and moral compass in comparison to their friends, teachers, and parents). However, moving down the list I realized my characters will also discover esteem, love/belonging, and probably even safety.

    Thanks for pointing out the layers I might have missed in my description. This will add a complexity to really help “flesh” my characters out.

  12. One of my MCs is looking for safety and security – he has been kidnapped and wants to escape.

    However, this goal only comes into position when he gets kidnapped as the Inciting Event about a quarter of the way through the book. Before then, I have no idea what his motivations are. I’m trying to get this sorted before November as I had planned to make him a big part of my novel. :\

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A good way of figuring this out is to consider what your character will learn during his kidnapping. How will those realizations and skills allow him to bring the story full circle in the end by achieving something for himself that he wouldn’t have been able to do at the beginning?

      • Right–and fundamental to that is the question of how the character’s life is less than perfect at the start of the novel. He may not have been kidnapped yet, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t in some sense trapped, and it doesn’t mean he has everything he wants.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, it’s great (optimal) when the initial situation is really just a smaller but similar problem to the one the character will encounter later on.

  13. This is a really smart post. When I speak on conflict and tension at writing conferences, one of the first things I do is walk unimpeded from my spot in the front of the room to the door. That, of course, is a somewhat less than riveting story, because there are no obstacles in my way.

    Then we reimagine the situation were everyone in the audience to stand in my way. Then we have an obstacle, and we *seem* to have conflict. But then–what if I’m not trying to get to the door? What if I’m just sitting around reading a book?

    And the lesson is that conflict is not about the obstacles. It’s about me wanting to leave. It’s about your character and their wants and needs. Without that, nothing is genuinely a source of conflict–not even a nuclear apocalypse. (Because what does a nuclear apocalypse matter if your character already has all their wants and needs met in their kickass fallout shelter?)

  14. Christopher Granholm says:

    My character begins with the goal of Esteem and Recognition in mind, but as he goes on his journey, it becomes one of Self-Actualization; as he grows, his main motivation goes from selfishness to selflessness.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great example of how that progression works. There’s nothing morally wrong with any of these needs, but we can definitely show the moral progression of a character as he works his way up the ladder.

  15. pzmela reese says:

    Once my protagonist accepts his journey, he is working toward goals in the top of the pyramid…however, along the way he will acquire things he didn’t realize he needed/desired like friendship and love. Life is more interesting when it is complicated and multi-faceted.

    Great piece as always, KM. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Sophia Zervas says:

    This is such a timely and thought-provoking post—thank you! Is it illogical to have a protagonist pursuing a higher goal when the fundamental levels are being threatened? In my WIP, my protagonist wants to build a successful career as a classical pianist, which embodies his desire for political freedom and a place of love and belonging. Thus, he assimilates with the Nazis in an attempt to sidestep the political conflict of 1940s Warsaw. Ultimately, he has to stand on principle by embracing his spiritual and cultural heritage, even though doing so threatens the more primal levels of fulfillment.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not necessarily. If he’s simultaneously ignoring his more fundamental needs, that may not make sense. But a quest for something higher than the immediate need can be a sign of a character trying to raise himself above the psychological oppresssion of his current circumstances.

  17. Pam Portland says:

    Of course, with NaNo top of mind, I am thinking about the characters who will be taking on life in the coming weeks. I can clearly see my protagonist closing in on Loving/Belonging and hopefully making it to Esteem by the time November is over (my November, not the character’s November). Does the distance the character travels up the pyramid add to the intensity/quality of the work? Does a smaller step require a greater back story or character history to make the advancement seem more impactful?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      To one degree or another, life and death are always at stake in a story. The higher up the scale, the less the character is threatened physically, but the more he has at stake personally. So any of these needs can present an intense story. Backstory always influences the readers’ perception of the character, but how much you need to include ultimately depends on the specific needs of your story.

  18. Bethani Christie says:

    My basic plot is one of striving toward love and belonging but in order to reach it, my character has to go through each level except self actualization. This is a really good post. It has me wondering if he struggle to fulfill the hierarchy and the failures that results could make up mini conflicts that somehow culminate to make the big conflict.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. Each progression up the ladder is, in essence, a goal and conflict unto itself, even though each contributes to the larger ultimate goal.

  19. Hi K.M., I’ve got a question: in the snowflake method (I bet you know it), the “goals” of this article coincide with “goals”, “ambitions” or “values”?

    Thanks for this useful article!

  20. Thanks for this article K M Weiland! This has really helped me narrow down on my character and discover what she wants out of life. I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time and you have given me a tool to help me with this process. Thanks again for this wonderful post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s excellent! The character’s ultimate goal is what has to be at the heart of his story. If we can figure that out, we’ve got half the story already!

  21. Hi! I’m a young teen entering a short story writing contest across America. I want my story to be about a girl who loves to play softball. Her grandma passes away though and she feels very depressed. With the support of her teamates though, she plays the sport she lives again and finds herself stronger than ever before. She will always remember her grandma, but she will never be brought down again and lose sight of her dreams. I think the falls under one of these categories. Also, I love you blog so much it is very helpful! One day, I hope to publish award winning novels just like you. I would really appreciate it if you could email me or something, with advice on how to find an agency tk send your work in. Again, thank tou so much and I love your work!!!!

  22. I am writing a short story in which the main character’s goal is to simply be remembered after he and everyone he knows and loves has died. I’m not sure if that fits into the esteem or self actualization part of the pyramid.

  23. Nicolle Rosette says:

    Hi I just wanted to mention that you stated the wrong actor for the movie The Pursuit of Happyness. The actor is actually Will Smith and not Chris Gardner.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Chris Gardner is actually the name of the real-life man portrayed by Will Smith in the movie. 🙂

  24. Can the character have more than one of these goals?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. Think about your own life and how you may hold any number of these goals at the same time.

  25. dudester says:

    the more basic and primal, the better, I’d say. need for air or water or food is much more powerful than the need for being accepted as a member of the Chewbacca Chewie Community Club for Common Cyan Cardboard Crocodiles.

  26. Good stuff here. Very helpful.

  27. My character Amelia wants to help people, and Samantha wants to protect her city and the people she loves, and they are completely different since Amelia just rounds up the bad guys and lets the police arrest them, and Samantha kills and tortures them, but at the same time, enjoys doing it.

  28. My character is the soul of a dead woman who is reincarnated, and she is trying to prevent the person who she inhabits not to make the mistakes she had made previously, as well as righting the selfish acts by helping others. I was struggling with the goal, but I would say it would be purpose in life/ altruistic.
    What are your thoughts??

  29. Great article! My protagonist needs to forgive himself about something, before he can allow himself to progress to love again. Would I be right in assuming that would come under the headings of esteem/safety/belonging?

  30. K.m.,

    My main character Leilani who is a mermaid princess who has visions in the co-author book. Does help people who are sick with the yellow death they have in the book. How much to do pace in your books. I am hoping to do five books total.

  31. Ms Albina says:

    K.m.,

    My main characters are Leilani who is a mermaid princess who has visions in the co-author book and Zane who becomes her protector who is also a prince and a merman to. She does help people who are sick with the yellow death they have in the book. Eventually they become immortal. How much to do pace in your books? I am hoping to do five books total.

  32. Ms Albina says:

    K.M. Thank you. I bought your book and I like it. The other one has not come yet. In your outlining your novel workbook -Do you have to you the four temperaments? I mean for my characters. The mermaid is headstrong and sometimes stubborns and she is the oldest twin in her family because she has anidentical twin sister and a younger sister. Leilani also wants to be loves too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying the book. And, no, you don’t have to do any of the sections in the workbooks that you don’t feel are right for you.

  33. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says:

    My characters goal fits into and overlaps in all of them, except for physiological (which he had before the story started, since his current situation was brought on by him nearly drowning! he survived that, so now he’s got to deal with the rest I guess!)

    My child character from my other WIP mostly falls into Safety and Love/Belonging.

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