I assume you’re familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If not, you can check out the Wikipedia entry on it here. Simply put, it’s a psychological theory that details the things people need to live happy, healthy, productive lives. It’s often portrayed as a pyramid, with our most primal needs (food, water, health) towards the bottom and our more complex needs (self-esteem, creativity, respect) towards the top.
I’ve been using Maslow’s pyramid in my creative writing classes the last few semesters to talk about conflict. If your character is fighting for something on this pyramid, I tell my students, you have a conflict that matters, a conflict based on universal human needs. If not, I tell them, most people probably won’t care about your character’s plight.
This idea is pretty tidy, and it provides me, a teacher, with a neat little entry point into thinking about conflict, but as the semester progresses, I’ll let my students know that conflict in fiction is really much more complex.
I try to develop my students’ understanding of conflict by pairing Maslow’s pyramid with something a little weightier, like the speech William Faulkner gave when he accepted his Nobel Prize. In that speech (which you can read here), Faulkner tells young writers that there’s just one thing worth writing about: “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Deep human conflict, Faulkner knew, isn’t just about finding food or morality or safety or love. It’s about finding food or morality or safety or love at the expense of something else.
If you have a character who’s fighting for intimacy, that’s fine. But most readers won’t find that fight very interesting unless at some point the character is presented with a terrible choice.
Take Huck Finn.
Will he choose friendship by continuing to hide Jim as they float down the Mississippi (this need would fit under the love/belonging section of Maslow’s pyramid)? Or will Huck do what his society expects him to do and turn Jim in (and this need would fit under esteem)?
Huck doesn’t need just one thing. He needs two things, or three things, or twenty things. His story really takes off when he’s forced to choose which of his needs he will fulfill and which of his needs he will abandon.
Huck, we sense, can’t get everything he needs. And that’s the key. Powerful conflicts in fiction often place one of Maslow’s needs in direct opposition with another.
Interesting conflicts, then, aren’t necessarily about the battle between good and evil. They’re about the battle between our own human needs. Will we pursue safety or self-actualization? Will we choose belonging or esteem?
If your character wants one thing off of Maslow’s pyramid, that’s good. If your character wants two things of off that pyramid and will have to choose one over the other, that’s better.