My toolbox is woefully inadequate. I’ve got the basics- hammer, a Phillips head and…the other type of screwdriver. There may also be a pliers.
I’d pretend to regret this, but I know myself. Last time I tried to fix the plumbing…well, I don’t really try to fix the plumbing anymore. We’ll leave it at that.
I try to keep my writing ‘tool box’ better stocked. Knowledge of vocabulary, grammar rules, styles of writing, history, random cooking facts- it can look like a jumble, and I don’t use every tool for every job, but having a broad base of information to choose from makes writing easier.
We’ve had good neighbors, willing to share the tools we don’t have on hand.
In the same spirit, I’ve been considering what writing tools I might have on hand that you might find useful.
Today, I’m working on patching up gaps in characters’ motivations.
I’ll warn you up front: I’m no more a psychology expert than I am a plumber.
I took the one (required) Educational Psychology course in college. The theories my professor presented contained a fair amount of common sense, some interesting revelations, and a few things that I took with a grain of salt. (Sometimes several grains…)
Though I can still spout names like “Piaget” and “Vygotsky” and “Erikson” and give a passable summary of their ideas, the one I remember the best (and who has earned a spot in my ‘toolbox’) is Abraham Maslow.
Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” looks something like this:
The basic idea: People have needs. Some needs are more essential than others. If these foundational needs are not met, people can’t move up to try to meet their ‘higher-level’ needs.
For instance, a student is not working up to his potential. He also doesn’t have a safe home environment and is coming to school with an empty stomach. His ‘physiological’ and ‘safety’ needs aren’t being met, so it’s not a surprise that school work (which would likely fit into ‘esteem’ and ‘self-actualization’) isn’t a high priority.
Your heroine nurses a passionate desire to design fancy mosaic belt buckles. However, her society has strict limitations on hiring belt-buckle designers. Being blonde (rather than the preferred brunette) she faces serious hurdles in achieving ‘esteem’ in belt-buckle accomplishments, and ‘self-actualization’ in using her creative gifts.
What if her need for ‘safety’ is also threatened by an impending invasion of her city-state by an army of mutant wombats? If you follow Maslow’s theory, the conflict- being upset about her belt-buckle failures- becomes implausible. She has bigger needs to deal with first. Creativity takes a back seat to rampaging marsupials.
Let’s go a step further.
What if your character is also currently living in a gutter taking care of her younger siblings, starving and most certainly belt-buckle-less? With her basic physical needs unmet, the idea that her main life-goal is centered on fashion design becomes even more unlikely.
Of course, every theory has its exceptions.
Perhaps your character had almost reached her goal before the imminent invasion. Perhaps she was one interview away from securing her longed-for position, when the belt buckle factory was transformed into an armament factory to prepare for the wombat hordes. Perhaps those belt buckles have come to symbolize everything your character has lost.
Or, to go another direction, perhaps her desire to be an artisan has more to do with meeting her basic needs- providing food for her family, and the security of holding a good job- is driving her more than higher level cravings.
In short, I’m not suggesting that we need to tie ourselves to a psychological theory in order to write.
I AM proposing that it is worth keeping ideas like Maslow’s Hierarchy in our writer’s toolbox, ready to hand.
After all, it might be the key to determining our characters’ driving needs, and bringing them to life.
Are there any writing tools you’ve found handy of late?