Being a Better Writer: Worldbuilding from Maslow’s Hierarchy

Hello readers and welcome back! I hope you all had a spectacular weekend full of fun things. If you were a Patreon Supporter of the site, I did do a bit to help with that (Chapter 10 of Sunset: Stranded went up for supporters, so check that out if you’ve been following that story). If not, well, I hope you had a pretty good weekend anyway.

Now, before I dive into today’s Being a Better Writer post, there is a bit of news I want to point out. This post is the last topic from Topic List #16. That’s right, once this post is done, the final item on the checklist can be crossed off, and the list itself crumpled up and moved to the cylindrical tube of removal beside my desk.

Now, this is a decently big occasion. I only go through a few of these lists a year (each one has about twenty or so topics on it). Each one is a milestone of how many Being a Better Writer posts have passed since I started keeping track of the lists (which was a few years ago).

But they are also significant for another reason: Because you get to contribute to them. If you swung by the site over the weekend, you might have noticed the Topic Call for Being a Better Writer post. Well, if there’s ever been a writing topic you’d like to see covered on this site that hasn’t sprung up yet (or it’s been so long we’re due to strike again) now is the time to make your request heard!

There have already been some awesome topic requests from readers to add to Topic List #17. This next list we’re going to see posts on “rule breaking,” geography, and executing slow tension among others. But there’s still plenty of room on the list to see your area of interest appear! So go ahead and jump on over to the comments section of the topic call and leave your request!

All right, that’s all I want to talk about news-wise, so with that said (and you left a topic request, right?) let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of today’s post.

This one is not a request. In fact, it’s actually fully inspired by a panel I was on during this year’s Life, The Universe, and Everything convention. Before the panel, actually, while doing some background reading for it in preparation, I jotted this topic down as one to talk about with Being a Better Writer. And since the panel didn’t actually spend too much time on what I’m going to talk about today, it should still be fresh for those of you who attended LTUE. Double win, in that case.

Anyway, enough background. Let’s dive into today’s post. Hit the jump!

So, where to start with this? Well, I’m actually going to start at the beginning. No, in the beginning. And not mine. But yours. Don’t worry, this will all make sense in a second. Let’s step into a hypothetical project that is you and yours reader. For the sake of this post, we’ll say Fantasy. You are about to sit down and write a fantastical fantasy adventure.

It’s going to be big. Bold. You’ve got the basic gist of it down. Who the protagonists are. What they’re working toward. At least, in a rough sense. You know you want them to go on a journey—not quite a heroes journey—but you do want to see more of this incredible world you’ve built. After all, it’s a second-world fantasy (IE not Earth) and you want to show that off.

You know, as soon as you build it. In fact, that’s where you’re stuck. You know what you’d like the reader to experience. The sense of wonder, the sense of “oh, that’s unique.” But the problem you’re having is getting there, and creating something that doesn’t feel like “standard fantasy setting #2” with it’s classic, Tolkien-inspired locations, creatures, and culture.

Now, minor aside. I’m not saying that Tolkien’s fantasy was bland or bad. Nor that all Fantasy that takes a similar track is to be decried. But it is, well, familiar. It’s the road well-traveled, so familiar that the beats, bends, and potholes aren’t just familiar to most readers, but memorized. And it’s hard to create a sense of fresh wonder when the reader is so familiar with “fantasy kingdom of elves #3” that they could sketch it on their own before the character ever arrive.

“But wait!” some may say! “Don’t civilizations gravitate toward similar solutions to naturally occurring demands and problems like leadership? Doesn’t that mean that it’s fine to have ‘fantasy kingdom #4’ in my story?”

Well yes … but also no. See, that’s kind of making a halfway step. It’s also forgetting something extremely important to the development of any fantastical place you’re building up:


See, here’s the thing. While mankind—and as near as we can tell, sapient beings—will naturally move toward solutions to problems, trials, or issues … the way in which they solve those issues can vary greatly.

And this is where Maslow’s Hierarchy comes into play, or can, with your worldbuilding.

See, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (to use the full title) is a theory of acquisition studied in psychology (Note: I am not a psychologist) that proposes a “pyramid of needs” (which you can see a picture of at the link). The idea is that that the widest bit of the pyramid, and the base that must be established, is basics like food, water, a place to rest, etc. The next level of the pyramid is “safety and security,” so making those things like food, water, and rest secure (and yes, there’s post on this coming, for those of you that are curious about that concept).

After that, you move into building relationships and friendships (a sense of belonging), then accomplishment, and then at the top of the pyramid, fulfillment.

Right, so what does this have to do with your worldbuilding? Well, it’s actually pretty simple and straightforward: How do the cultures in the world you’re building answer the needs set up by Maslow’s Hierarchy?

Okay, maybe its not quite as simple as I made it sound. You might have to work backwards, for example, to start laying the groundwork. Which … as I say it, I realize needs an example. So we’re going to look at two. The first will be from one of my own works, while the second will be an on the spot thought exercise.

So, for our first example, we’re going to look at the Indrim Empire from Shadow of an Empire. Those of you that have read the book recall what a unique place the Indrim Empire was. In particular, I’d like to focus on the capital of their empire, which was set on a very geothermally active mountain full of hot springs and sulfurous scents.

Why though? Well, when you read the book, you learn that the world of Shadow of an Empire was, at one point, technologically advanced enough to have stations in space. Then something happened—something referred to as the Cataclysm—that broke the world, buried the ancient cities, and scattered bits of humanity picked up the pieces.

What does this have to do with Maslow’s Heirarchy? Well, one of the bits about the world in Shadow of an Empire is the magic some people are gifted with whereby they can absorb one of the forms of energy and then later emit it in a controlled fashion. One of these forms is heat.

So why is Indrim built on a geothermal mountain? Because it was a plentiful source of heat which allowed these shattered survivors who had banded together to make fire using their magic with ease. Fire being something that provides both food, safe water, and warmth. Anyone that could absorb and emit heat could freely “gather” from the natural geothermal processes around the mountain, which made it a great place to centralize things.

From there, it didn’t take long for people to start experimenting with steam power, and from there, the city seen in the book begins to take shape. A society and culture built around—if sometimes a bit unsure about—the gifted and their abilities, with boilers (those that can absorb and emit heat) at the beating heart of it.

Throughout the rest of the book, one of the things that makes Indrim unique and fresh, despite similarities to cultures and societies the reader may know, is how they use the magic at their disposal to solve some of the needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy, and how that’s made their society different. Indrim’s trains, for example, are as much of a backbone of their empire as highways are for most places today (like the US), and are indeed in some ways far more advanced than trains we have now owing to having a stronger starting base to work with due to the world’s magic.

So that’s one example of how using the ideas behind Maslow’s Hierarchy (what needs did this early culture have, and how did the solve them) can be used to build a setting that is unique and fresh. But I did say we were going to do a second example, an on the spot one, so let’s do that now!

So, for our setting, I’m going to say we want a harsh desert location. Why are the people here? Maybe they got lost, maybe they’re exiles. You know what? Let’s go with exiles. Kicked out of their early civilization for some reason—they’ve forgotten, but it’s given them cause not to trust those that live away from the rocky sands—and working to survive in a harsh desert nobody else would live in.

Well, let’s say there’s an oasis. That’s water and food, right? Fed by a natural spring, so the initial exiles gather there. However, division arises, and they soon split. One group stays in control of the oasis—perhaps they were martially ready, or they made use of the water somehow (Magic? We’re spitballing here, so we’re laying down loose ideas). But the two groups split.

The one that stays at the oasis begins to slowly but surely build up a civilization, using the desert’s own stone deposits to build shelter, walls (in case those other people or new exiles show up), and irrigation systems to grow their meager food supplies. They build a society heavily based on using only what you need.

Meanwhile, the twice-exiled head out into the desert and struggle to find their most basic needs: food and water. Eventually they discover that they can eat the roots of a tough plant that grows in the rocks, as well as squeeze water from the stems. And if they dig down, they’ll discover small “wells” of water, but it’s a long way down, and the rock doesn’t give way easily, and eventually the supply will be used, meaning that they’ll need to move on and do it again, then circle back to see if it’s filled in the next year.

The hard, back-breaking work needed to accomplish this is initially shared, but then as the inevitable occurs and children are born, given to the men. Water-gathering becomes male activity, and takes so much time that just about everything else is left to the women. Who before long, are basically running things while the men dig for water. And slowly but surely, that means the women in this society—and then the wives and mothers—become the ones in charge, keeping track of the clans, who’s digging for water, who has food, etc.

Meanwhile, the oasis group of exiles has made contact with the nation that kicked them out a few hundred years ago, as well as the people on the other side of the desert. Controlling the only oasis between the two nations, they don’t trust them, but see a way to get rich by allowing trade to pass through their hands.

A few hundred years later there’s a very small, tightly-controlled but fabulously wealthy city around the oasis serving as a major trade link and contending with their long-time exiles, now tribes of matriarchal nomads that own the rest of the desert and have bad blood with both empires and the oasis, considering them “weak and decadent” (and by their own standards of survival, they’re right).

From here? Well, maybe they decide that they can take by force and start raiding caravans or border towns on the edge of the desert. Maybe even raid the oasis. Or maybe the people in the oasis decide that they need to ensure more stability by driving the nomad tribes further away. Or maybe one of the nomad tribes manages to break down deep enough in the rock to find a new wellspring and create a new oasis?

It can be any of those. But look at the cultures we just created by starting with two things: A desert, and a bunch of exiles. We could go deeper, of course. Look at the culture that spat them out and explore what all three might still share. Or not.

Point being, looking at how they solved their needs built for us a pretty cool story and setting. Or rather, a whole wealth of stories.

You could go backwards with this a bit, too. Perhaps the story you wanted to tell initially was “someone gets captured and taken far from their home, escapes and has adventure.” You knew you wanted it to be in a desert, and have some people in it … and so then you sat down and started sketching out what was just built above. Why are the people there. How are they accounting for their basic needs? Their needs of safety? Friends? How has that shaped their culture?

And boom! Suddenly you’ve got a protagonist who finds themselves captured in a raid by the nomads on the edge of the desert. Wait, do they take people in these raids? Yes? No? Why? No? Okay, then how did they get this character? Accident? What will they do with them? How will their culture view him? Or her? Since the nomads ended up matriarchal, how may they treat a woman differently than a man once captured?

I hope now you’re seeing how asking basic questions about how a culture can solve the needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy can lead you to craft exciting new cultures and places. Places with their own beliefs, their own religions, their own “normal.” Grown out the situation they were birthed in and their work to meet the needs laid out in Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Now, is this a 100% fool-proof way to build a culture or setting? No. And it’s far from the only way. But it is a tool in the toolbox, and one that you should have sitting nearby when you’re worldbuilding just in case you need it. At the ready.

Before I go, there’s one last thing I want to stress: Knowledge. See, if you’re trying to use this method to figure out how an early society might have developed and turned into your setting, but don’t know much about any of the methods they’d need to use, or about the tools they would have had? Well … you’re going to write a poor story. Once again, I look back on that poorly-researched story I read in which the author wanted to romanticize early civilization but had no idea how early civilization functioned or what tools they had access to (among other things they didn’t know). This lead to things in the story such as the farming being 100% crap (as in, completely made up because the author couldn’t be bothered to check a book on how to farm basic things, even when they claimed the characters had) or other really bad mistakes like people forgetting that sleds are a thing for hauling loads around (without going into detail, this one was really bad).

So if you want to use this method to explore how your culture may have taken shape, look at history and how various technologies, ideas, and situations have driven/formed cultures and societies on Earth. Not with the goal of recreating those societies, but in looking at how they solved needs and what the methodology was, methodology you can then apply to your own work.

Okay, caution over. As I said, this is a tool that you won’t always need, but when you do have it sitting there and suddenly realize you want it, can be quite useful.

So when you’re worldbuilding, think of the needs your setting will have or impart on its people. Think about the various ways they can find solutions to those needs. Brainstorm. And then build your world.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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