Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Is it a virtue or a vice?

by Sandra Parshall

“She’s generous to a fault.”

“He’s the bravest person I’ve ever known. He’s fearless!”

“He could sell ice to Eskimos.”

“I wish I had her self-confidence.”

“You couldn’t ask for a more loyal friend.”

We all know people like that. We’ve all said things like that. And we all know, consciously or not, that beyond a certain point those admirable traits can  become obnoxious, obsessive, or downright dangerous.

In her excellent Psychology Today article, Mary Loftus puts it succinctly: “The nature of a virtue is that a vice is almost always hidden inside.”

In fiction, writers tend to go with the extremes, because they make for more vivid characters who can move the plot. The “brave” and “fearless” person is less likely to be a firefighter or mountain climber than a criminal with a string of homicides to his credit. The “generous” person is a manipulator who doles out favors to ensnare others. The smooth talker is a corrupt politician. Loyalty, carried to extremes, can result in all kinds of bad acts. The blatantly self-confident person is a braggart who makes an ideal murder victim. (Come on, haven’t you ever wished you could bash somebody like that with the closest blunt object, or at least slap her silly to make her shut up about her marvelous accomplishments?)

Sometimes our “best” traits are also our worst flaws.

Loftus writes in her article about a recently published book, Fear Your Strength by Robert Kaiser and Robert Kaplan, that explores the danger of carrying an initially positive trait too far. As business consultants and executive coaches for a total of 50 years, they’ve seen everything. Name a strength, they say, and they’ll describe cases where it got out of control, doing damage and sometimes wrecking a career.

In his book Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues, Duke Corporate Education faculty member Jake Breeden warns that oldfashioned preconceived ideas of what is virtuous can lead to overwork, micro-managing and, ultimately, burnout. If you’re in management and force your values on those under your authority, you will stifle creativity and breed simmering resentment and unhappiness. Breeden compares extraverts to vampires in the workplace, sucking confidence and productivity out of others. Flexibility, in your own behavior and your expectations of others, can yield better results.

On the other hand, being constantly agreeable and bland, never making waves, won’t get you far in business. The more agreeable you are, the less money you’re likely to make. And an accommodating nature sets you up as prey to the fearless, thoroughly self-confident types who won’t hesitate to knock you down and stomp on you as they make their way to their destinations. However, nice guys appeal more to the average woman, and anyone of either gender who has an agreeable nature is more likely to be happy in life, with or without major professional success.

Many of these good folks gone wrong have become stereotypes in crime fiction. Readers recognize them almost immediately for what they are and can predict their behavior farther on in the story. If they unexpectedly show a better side, it feels jarring and unrealistic, because we don’t often see that kind of change in real life. The slow evolution of good trait to bad, the spiraling down of a single person’s nature, is usually reserved for literary fiction, where speed and pace aren’t as vital and the story isn’t driven by the plot. The most we’re likely to get in a crime story is a flashback, or glimpses through other people’s memories, of what a victim or villain was once like, along with an explanation of why he or she ended up going to extremes. Sometimes a single event brought about the change, and that life-altering experience is the key to solving the crime. We may get the same compressed picture of a protagonist’s evolution. 

As I write about this, my own characters keep popping into my mind as examples, although when I was creating them I certainly didn’t intend them to be stereotypes. I wanted all of them, including the villains, to be complex and, in the end, understandable. As both a reader and a writer, I think the best fictional people have aspects to their natures that are so familiar, so easily recognizable, that they make the characters’ more extreme behavior understandable.

Do you have people in your life who have carried virtues too far? Can you name memorable fictional characters who fit this description?

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