Lance, Oscar, Tigers, and Character

Before our wedding, my wife and I took a class through the American Jewish University called “Making Marriage Work.”  While I can’t say this course provided us with any shocking revelations or insights into our relationship, it did provide a nice context to discuss the big picture stuff of married life before we tied the knot (usually in the car driving to and from the class).  Invariably, each class would simply confirm for us that we were indeed on the same page about most issues.  Good news.

If there was one thing that stuck with me from those sessions, it was something the instructor said on the first day: “The things you love most about your spouse are the very things that will drive you crazy.”  Good one, huh?  Ain’t it the truth?  In my case, I love that my wife is a smart, tenacious, Type-A, go getter.  But these same qualities also drive me crazy because they means she is sometimes stubborn and relentless at times when I wish she wouldn’t be.  Now think about the people closest to you.  Do the things you love about them also drive you crazy?  I’ll bet they do.

I’ve been thinking about this idea today and how it relates to our notion of character.  What set me off on this line of thinking was reading the news about Olympic star Oscar Pistorius who is currently being charged with murdering his girlfriend.  Now, I don’t know too much about this guy beyond the NBC mini-documentaries of the Olympics, but if I had to speculate, I’d guess that the fire inside him that drove him to athletic success is not completely unrelated to the hot headedness that drove him to murder his girlfriend.  It was all in the same soup.

A far clearer example (and in the same vein) is Lance Armstrong.  What did we love about him?  His amazing competitive drive.  This drive is what empowered him to win seven consecutive Tour De France titles.  It was his spirit, his grit, his unrelenting determination.  But these are the same exact qualities that led to his downfall.  That same competitive drive we once applauded was what drove him to cheat and lie.  Two sides of the same coin.

My wife’s family has a saying that reflects this phenomenon: “When you have a tiger, you have tiger problems.”  You can restate this adage with any noun as the object.  When you have  huge breasts, you have huge breast problems.  When you have a beautiful white rug, you have beautiful white rug problems.  In my wife’s case, when you are married to a writer, you have writer problems.

Well this writer thinks this notion of duality is a real useful way to think about writing good characters.  Think about how many superb characters of stage and screen  have a driving force that is both a strength and a weakness.  In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey’s weakness is that he is a stubborn perfectionist who doesn’t suffer fools–even when his career depends on it.  It is this same quality, however, that makes him brilliant as Dorothy Michaels.  Now think about the mind of Hamlet.  Think about the thoughtfulness and empathy that empowers him to be a phenomenal tactician; they also cripple him with indecision.

Our strengths can be our weaknesses…and our weaknesses, our strengths.

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Bill Folman is a writer who uses a keyboard and an ordinary DSL connection to construct words and occasionally sentences.

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