Exploiting Strengths and Weaknesses


(Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

I never really paid much attention to birds until I met and married my wife Lisa. She is — and there is no other way to put it — obsessed with birds. We have hard drives figuratively bursting at the seams (and backed up, of course) with photographs of grackles, canaries, yellow whatever’s, and red these or those. While I have been observing her interest, and the subject of same, the area in which we live has experienced a marked increase in the presence of hawks. The reason doesn’t take an understanding of the nuts and bolts of nuclear propulsion to understand. We have what I will politely call more than our fair share of Canadian geese in our locale (which is not, I hasten to add, in Canada). The eggs of Canadian geese are considered by hawks to be a delicacy, in the same way that I regard the presence of a Tim Horton’s, Sonic, IHOP, or Cracker Barrel. The attitude of a hawk toward a goose egg could best be summed up by the statement, “If you lay it, I will come.” Or something like that.

Hawks will of course eat other things as well, and I’ve had opportunity to see them in the act of catch-and-not-release prey on a number of occasions. What they do is fairly highly evolved. If they catch a ground animal, they immediately take it into the air, where it is helpless and cannot run away. If they catch a bird, they bring it to ground, where it is at a disadvantage, and pin it so that it cannot fly away, while they kill it. One could say that a hawk is at a disadvantage on the ground, but I haven’t noticed squirrels, chipmunks, cats, or even other birds coming to the aid of one of their fellow and less fortunate creatures as the hawk goes about its business. No, things get really quiet for a while as the hawk exploits the weakness of its dinner.

Successful genre fiction utilizes the exploitation of strengths and weakness to succeed as well. This is particularly true when the author takes a personality trait that might, and indeed would, be considered a virtue and exploits it. We have a real world model for that, as well. Think of Ted Bundy. Those of us who are raised to be kind and polite and to assist others in need instinctively hold a door for the elderly or the infirm or pull down a top shelf grocery item for someone in a wheelchair. Bundy knew this and would wear a cast or walk on crutches while carrying a package to attract unsuspecting women. There’s a word for that: monster. But he was very, very good at it, and turned a virtue into a fatal weakness. Those who prey on children frequently do so with the premise of seeking assistance with locating a lost dog. What could be more heartwarming than reuniting a dog lover with his pet? Children are inclined to help, especially when it comes to dogs and such, and it’s a virtue that a parent would want to cultivate, but also to curb.

In the world of fiction, however, exploiting weaknesses of this type makes for a great story, and not just for mysteries or thrillers, either. Many science fiction novels and stories sprung from a seed of an advanced civilization bringing advancement to a primitive, or weaker, one with the best of intentions. Disaster inevitably ensued, for one side, or the other, or both. James Tiptree, Jr., was a master of this type of situation, as was the original Star Trek series. Romance novels? Think of a woman who is physically attractive to the extent that no one will approach her, out of fear of rejection. That idea has launched a thousand books and will undoubtedly launch a thousand more before this sentence is completed. As for mysteries and thrillers, the possibilities are endless and replicable: think of a strength, or a virtue, and find a weak spot to exploit. Create an antagonist to probe it and you’re on your way.

Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley comes to my mind most immediately as someone who was excellent at exploiting the best of others. Who comes to yours?

And…I would be remiss if I did not wish a Happy Mother’s Day tomorrow to those among our readers who celebrate the event . Bless you. You are the best.



19 thoughts on “Exploiting Strengths and Weaknesses

  1. Good morning, Joe.

    You make us think. And that is good.

    Recently I’ve read two of Sholes and Moore’s books -THE BLADE and THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY. Both have wonderfully intricate plots. But both also have components of the classic exploitation – rogue church leaders/organizations willing to acquire too much power and money from church members who are willing to give for the benefit of others. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that our Joe Moore had some theological training.

    Have a good weekend, Joe. And thanks for the post.

    • And good afternoon to you, Steve! Sorry about the lateness of reply…I got roped into a couple of projects by my ungrateful and unappreciative family (talk about exploitation, LOL!). You’re spot on about Joe, Steve…he has that clerical air about him, a calmness in the midst of chaos. You should meet him if you get the chance. Hope you have a good weekend as well, and thanks for once again making us a part of your day.

    • Yep. And that is how Gumb caught Catherine Baker Martin. He used a fake plaster cast on his arm.

      • Indeed, Tina! My younger son, btw, used to do such a dead on imitation of Gumb that it could run chills down one’s spine. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Lecter is a classic boogeyman, Scott…and what greater way to exploit someone than to read them as if their secrets are printed on their forehead for the world to see. Thanks for reminding us of one of 20th Century literature’s most enduring and frightening characters.

  2. It’s classic judo – use your opponent’s size, strength, momentum against him.

    • Very true, John. I remember the ads of old comic books included a come-on for a type of martial art which claimed that you could disable an attacker without touching them. It wasn’t legit, of course (as Johnny Carson established one night) but it happens in literature all of the time, just not in the physical sense. Thanks for the comparison.

  3. Interesting view of character development. I’ll have to think about how my villain can exploit a weakness in my heroine for my next story.

    • Thank you Nancy! We’ll look forward to reading that, and seeing how your heroine turns the tables.

  4. Thanks, Joe, for a great post. This actually helps me a lot. I am trying to characterize my antagonist, and this gives me some great ideas. It makes my day to read the posts here on TKZ. 🙂

    • Rebecca, you’re welcome, and thank you as well for your kind words and for stopping by yet again. I hope this gets you where you want to go. And beyond.

  5. Huh…never looked at it that way. Interesting post, Joe. It got me thinking about my own protag, who is a skip tracer…a liar for hire, as he puts it. He exploits the trustfulness of those he encounters, and the average person’s goodness of heart. And oddly enough, given your hawk example, he is a venerate birder in his free time. He loves to observe birds and consequently sees himself as a peregrine falcon flying high above and seeing the big picture when others see only what is around them on the ground.

    • PJ, that sounds…well, it sounds terrific. I can’t wait to read it. Please let us known when we can all go out and get a copy. Thanks!

  6. You’re welcome, Patricia, and thank you for your kind observations and honoring me mightily by linking my post to your online course. Your students are of course welcome to visit us at TKZ at any time, any day!

  7. Exploiting weakness is what war is all about. Whether it is fictional or real. Just ask Sun Tsu. Or just ask the goblins. They could tell you why I am sitting at home wearing a back brace.

    It all started with a server that suddenly and mysteriously went bad. During the warranty replacement of the equipment an evil goblin leaped out from the server rack and stabbed my spine with an invisible (but none the less very effective) dagger that sent a rather curious tingly/spikey/twisty-in-an-unnatural-way sensation across my lower back. I kicked the goblin aside but the tip of the invisible blade apparently broke off, lodging in a hidden spot near my spine. After unboxing a bunch of big printers later that same day, with the much appreciated help of a friend, the cursed goblin’s blade point seemed to work its way further in and setup a game of twister with several of the nerve bundles in my lower back. A couple days later, and further up the spine, there was what is best described as distinct evidence of a rugby match between several large drunken Irish dockworkers against an equal number of New Zealand All Black players who danced a pregame Haka across my shoulder blades, while the Irish dock workers smashed their empty whisky bottles against my neck.

    In other words, I am sitting at home with a back brace on for the next few days, hating all goblins and feeling serious trepidation toward rugby players in general.

    And a group of goblins and rugby players are high fiving each other celebrating their victory gained by exploitation of my own weakness.

    So yeah, I kinda get this post.

    • Whoa, Basil…I have had back problems in my remote and misspent past, and they are no fun. Certain actions (such as tying shoes and, ummm, a (hopefully) daily act which involves a minor contortion that we normally don’t even think about) become all but impossible. Hope you exorcise those demons soon! Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

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