Without conflict, there is no story. We’ve all heard it a million times. But what fuels the conflict? The unfulfilled need of your protagonist, of course. The need of your protagonist must be deep enough to get you through your entire story. It also has to be something the reader can relate too, otherwise even if it creates tons of conflicts and you can pump out 100,000 words, your reader won’t care and will set the book down.
How do you come up with a need that is relatable? Pick something that is basic to all people. Take a look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, according to Maslow’s theory people have five levels of needs and if one level is not satisfied a person is not going to be able to move forward in their development.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs
Physiological needs: food, water, warmth, rest
Safety needs: security, safety
Belongingness and love needs: intimate relationships, friends
Esteem needs: prestige and feeling of accomplishment
Self-actualization needs: achieving one’s full potential including creative activities.
If your character doesn’t have food, water, warmth and rest, it will be difficult for him to focus on the next level, although they may have needs there as well.
Life is not as straight forward as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would like us to believe. Most people are addressing needs from three or four of these levels at the same time and your characters should be the same.
The protagonist of your story may have physiological needs, belonging and love needs, and self-actualization needs. Having various levels of needs is going to supply you with lots of opportunities for conflict and growth in your character’s arc. Just as important, your reader will be able to identify with these needs and feel strongly about what happens to your protagonist and any other character you supply with a need (and you should your minor characters should have needs just like your major characters).
Identifying your characters needs will make creating a back-story and understanding your character easier for you as well. The more you know about your character the easier it is to keep their actions and responses to conflicts realistic and true to who they are as a person or whatever they happen to be.