The Hierarchy of Characterization: Demographics, Outer Life, and Inner Life

N. K. Jemisin

Lesson time 13:58 min

Adapting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Nora teaches you how to create a believable character.

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Topics include: The Pyramid Model of a Character • Start With Their Demographics • Understand How Identity Works • Come Up With Their Outer Life • Conveying Outer Life • Describe Their Inner Life


- Ask yourself what you would know about a person after 30 seconds in an elevator with them. You can observe what they look like. You see how they're dressed. Do they speak briefly? Do they speak in a comfortable way? Are they comfortable with you? All of these things feed into your outer-life perception of that person. [MUSIC PLAYING] As I mentioned, since my background is primarily from psychology, psychology tends to inform a lot of the ways that I put pretty much everything together, including character. And there's a really popular psychological theory or model that I like to refer to called Maslow's hierarchy of needs. You may be familiar with this if you've had a therapist that's talked about it at any point or if your own background includes this. But with Maslow's hierarchy, basically, what he's talking about is the things that are needed to make a person's life complete. And at the bottom of this model are some basic things, the absolute stuff that you need to survive-- food, shelter, basic needs. Then you get into security. And then as you progressively go up the pyramid, as you get more and more of these basic things that you need, as you secure those things and you don't feel like something's going to come and take them, as you're able to pause and breathe and think a little more, you're able to be more creative. You're able to pursue goals that are maybe loftier than just survival or getting by. This is one of the reasons why I've put together a character model that is similar. In my character model, we start with the very basics about a person-- their demographics, their age, their race, their gender, all of the very simple things that either you can maybe glance at a person and know or a writer can just do a one-line description, and you'll know all about it. Then we start to move into things that are a little less visible, the things that you can observe about a person if you know them relatively well, and you can at least guesstimate what their background is, is the person's outer life. You can guess by looking at a person's clothing or how they present themselves or by listening to their accent. You can figure out what their class or background might be in a lot of cases. That's what those role performances are about that we talked about in the world-building section. But you can, in a lot of other cases, guesstimate what they're trying to do if you see what behaviors they're undertaking. Or if you understand what their day-to-day job or role is, you know a little bit about that person, enough to form some very basic assumptions about them. That's their outer life. The things that you wouldn't necessarily know about a person without speaking to them or being maybe related to them or growing up with them or living with them, that's inner life. That's their goals, their wishes, their fears, their weaknesses, the things that make them personally a more complex person. And so if you're abl...

About the Instructor

The winner of the Hugo Award for three consecutive years for her Broken Earth Trilogy, N. K. Jemisin has sold millions of books and created new cultures and histories. Now the acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writer is teaching you how to create a world from scratch, develop compelling characters, and get published. Build your craft and share your voice with inclusive fiction that reflects your experience.

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N. K. Jemisin

Bestselling sci-fi and fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin teaches you how to create diverse characters, build a world from scratch, and get published.

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