Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tim Tebow: Better Than Fiction

I’ve often been asked how I create my fictional characters. (I’ve written three novels, but as I have yet to be published, take my answers with a box of salt.) Well, the process is different for every writer. Some start with a situation, some “meet” their characters unexpectedly in their minds, and then there are others who (eek!)simply pick out characteristics from a chart. For me, the process is both organic and situational. However a writer gets there, the one thing that all good characters share is some sort of flaw or contradiction, an internal or external weakness they are trying to overcome. These ‘failures’ are what help us identify with them, and once an audience identifies with a character, that’s when the magic happens. When a story becomes more than a story. With a guide that we can KNOW, we are taken to new worlds and given new experiences. We are challenged both in what we believe and who we are because we are no longer ourselves. For a time, we become someone else, and through that experience every notion of what reality means, what life means, is given a new lens.

It’s interesting to note here that according to most studies, there’s no difference between real or fictional characters in their ability to model for us or meet the mimetic needs of our race. Your model may be your teacher or it may be Xena (I’d choose Xena, of course), but both can dramatically affect who we are and who we strive to become. But the most powerful fictional character is not one we find in the movies or in books, it’s the person, the real person, who somehow manages to become surpass reality and become something more. Over the course of the past three months, Tim Tebow has done just that.

At first, Tebow seems too bland to be a good character for anything but those droopy romances. He’s white, well built and good looking. He’s devout and kind and the child of missionary parents. He’s also successful, winning multiple championships and decorated as one of the greatest college players of all time. Right away, you can’t escape the feeling that he’s been drawn from a chart, and not very well. As popular as Tebow was in college, he was largely just another athlete. It wasn’t until we discovered his “flaw” that his popularity began to rise. As it turns out, his failure was the arm motion he used to throw the football, the same motion that had produced his success and popularity. By the time the NFL draft rolled around, most experts predicted his failure, and when he was drafted in the first round, the decision was met with a chorus of eye rolls. “Impossible for him to compete with that throwing motion.” “He takes too long to get rid of the ball.” “He throws ducks, not spirals.”

That’s when his possibilities as a great character began to show. Denver, the team that drafted him, buried him on the bench and then fired the coach who had “reached” for him in the draft. Now offstage, fans began to lobby for him. “What happened to Tebow?” “Where did he go?” The past success of their current starting quarterback didn’t matter, and when Denver started the year with one win in the first five games, the new head coach grudgingly gave the ball to Tebow. In that game, he played terribly, but somehow managed to lead the Broncos to victory. Week after week he led his team to improbable, last minute wins. A lame, predictable script if drawn for fiction, but as this was real life, the story took on a whole new significance.

Perhaps if Tebow had kept winning into the playoffs, the story would have died, or at least, diminished in some way. Instead, the developing of his character continued, and Tebow started losing. Not just lose, but look, at times, like one of the worst quarterbacks ever to pull on an NFL jersey. His demise was once again predicted and predictable. He was mocked as much as he was saluted. And then, as with a well told fable, he produced his greatest NFL game to date, leading his team to a spectacular playoff victory in overtime with his team an overwhelming underdog.

(The Tebow story is a classic “W” plot found in most fiction. Hero goes through crisis, but things begin to change and they have success. Something happens and they start to fail again before rising up again to even greater glory.)

There are other elements to the Tebow character that have caused TV sets to hum and churn to record numbers. Increased exposure to his extreme religiosity, his stated “sexual purity”, the continued doubting of his ability by experts, the politicized environment of his chosen religious expression. For my money though, the most compelling aspect of “Tim Tebow the character”, is his un-self-consciousness. He doesn’t dwell on who he is as a character, unlike many professional athletes who understand the basics of mythmaking (or just suffer from extreme vanity) and address themselves in the third person. Every sportswriter who’s covered Tebow says the same thing. What you see is what you get. He’s a good kid. He treats people well. He’s trying to make a difference.

This could all change, of course. Protracted losing, a sense of entitlement, a change in his behavior and expectations. (I have my own nightmare of his political involvement twenty years from now, where he is used by lobbyists and politicians more interested in guns and business than helping others.) Unlike fictional characters, whose stories are drawn and complete, Tim Tebow’s story is as yet unfinished. Just like us. But for now he remains a growing iconic figure, referenced in presidential debates, mocked and loved by diehard fans and casual observers who know nothing about him or the game that has made him famous. Like many great fictional characters, many of them don’t understand why he’s so popular or how he came to be, they only know he exists.

Tebow’s story is the most compelling to cross the sports sections of our dailies in a long time. The irony is that if he were one of my characters, he’d be seen as unbelievable. And in this, we have our final lesson. The greatest fictional characters are those who already exist. I would never have created a character like Tebow, but there’s a reason he’s so compelling. It’s the same reason I’ll be cheering for him every time he takes the field and will continue to cheer for him in the future. That is, so long as his character remains the same.