Sunday, January 27, 2008

Maslow's Hierachy of Needs

I was thinking about Maslow's Hierachy of Needs the other day and how we can incorporate it our writings.

Characters are basically humans who live in the writer’s head. Yeah, I know, schizophrenic, weird, whatever. But they do. The writer visits them each day, talks to them, gets to know them. She invites them to dinner, interviews them, even cries with them. It’s at this point that they become real to her. This is where the real psychology comes in, and that doesn’t include taking the blue pills.

Abraham Maslow invented the Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs in 1950-1960. It basically lists the things we, as humans, need to survive.

1. Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.
2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.
3. Belongingness and Love needs - work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.
4. Esteem needs - self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
5. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

In order to bring that human element over into the character, she must first have her biological needs met. She needs to eat, drink, breath in order to reach the second level of humanity which is safety. If she’s in Freddy Kruger’s house and he’s hunting her, then she might not worry about the belonging and loved level. Instead, she will want to feel and be safe. So until she feels safe, she can’t move onto the next level, being loved.

Before moving on, let’s talk about what everyone loves to either ignore or over do, the fear factor.

Perhaps this is a great time to create conflict and sympathy for the character. She can breath, eat, and drink water, but the bad guy is stalking her through the alley. At this point, she needs to feel protected someway. Protection can come from formal training, a garbage can used as a weapon, a phone to call the police or a hero. But she must feel protected. At this point, the reader must be alerted to that protection for her to believe the character will survive. I.E. The character (Alice) is a martial arts expert. The writer must relay this fact to the reader through foreshadowing. Example: Alice runs a martial arts school or she is the teacher’s best student. Then when the bad guy comes after Alice, she can use those arts on the bad guy.

BUT there is still the question of does Alice feel safe? Probably not. All humans feel fear at one time or another. Fear is simply the fight or flight stage. It tells the body, you are in danger, do something. It is a chain reaction that comes from the brain. The brain releases chemicals into the body. The heart races faster, breathing is quicker and the muscles are energized. This gives us the fight or flight mentality. We can either raise the sword and fight or run like mad, which of course depends on the training or if she decides to try to fight.

Fear is created in the unconscious mind. There are two paths fear must take to reach the human brain. The low road, which is a quick response and the high road, which takes more time and interprets the events.

The low road means, I won’t take a chance. It’s late at night and a shutter bangs against the side of the house. The mind says, mmm . . . It could be the wind or it could be a ghost. It’s better to think it’s a ghost and hide, thus being safe, then it is to think, it could be the wind, when it’s a ghost and the person is now in danger. Thus Alice WILL be afraid because her mind is taking the low road. The human mind will ALWAYS think the worse before it thinks the best. It’s a ghost, not the wind, thus protecting itself from the ghost. Even if Alice is trained in ten martial arts and has never lost a fight, she will automatically think the worse, it’s a ghost at the door, or someone is trying to get in. She will automatically get the fear rush: the beating heart, fast breathing, tensed muscles.

This is why Friday the 13th movies are so popular. There is such deep Character Penetration into the second level of Maslow’s HN that we, the audience, feel the same fear reactions as the character. We feel her fear as seen in the racing heart, fast breathing, tensed muscles. That’s why people scream and jump in their theater seats when Jason pops out of the woods. We are there with the girl as Jason stalks her and we feel what she feels.

The high road, which is going on at the same time that Alice is running for the phone, is the senses relaying the banging shutter to Alice’s brain. The brain sends the information to the sensory cortex where it shuffles through the information, looking for an interpretation. If it determines there could be a second interpretation for the banging shutter, it sends this information to another section of the brain, who asks, have I heard this banging before? Can I match this to another instance? Are there other sounds/sights that might explain the banging on the side of the house? The other senses give this section of the brain other information. It is storming outside. The rain is hitting the side of the house and the wind just pushed the garbage can down the street. Whew!! It’s just the wind and not a ghost, the brain says. It shuts off the flight or fight stimulus. This process takes a bit longer which is why it takes longer to calm down. Problem is now eliminated and Alice is happy. That is until Jason jumps from the shadows and cuts off her head. :)

So it’s impossible to have a character who has no fear whatsoever. There will be something, a beating of the heart, breathlessness, maybe even a bit of confusion at first. Maybe the character will yell, or give orders, seem tense, but alert. Something WILL happen. That’s when the brain kicks in and tells the body, you can handle this, you have the training. Get over it and fight. Or run like a madman.

The traits of fear are

  • heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible
  • veins in skin constrict to send more blood to major muscle groups (responsible for the
  • "chill" sometimes associated with fear -- less blood in the skin to keep it warm)
  • blood-glucose level increases
  • muscles tense up, energized by adrenaline and glucose (responsible for goose bumps --
  • when tiny muscles attached to each hair on surface of skin tense up, the hairs are forced upright, pulling skin with them)
  • smooth muscle relaxes in order to allow more oxygen into the lungs
  • nonessential systems (like digestion and immune system) shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions
  • trouble focusing on small tasks (brain is directed to focus only on big picture in order to determine where threat is coming from)
All of this is instinct. Every animal, from birds to fish to humans, will respond the same way. Fight or flight.

Humans have what is called Anticipation when it comes to being afraid. Alice anticipates that the banging outside is a ghost or Jason. This is caused by conditioning. Alice may have been conditioned from childhood that banging noises mean bad people. She may have heard a scary story from a childhood friend or seen Friday the 13th on TV. Example: I was watching one of those “haunting” stories on TV. A woman and her family lived in a ‘haunted’ house. She claimed to have heard voices and even taped some of the voices on a tape recorder. Then one day, she was vacuuming and the cord popped from the wall. Because of her past experience in the house, she was convinced the ghost unplug the cord. Did it? Doubtful. But her mind is now conditioned to conclude a ghost did unplug the cord. So her mind sent the picture of the cord unplugging, added it to her past experience and concluded the ghost unplugged the cord.

So it’s impossible to have Alice be Zena, Princess Warrior while having no formal fight training. She isn’t going to walk into the enemy’s camp, her eyes gleaming and tapping her sword in the palm of her hand. She isn’t going to calmly say, “Zoric, today you will die.” Yeah, right. More than likely, her heart will increase beating, her palms will sweat and she will have rapid breathing. Her digestive system will shut down, which explains the butterflies in the belly. Her mind will be thinking fight or flight. She might say, Zoric, today you die, but not without the physical side effects. In fact, walking into an enemy camp is not only stupid, it’s unrealistic.

But Zena can push her fear aside as can Zoric, which will allow her to walk into the village and fight. Instinct will kick in, but if controlled, they will survive. So what do Zoric and Zena do? They train each day. They mentally attack their enemy regularly and use the fear in their training. They mentally and physically practice to the point where they are able to use the fear instead of it using them. Both people are still afraid, but have found a way, by training and teachers, to use it for his/her advantage. But this takes practice and normal Alice, who has no practice, will not be able to be as Zoric or Zena. She will freeze, cry, have sweaty palms and run from the fight, while Zoric will be afraid, but will use it in his attack. Again, this must foreshadowed in the story. Make the reader aware that Zoric has the training to fight Zena. Don’t confuse the reader by having him suddenly defend himself from Zena without knowing what he is capable of doing. Readers get a bit testy when things are sprung on them with no explanation.

As for the other levels of Maslow’s ladder, we, as writers, should have no problem bringing Alice to the next level, then the next and finally to self-awareness. It’s fear that we fear. Perhaps it goes back to the old saying, big boys don’t cry. And only babies are afraid. We fear being afraid. It makes Alice and the writer seem weak. Weakness is bad so we must be strong. But again, being afraid is being human, so we must allow our characters to be human if humans are to understand them.

The best example of human fear is seen in the 9/11 attacks. Here is a video of Bob and Bri and their accounts of that day. Notice the fear in Bri’s voice and how she’s afraid for her and her family. Notice the video of people running away. This is fear in it’s rawest form. Here’s another example.
again, listen to the people’s voices. Here’s one more.

Notice when the towers fall, there is no Conaan the Barbarian or Zena, Princess Warrior in the group. All you hear is people screaming in the streets, then they begin to run. The only Conaans and Zenas were the people who were trained, the firemen and cops. This is human nature, this is what you need to achieve in your writing. Humans being humans.

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