What Does Your Character Value?

Love? Money? Fame? Staying Alive?

It’s important to know what your character values when writing your story. What they value will drive the momentum of your plot.

I was thinking about values and motivations while watching Pacific Rim for the umpteenth time today. (It’s on rotation on HBO). I started thinking about what the characters in the movie valued and needed.

One way I approach that is to make use of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I won’t go into a detailed discussion of it. If you want to learn more about it the link above will provide information  and there are plenty of resources on the web. The way I use it for character creation, however, is to look at the five different levels and ask myself where is my character on the chart. The one featured below is from Tim Van De Vall’s website.

Courtesy of Tim Van De Vall

Level 1 is all about basic survival. What we need to keep our body alive. The next level is safety, whether personal, financial, etc. That usually means needing a job or money or providing a security system for your home. The next level is love and belonging. Our need not to be alone in the world. Next is esteem, which moves us beyond family and friends and to the outside world. Finally the last level is self-actualization, which is a term Maslow defines as living to one’s highest and fullest potential.

In Pacific Rim, it’s pretty apparent that all of humanity is focused on the first two levels, which is staying alive and being safe. So are the Jaeger pilots.

But the characters also want more than just to survive or to be safe.

I would place Raleigh Becket on Levels 3 and 4. He obviously wants to survive and stay alive and he does want to ensure the safety of all humanity, but he also wants to belong somewhere and I believe he  also needs to regain the sense of pride and esteem he once had as a Jaeger pilot.

Mako Mori is a rookie Jaeger pilot. She too wants to stay alive and keep humanity safe,  but she wants to prove herself as a competent pilot. Unlike Raleigh, she’s not alone. She is part of the crew at the Shatterdome and she also has Marshall Penetcost, her foster father. I’d place her on Level 4. She wants Penetcost’s respect and the respect of her fellow pilots.

Marshall Pentecost is the commander of the Jaeger pilots so  he’s not out on the front line risking his life, but he knows that if humanity doesn’t defeat the Kaiju, he’ll die along with everyone else. He strikes me as a man who is confident in his abilities as a leader, so I wouldn’t put him on Level 4. He already has the respect and admiration of the people under his command. But it’s apparent that he cares very much for his foster-daughter, Mako, so I’d put him on Level 3, Love and Belonging, as he’s driven by his need to protect her at all costs.

Obviously a character can have more than one motivation or value more than one thing. The need to survive or be safe is a primal one and it’s a need, as the late, great Blake Snyder, author of the seminal screenwriting book Save the Cat, stated that even a caveman can understand. That’s why disaster movies, adventure flicks, etc., translate well across culture. Romances tend to hover around Level 3, Love and Belonging.

The more levels from the Hierarchy of Needs that you can bring into your story and characters, the more nuanced it and they can be. There’s nothing wrong with a story where the characters are only trying to stay alive, but having them need and want more than just to be alive can make the characters even more interesting.