What do you do when your work-in-progress novel has a fleshed-out main character, a cohesive plot, and a compelling premise … but you just aren't interested anymore?
This week's post is inspired by a recent conversation I had with one of my readers who is currently knee-deep in writing a captivating story, but just lost motivation to finish it. After we talked, she became re-inspired to finish it, which is awesome—now I'll get to find out how her story ends!
Why You Lost Interest in the First Place
Why would you lose interest in a story, even if you know what happens next? In other words, if your plot isn't the problem, what is?
Let's look at some of the symptoms:
You don't especially like your main character (MC) anymore
You just got a new story idea that seems a lot more appealing
You can't bring yourself to write another word
Sound like you?
If you've lost interest in your MC, your story is never going to get finished. You just can't force yourself (or your character) to finish a novel that you don't like.
The good news is that you can get interested in your MC again. So interested that you won't be able to stop writing about them!
And, even better, it's a simple fix that probably won't take longer than five minutes to apply.
Let's look at how.
Five Kinds of Motivation
Believe it or not, your MC should want things in a certain order. Human beings prioritize their needs in a certain way. When your character fails to prioritize her motivations correctly, she will seem weak, whiney, or robotic.
But if you make sure your MC wants things in the right order, your MC will instantly seem more believable and—even better—likable. And you, the author, will actually care about them again!
There are five categories of needs that human beings have, according to Maslow's theory (which has the intimidating title of "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs"). These needs fall in a particular order of priority, starting with the most basic needs and escalating into more complex desires.
It goes like this …
1. Physical needs: Are your character’s physical needs met? Food, water, shelter? If not, as a human being, she will be absolutely driven to take care of those first. Nobody wants a cup filled to brim with gold dust when they’re dying of thirst.
2. Safety/Security: If #1 is already taken care of, does your main character feel secure or safe? In other words, is her home secure from danger? Does she have a reliable source of income, either from a job or from a guardian? Is she healthy? Are her loved ones safe? If the answer to any of these is “no,” than she will be driven to find a solution no matter what—it’s universal to all character types.
3. Love/Belonging: If #1-2 is already taken care of, does your main character have any meaningful relationships? Once a person is provided for and secure, they start wanting meaningful relationship with others—family, friendships, or romance. If they don’t have any relationships, or simply have bad ones, they’ll be highly motivated to find some. They’ll look for a friend, or a lover, or a father/mother figure—and they won’t stop until they find one.
4. Self-Esteem: If #1-3 is already taken care of, does your main character have self-respect or esteem? If not, they’ll do whatever it takes to either like themselves again or numb the pain, and their choices in this area will be defining moments for them as a character.
5. Self-Actualization: If #1-4 is already taken care of, does your main character have a sense of greater purpose? If not, they will start looking for answers to the point of their life—either exploring Christianity or trying to fill the void some other way by learning philosophy or spiritualism. This drive is only strong once levels 1-4 are fully taken care of, though. We’re talking richy-rich, already-got-it-all characters who need a deeper sense of belonging or meaning. Most people already have this taken care of even if levels 1-4 are unfulfilled, which is why you don’t often see this particular motivation in characters.
If you can pinpoint what your character needs based on these five levels of motivation, you’ll find what your mind has been searching for—the fuel to finish your story.
But there's more to it than that.
How to Apply This to Your Characters
Take a hard look at your main character's motivation. What is her precise motivation right now? Then figure out where it falls in the hierarchy—is it under 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5? Then look at what she has already. Does she need something more basic than what she's wanting right now? If so, you need to scrap her current motivation in favor of the more basic one.
For example, if your character currently has a desire for love/belonging, but she's also supposed to be starving to death, she is acting unnaturally. A character will always prioritize finding food over looking for love, period!
One of the reasons you may not really like your character could be her unnatural desires. She wants something more "advanced" while her more basic needs go unfulfilled—making her robotic, inhumane … cardboard. And nobody, not even an author, likes a cardboard character.
"What if I just give her the more basic needs so that she can still want the advanced things?"
You can, but why would you do that? You worked hard to give your character a disadvantage, a difficult life—conflict. And conflict is the one thing you should never destroy in your story.
So be careful about giving your character a desire in categories 4 and 5. Her life must be pretty perfect if she's sitting around trying to improve her self-esteem. She's never hungry, she lives in a gated community with low crime rates, and she already has all the family, friends, and romance she could want.
Of course, if you are writing a story about a rich, spoiled, yet depressed kid who needs more meaning in life, then go for it. Read the book of Ecclesiastes for inspiration. It's a viable plotline—a character who has it all, yet recognizes the vanity of life. BUT if your character has a less-than-perfect life, make sure their desire falls as low on that pyramid as possible.
What about variety? What if you want to give your story some dimension?
Vary the Needs of Your Characters
Stories are about more than one motivation. There's more to life than just hunger. Or security. Or relationship.
But according to the hierarchy of needs, your character is only going to want something in one "level" … which seems a little flat.
So what do you do—break the theory by giving your character an unnatural, more advanced motivation while their basic needs go unmet?
Well, no, of course not.
To create a layered story with multiple categories of motivation, have different characters need different types of things!
The best stories will cover all 5 categories of motivation by distributing the needs among different characters and drawing them all together. This gives the story a rich, full palette of emotion and depth.
Let's use an example to flesh this out.
Hero is wasting his life away on the family farm. He has everything he needs—abundant food, a safe home, a caring family and plenty of friends. He even has a healthy dose of self-esteem. But he finds himself wanting more in life—a purpose. He embarks on an adventure to join a Noble Cause.
Okay, stop the reel. So far, my painfully obvious exposition has clearly laid out the terms: the hero's motivation falls under category 5, self-actualization. He's basically a rich, spoiled kid with no direction in life who wants to get a slice of the action and find his purpose. It's a decent, believable story, and he seems human enough, but the story needs more flavor. Let's add another layer to it.
Along the way, Hero meets Ally. Unlike Hero, Ally doesn't care about high ideals—he just needs to pay off the bounty on his head so he can sleep at night. Ally knows that the Noble Cause is willing to pay him well, so he joins the fight long enough to earn his reward.
All right, pause again. The story is getting a little more interesting. We've got category 5 in our hero, and now there's another character who wants category 2: safety/security. Note that neither character wants what the other does—Hero doesn't care about money, because he's lived his whole life in safety and security; Ally doesn't care about self-actualization, because he's too busy just trying to live past next week. With both kinds of motivation in one story, we have more complexity. But for a well-rounded story, we can add even more categories.
In the pursuit of the Noble Cause, Hero and Ally find and rescue Love Interest, a leader of the Cause. Love Interest has lived most of her life in wealth, safety, and deeper meaning, living in pursuit of her purpose—leading the Noble Cause. In her pursuit of the Noble Cause, she has given up her privileged life in exchange for a greater purpose. As a result, she finds herself in need of life's basics—physical needs, safety from harm, and meaningful relationships—at different times in the story, depending on where the adventure takes her, but she never loses her sense of purpose.
Now we have a complex story, filled with all five categories of motivation among the three main characters. You may recognize the story by now (Star Wars).
Do you see how a layered story handles many types of human needs without forcing a single character to represent all of them at once? Star Wars never makes a character want something more advanced than his most basic need. Each character's motivation evolves as the story progresses … in the proper order. For example, there are times when Luke Skywalker fulfills his need for self-actualization—for example, at the end of Empire Strikes Back, he's found his purpose as a Jedi—but gains a more basic need in the process—he loses his best friend, Han Solo, giving him a category 3 need again.
If you can apply this one technique, you will ground your characters in humanity so firmly that you—and your readers—will fall in love with them all over again. It's that easy, and it's that hard, as Neil Gaiman would put it.
Do you have questions about how to apply these principles to your story? Can you see how Maslow's theory applies to other well-written stories? Are you struggling to find where your character's motivation falls in the hierarchy of needs? Let's chat in the comments!