Weaponized Weaknesses

I’ve talked a lot about the kinds of things a character can turn into weapons—but then there’s one of my favorite ways, one that backfires easily, but that works spectacularly. What happens when a character uses her own weaknesses as part of her arsenal?

Things get interesting.

Part of it is just the effect. A character uses his own lack of physical strength as leverage to guilt-trip an opponent who might otherwise be about to beat him into the ground. Another uses her lack of refined upbringing as an excuse to ask the question everyone’s thinking but nobody’s rude enough to say. It’s a table-turner; the character most at a disadvantage ends up catapulting herself to a much better position, even if just for a moment.

Part is what it says about the character. A weaponized weakness is something that requires a certain degree of intelligence, in order to figure out where it can serve as a strength; it also requires a certain degree of humility, to be able to spot the weakness as a personal failing, to admit to it, and then to use it to gain advantage in another arena. One needs a degree of foresight, and an understanding of the problem.

It’s a specialized weapon that oftentimes changes the nature of the conflict. The character who is emphasizing his helplessness, for instance, is turning a physical conflict into a clash between his potential assailant and his potential assailant’s cultural context. The character who won’t tiptoe around the question is taking a situation where tact masks prevarication and declaring “No, we are going to be open about these things.” But they only work because the circumstances allow it—because the assailant is honorable enough that “I know you’re better than this” keeps her from striking, for instance.

But like any interesting tactic, it can be taken too far. Even the smartest characters shouldn’t be able to weaponize their weaknesses all the time—otherwise, they wouldn’t be weaknesses, but really offbeat and mildly inconvenient strengths. Characters who manage to weaponize their weaknesses by accident come across as if their creators intend them to be perfect but had to include weaknesses because nobody truly likes a perfect character.

Have you gotten any use out of weaponized weakness?

Leave a Reply