How Morals and Basic Needs Influence a Character’s Positive Traits

by Becca Puglisi, @BeccaPuglisiBecca Puglisi 2

 Since Angela Ackerman and I wrote our last book, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writers Guide to Character Attributes, I’ve been thinking a lot about personality traits and how they’re formed. Flaws are incredibly important for a character to have—and, let’s be honest: they’re really interesting to read about. But one of the main reasons we fall in love with characters is because we want them to succeed, to achieve their goals and overcome their flaws; this is where the positive attributes come in. The fact is, every character needs both positive and negative traits, and these traits need to be chosen thoughtfully.

When it’s time to create your character and figure out what his traits will be, you should take into account many factors that influence their development: genetics, upbringing and caregivers, past wounds, environment, peers—all of these things absolutely cause certain traits to organically emerge for a character. (For more information on how these factors influence trait development, please see this post on the topic.) Today, I’d like to zero in on what I believe are the two biggest influencers on trait formation: morality and basic needs.

Morality

Every character—protagonist, villain, sidekick, mentor, etc.—lives by a moral code. His beliefs about right and wrong are deeply embedded in his psyche and will influence his decisions, day-to-day actions, the way he treats people, how he spends his free time—they will impact every area of his life, including his personality. A character will only embrace traits that in some way align with his moral beliefs. Because of this, it’s crucial that we know what our characters believe and value in order to figure out which qualities will define him.

Take, for example, Zack Mayo from An Officer and a Gentleman. Mayo’s morality is largely derived from a traumatic childhood event: finding his mother’s body after she killed herself. Mayo’s father took him in but made it clear that taking responsibility for an impressionable boy wasn’t going to put a crimp in his affinity for drugs and prostitutes.

Fast forward a decade, and Mayo’s moral code has been formed from this sad crucible: look out for yourself because no one else will. Many of his defining traits stem directly from this belief. He’s independent, opportunistic, persistent, apathetic, emotionally withdrawn, and selfish. It would have made no sense for someone with Mayo’s moral code to embrace selflessness or loyalty, because to embody these traits, he’d have to go against his most important belief.

This is why its crucial to know your character’s backstory. All those factors I mentioned earlier? Put those puzzle pieces together to figure out what your character now values, what he believes about right and wrong. Once you know his moral code, you’ll know which traits he’ll embody and which ones he’ll disdain. His defining traits will be pretty much fixed because to reject them, he’d have to reject what he most believes in.

Basic Needs

But sometimes, as authors, a drastic shift in morality is exactly what we want for our characters. This kind of change doesn’t occur easily, but it can happen under the right circumstances. This is where basic needs come into play.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, individuals are driven by needs that fall into five categories:

Physiological: the need to secure one’s biological and physiological needs
Safety and Security: the need to keep oneself and one’s loved ones safe
Love and Belonging: the need to form meaningful connections with others
Esteem and Recognition: the need to increase one’s sense of esteem
Self-Actualization: the need to realize one’s full potential and achieve personal fulfillment

The first level is the most important; if a character’s physiological need isn’t being met, he’ll do whatever it takes to meet that need. Once it’s met, the next level becomes the most crucial. And so on.

If you’re crafting a story and you discover that you need one of your characters to undergo a major moral shift, simply take away one of his basic needs. An awesome example of this is the movie Prisoners. Hugh Jackman’s character is a responsible citizen — morally upright and a family man. But then his daughter goes missing (i.e., his need for safety and security is no longer being met). He’s certain he knows who abducted her, but the police won’t do anything about it. He tries everything he can think of to get his daughter back while working within the confines of his moral beliefs. When those ideas run out, he begins wrestling with the options that don’t coincide with his moral code. Desperate to regain his former equilibrium where all of his needs were being met, his morality shifts. He abducts his daughter’s suspected kidnapper and tortures him in an effort to learn of her whereabouts. His basic belief that all human beings are deserving of dignity and respect has changed—and so have his traits. Respect has turned to cruelty. Centeredness gives way to fanaticism. And all of this can be traced back to one need that is no longer being met.

We’re cruel taskmasters, we authors. But it’s through difficulty that true character emerges, and if we want our protagonists to grow, we have to provide growth opportunities. Know your character’s moral code and choose suitable traits. If you need your character to make a big change, threaten one of his basic needs. Then sit back and watch the metamorphosis begin.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me to post at your blog today. As a special thanks for the warm welcome, I’d like to give away a PDF copy of my book, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. Just leave a comment to enter for a chance to win. The giveaway runs through January 14th, after which time I’ll pick a winner. Best of luck!

Becca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Emotion; The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes; and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through WANA International, and can be found online at her Writers Helping Writers website.

Becca Puglisi

36 thoughts on “How Morals and Basic Needs Influence a Character’s Positive Traits

  1. This is a wonderful article – it takes something that’s complex – character make-up – and explains it simply and briefly but very deeply and connects it to plot in such a linear way, it’s easy to remember.

    LOVE the connection between moral code/personality traits and basic needs!

    It’s the second time I read one of Becca Puglisi’s articles and they’re awesome!! I’ll go check out her website now:)

    1. Hi, Christina! Thanks for the kind words. I’m so glad you’re getting something useful out of these posts. I’ll be honest: before writing The Negative and Positive Trait Thesaurus books, I floundered quite a bit with creating characters that made sense. Through the writing of those books, I learned so much; I’m currently working on a new project and I really think my characters are so much more realistic now. Turning the complex into something simple was one of our goals when writing these books, so I’m glad that we are accomplishing that little by little :).

    1. I agree! And you’re right that there needs to be a reason for our villains to be the way they are. Even if it’s never explained, just knowing it yourself is going to help you write a more believable villain.

  2. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting Becca.

    Becca – I’m glad your focus here is on positive traits in characters. We all have them and although you’re right that characters should also have flaws, they also need positive qualities too. And our basic characters are indeed heavily influenced by our moral codes and assumptions about life. We work those codes out for ourselves based on our lives, so I can easily see how one could show readers how a character got to be a certain why through letting readers know what that character has experienced. Throw some Abraham Maslow and needs in there and yes, you have a complex character. Lots to think about, for which thanks.

  3. I love how you crack characters open and reveal their insides. Lol. I don’t mean that in an icky way, though I am a horror writer, but that you help us to see down deep into their very core so we can realize what makes them tick. All the little pieces make up their whole and sometimes it’s hard to figure them all out, but this book sounds like it helps us to draw them outside themselves and come across on the page better.

    1. Traci, I absolutely hope that this is the case for both of these books: helping writers put the pieces of a character’s backstory together so they create a whole that is sensible and unique for readers.

  4. Fantastic post today, Becca. I think that morals and personal codes of behavior–and character behavior resulting from it–can help make a character solid, believable…real. Great tips here–thanks for posting today.

    1. It sounds so easy—I mean, we know so many interesting characters in real life. It should be so simple to just pick attributes and flaws that would make an amazing character on paper. But it involves so much more than this. It sounds like you’re on the right track, though, with the basic realization that characters DO need fleshing out. Hopefully this info will give you some ideas. Best of luck with your character building!

  5. This is helpful writing memoir. As I REPORT what happened,I turn back to this article to expand the WHY: Why did the actors in my life behave the way they did? How can add details to the story that will help the reader and me, the story teller, understand? Looking through this post gives me questions to ask and answer that improve my telling of truth.

    1. Oh my gosh, isn’t this true? Since writing these books, I’ve connected some dots in the lives of a number of friends to figure out why they do the things they do. If you’re looking specifically for questions to ask regarding your personal supporting cast, we’ve got a character questionnaire that is available for free download at our website (http://writershelpingwriters.net/writing-tools/). It may spark some ideas for you :).

  6. Hi Becca
    Great post, thanks.
    I think these two things are where so many TV shows fall down. They spend many episodes building three dimensional characters, but after a year or so, they’re searching for ideas and suddenly one of the characters develops a mysterious change in morality, in order to make an episode work. It only needs to happen once for the whole show to feel shaky.
    A technique that’s sometimes used in life coaching, is to ask someone why they do something in their life. It can be as simple as never turning up to a friend’s house empty handed, but arriving with cakes, or flowers. You then ask the person why that’s important to them. To start with you’ll get a quite basic answer. (because it’s nice) So you ask them again, and they have to go a bit deeper, and ask again and again, the same question. What you end up with, once they’ve really dug down, is a core value, the real driver behind their behaviour. Interviewing a character like this can give you a clear picture of their morality and general view of the world.
    cheers
    Mike

  7. That’s why it’s not unrealistic for good people to do bad things. We don’t always know how we’d react in a situation, but there’s always a chance we’d do something extreme if our needs were threatened.

    1. True, Diane. We all consider ourselves “the good guys” when we’re really only one decision away from getting ourselves and other people into real trouble.

  8. I’ve been struggling with understanding the motivations of my novel’s protagonist for months. As a result, her character has been hazy and undefined, even to me. After reading this post on the hierarchy of needs, I’m excited about the prospect of looking more deeply into her past and letting it emerge, however quietly, into her present. Many thanks for the help!

    1. Yay! Motivation is such a bugger (for me, anyway). I really do believe that the character’s morality and basic needs, among other things, play a key role in determining what a character wants and why. Best of luck with your protagonist :).

  9. I really love to read (and write) characters who are morally challenged, though I wasn’t sure exactly why. This post explains a lot and I’ve bookmarked it for future reference. Thanks! :)

  10. Great post, Becca. There are certain things that we really must know about our characters. Needs tell us what they will be driven to obtain and morals will show us what they are willing to do to reach their goals. Figuring out a person’s morals realyy helps guide the types of traits that best line up with that code of beliefs, making character creation so much easier!

    Angela

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