Motivation and Maturity

In two previous posts, I talked about some things that are often mistaken for motivation, and elaborated on how goals are different from motivation. In essence, a character’s motivation is that abstract, elusive something that is personally meaningful. A goal is a tangible thing that symbolizes that intangible longing. Often a character begins a story with a goal that is misguided. They think a high paying corporate job will give them self-worth, or that joining the mafia will give them security. When they realize that these things are actually not addressing their deeper, intangible need, they may adjust how they approach those goals, or abandon them entirely. This does not mean their motivation has changed, just their understanding of what will truly satisfy them.

The Enneagram is primarily used as a method of self-development. While every teacher and therapist has a different way of working with their clients, all use a person’s type as a shorthand to identify the following things:

  1. The fixation that leads to an idealized image of how they should be.
  2. The traits that they tend to emphasize and cultivate, vs the ones that they tend to de-emphasize or dissociate themselves from, based on their idealized identity.
  3. The ways that their fixated pursuit of that idealized identity can actually cause them to undermine their own values.

An interesting quirk of the Enneagram is that the more mature and emotionally healthy a person is, the harder they are to type from the outside, yet the more effective they are at achieving their true motivation. This is because they have let go of the idea that their idealized self-image is always the key to success and happiness, and accept all parts of themselves.

An excellent example of this is in the Pixar film Inside Out. It begins with a girl named Riley being born, and with her is the emotion of Joy. Joy is easily a Seven. She is motivated to pursue fun and avoid anything unpleasant. Riley is also a Seven. She is a more complex person than Joy because she contains other emotions: Anger, Anxiety, Disgust and Sadness. However, Joy maintains control of Riley’s mind most of the time, and the other emotions have to take directions in her when it comes to how strongly Riley expresses them. Anger, Anxiety and Disgust are all able to show Joy how they help her avoid unpleasant experiences, so Joy is comfortable taking advice from them. Sadness is the odd one out. Because Joy does not think Sadness has any purpose that is relevant to that chief goal of being happy, she constantly undermines Sadness’s role in Riley’s brain.

Joy and Sadness come into conflict when Riley is a preteen and her family abruptly moves from the Midwest to California. Riley tries to put on a happy face, but actually she is doing a terrible job adjusting. Sadness keeps trying to take over, and the harder Joy tries to stop her, the worst things get, both in the inner world and in Riley’s actual life. Eventually, Joy realizes that, if she wants Riley to recover from the shock of the move and feel happy again, she needs to allow Sadness to take over for long enough to let Riley ask for help and comfort. Though the two emotions seem completely opposed, they actually serve complementary roles. By the end of the film, Riley has learned to embrace rather than suppress her sadness, but her desire to enjoy life has been more deeply satisfied. She has matured as a person.

In contrast, villains, corruption arcs and other tragic figures famously pursue their goals so relentlessly they ultimately destroy themselves. Think of Javert from Les Miserables (a One), pursuing his idea of justice so relentlessly he cannot see that he is harassing a reformed man, or Casaubon from Middlemarch (a Five), researching his masterpiece in such isolation that he becomes a heartless shell who has never produced anything of meaning, or Jinx from Arcane (a Four), trying to preserve her sense of specialness in a society that does not appreciate her, until her deranged behavior has hurt, killed or driven away anyone who might genuinely appreciate her for who she is. These characters are equal parts infuriating and relatable as they hurtle themselves towards self-destruction, all the while convincing themselves that this is what they want. The appeal of this arc is timeless.

The fixated identity that each type constructs is designed to protect something called the holy idea. The connection between the two can be surprisingly counterintuitive. Threes, for example, have at their core the holy idea of hope and creation. They are lovers of growth, which is why they develop external personas that push to accomplish and achieve as much as possible. Over time, as they develop insecurities around the belief that things will work out and life will go on, they strive harder and harder to achieve and dominate the world. This, in turn, drives them further and further from their sense of hope. They work themselves into exhaustion and create deceptions because of this loss of contact with genuinely hopeful creation.

This is why fictional Threes include both positive leaders, like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, and toxic, corrupt businessmen, like Gordon Gekko from Wall Street. Both are high achieving, excessively confident workaholics, but in Leslie Knope’s case, she is still in contact with that optimistic belief in growth, and so her work stays grounded in efforts to make the world a better place. Gordon Gekko is all a mask of efficiency and accomplishment, but he has left his hopeful beliefs far behind. The focus of his motivation has become skewed towards the fixation.

This is also the key to understanding the character arc of Jeff Winger from Community. Superficially, he seems to be changing what he wants. In season one, he has been caught scamming his way into a high status lawyer job, and only wants to take the shortest path back to the top. In season six, he is a community college law professor who, despite sometimes feeling bad about the turns his life has taken, is ultimately willing to turn his back on his old dreams. He cares much more about spending time with friends and colleagues he has grown to love. His time at Greendale took him slowly back to that original holy idea of hope: rather than obsessing over his current social status, he dwells on the hope for what this college and its students could be.

Maturity is a difficult thing to define, because it looks different in different situations. A mature reaction to a child’s temper tantrum over candy in the mall does not look like a mature reaction to a horde of zombies invading a mall. There is no universal prescription for emotional health.* Maturity is also difficult to describe because people are rarely either perfectly mature or completely immature. Wise mentors have their off days and first graders have moments of surprising insight. There are people who seem precocious as children, only to develop an entitled sense of their abilities that leads to an adulthood where they have all the coping skills of a five year old on a sugar high. Then there are people who seem to have wildly misspent their youths, but learn from their misadventures and end up measured, compassionate and wise. Some people can handle work better than their family life and others can handle family better than work. These wrinkles and complexities are part of what make people so interesting.

Regardless of where your character falls, however, knowing the difference between motivation and maturity can give you the ability to write complex arcs, where your characters are distinctly themselves despite incredible transformation.

Happy writing!

*Although that won’t stop people from trying to make one.

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