Assuming we’re still reasonably comfortable with the “Six Human Needs” I introduced a few weeks ago—a decent starting point on the subject of what drives us all—we’ll continue with the third of the six basic human needs: significance.

How do we define “significance”?

The fact is, “significance” can have a different definition for each individual—each individual in the real world, and each individual character in a work of fiction.

My father was a salesman, and for some part of his career he worked as an independent manufacturer’s representative, selling various gizmos for the graphic arts and printing businesses—items that only older practitioners would remember from the pre-digital days. One of these gizmos was the densitometer, which (I think) was used to measure how many dots per unit of measurement made up gray scale printing? I suppose I could Google it, but it doesn’t really matter. As far as I know there was one company that actually made these things and he was their top salesman. This led him to only half-jokingly refer to himself as “the World’s Greatest Densitometer Salesman.”

Quite a specific accolade, that, but a defendable position none the less.

Was this my father out in search of significance? For recognition beyond a commission check slightly bigger than the guys in the other territories? Maybe.

I think—especially for the genre author—we tend to see a search for significance to be a bad thing: the evil genius’s insatiable lust for power, the desire to be fairest of them all, or the god-king of somewhere… and that’s probably where the search for significance will tend to rear its ugly head in most genre fiction.

But like my father’s victory over a niche within a niche within a niche, a sense of significance can also exist in the small—and there is a place for that in fiction as well. In fact, this idea of self-esteem and self-actualization has become a common, perhaps most-used mantra in this era of pop psychology and self-help that inspired our list of basic human needs in the first place.

In his book No Excuses, Brian Tracy demands that you:

Refuse to feel sorry for yourself. Remember, you are not a victim. You are an adult, and you are in charge of your own life. You are doing what you have freely chosen to do. Setbacks come with the territory. They are merely speed bumps on the road to success.

I can only imagine there were various speed bumps on the road to my father finally becoming the World’s Greatest Densitometer Salesman, as there were on Paul Atreides’s road to becoming emperor or Daenerys Targaryen’s road to becoming the Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Lady Regent of the Seven Kingdoms, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mhysa, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons.

And look at that, none of those three people, two of whom are characters in science fiction or fantasy novels, were villains.

And the interesting parts of their stories come during their quest for that measure of significance, not once that station has been achieved.

That means a character who is motivated by a desire for significance must tend to start a story in some insignificant, or at least substantially less significant role. Paul was the teenaged son of a duke, moved to Arrakis whether he liked it or not. Daenerys begins Game of Thrones as a teenaged girl, sold off to a barbarian chieftain against her will.

The story comes from the struggle, whether successful or unsuccessful, to achieve whatever measure of significance is desired.

Kristen Lamb wrote in “All Wounds Matter: Writing Better Stories”:

No matter what genre we write, a character failing to ‘live up to’ some ideal is gold. Maybe your character has spent a lifetime being measured against the ‘perfect’ older sibling, and struggles with self-esteem. This character might flounder trying to create his/her own distinct identity.

Or flip it.

What if the character happens to be the ‘perfect’ older sibling? This character didn’t ask for family or outsiders to pick on his or her younger sibling for not being as smart, talented, pretty, ambitious, etc.

This character never asked to be the standard unit of measurement to judge another human being. How much guilt might come with that? Think of the pressure or even the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’?

This last bit is particularly interesting when you keep in mind how many stories turn on that old idea of “careful what you wish for.” Daenerys isn’t always happy with the limitations of power, the necessity to compromise, and so on. Maybe being “significant” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

And sometimes, we get to “significant” almost if not precisely by accident.

Research shows that sometimes we create a meaning for our actions after we’ve actually performed that action, what Daniel Wegner calls “intention invention.” Did my father set out to become the World’s Greatest Densitometer Salesman or did he notice that he was at some point, then he adopted the title? And if he did set out to achieve that goal, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine for oneself—the competition is extremely finite and success easily measured by units delivered. But the goal of significance, of being the best at something, or being recognized by the masses in some way, may be (almost) as simple as John Horgan described in his Scientific American article “What a Science Writer Thinks about Catching a Ferry to Manhattan”:

Maybe the key to success is to stop doubting yourself and embrace your delusions. Because, after all, some lies we tell ourselves can come true. If you really believe you are the world’s greatest lover, warrior, leader, scientist, prophet, guru, businessman, your belief can become self-fulfilling. You can become Casanova, Napoleon, Hitler, Freud, Mohammed, Buddha, L. Ron Hubbard, Trump.

All you have to do is persuade others to believe in you too.

Maybe we sum this up as: Fake it till you make it. But it’s that last bit—persuading others to believe in you too—where things get tricky. This is where stories live.

Finally, characters can be motivated by a desire to avoid significance, having settled into a self-limiting sense that it will never be possible for them to ever really be significant in the face of either more powerful forces or in the scope of the greater universe, as is the case in this great example of a character who accepts his insignificance in Joe M. McDermott’s novel The Fortress at the End of Time:

“Ensign, a word of advice: Don’t believe that crap. The war was invented to fund the colonies. There are no aliens in this galaxy to compete with us. Most of space is dead zone, with minerals and gases we can use. There’s some single-celled life, but hardly anything more complex. We’ve never found an alien microbe large enough to see without a microscope. We are the only sentient life. If there are aliens, they aren’t even in radio range.”

That same character continues:

“I don’t make trouble, Ensign. I do my duty, but I understand it’s mostly an act. If it wasn’t, the enemy would have returned by now.”

This is how you become the World’s Most Realistic Densitometer Salesman.

But then who likes a realist?


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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