The Strategic Value of Insight

How much benefit does someone fighting get if advised by someone who knows their opponents tactics or weak spots? As in could that bit of info really mean the difference betweeen win/loss or life/death? Would it help when battling an opponent much stronger than themself? Not all encounters are hostile but friendly sparring as well.

That depends on the information they’re given. The way these kinds of insights are used in fiction can be a bit artificial, but, potentially, there is some real value here.

A lot of the time, this is going to be a kind of deus ex machina plot device. Instead of it being an item (or, a literal god), it’s someone wandering in and saying, “oh, yeah, this is how you beat the villain.” This tends to get less flak than other forms of deus ex machina; probably because the protagonist, at least in theory, retains more agency, and the premise is broadly believable. However, when you start digging into it, problems become apparent.

You identified two different forms these insights can take; vulnerabilities and strategies.

In the real world, exploiting vulnerabilities is effective. Understanding someone’s weaknesses can confer enormous advantages. This can be as simple as knowing about an old wound, meaning a specific strike will have have significantly more effect than you would expect, it can be a design defect in a vehicle or weapon, it can be detailed psychological information that you can use to shut them down and get them to give up.

These insights can be given by another character, or they can be collected by the protagonists directly.

For an example: The Death Star Plans in Star Wars, are an inanimate MacGuffin, but that’s just obfuscating that they’re effectively an insight saying, “shoot here to blow up the incomprehensibly massive superweapon.”

These kinds of insights can also be time sensitive. Another example, from the same source, would be that in Return of the Jedi, the timing of the attack on the Second Death Star coincides with Emperor Palpatine’s tour of the station. And, of course, as that example shows, these kinds of time-sensitive vulnerabilities are excellent bait for traps.

If the villain was injured during a recent battle, and is currently in a vulnerable state, of course your protagonists would jump at the opportunity to strike.

In more sophisticated situations, the villains actions may have alienated former allies who approach your protagonists with an offer to work together to unseat them, only for that entire scheme to be a trap.

Vulnerabilities can go either way. When played straight, they can be a very kludgly, “shoot here to win,” solution. When they’re subverted, it can be an effective plot twist (though, it will be on you to sell the deception, and the machinations that went into it.) At the same time, there’s a very realistic element of having someone running surveillance on an enemy and then reporting to your characters.

So, reconnaissance reports are in the same category of, “reporting a vulnerability.” The way these scenes are put together is a little different. Usually, they’ll get the report, and then plan accordingly. This will often include the protagonists having to identify the vulnerability for themselves. From a character agency perspective, this is a huge difference, and it will further sell the idea that your characters found the solution for themselves. (Note that Star Wars isn’t an example of this, as the Death Star Plans are handed over, and an unnamed character, played by an uncredited extra, who identifies the design flaw, off screen.)

Understanding an individual’s preferred strategies can be useful, and in some situations it can allow you to develop an effective counter-strategy. However, in a lot of fiction, this is exaggerated, almost to parody.

Talking about a character’s preferred strategies can be a useful opportunity for worldbuilding. Especially if their strategies intersect with novel elements of the setting.

However, it’s important to be careful with this approach. Two things to keep in mind, first that the strategy must novel or unusual in some way, and second that if it has a transparent weakness, it only raises questions about how the character got to the point of being a legitimate participant in the current events.

On the former, I’ve literally seen cases where a villain’s, “secret,” strategy was to hold some units in reserve. I wish I was making this up. To some extent, my inability to remember exactly where I’ve run across this, gives me some hope that my memory is messing with me, and no one actually blundered into this. The problem with this strategy is that, ever semi-competent strategist will keep some forces in reserve to reinforce struggling troops.

Actually a specific example I can name from memory is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Remembering that it’s been 25 years since I read the novel, and it is intended for a YA audience, most of Ender’s “strategic genius” is understanding basic concepts like pickets. (It is a good example of worldbuilding through strategic analysis, but, the actual strategies employed by Ender are remedial at best. Also, as it turned out, Card is an ambulatory dumpster fire masquerading as a person.)

Unfortunately, if you want to avoid this, you’re going to need to do some research on your own. There’s an entire scholarly field (military history) that is deeply interested in analyzing strategies and tactics employed on the battlefield. This is a mandatory field of study for military officers, and if you’re wanting to stage out large battles, this is something you’re going to need to look into.

My best recommendations for the use of strategy remains the series Babylon 5. This has the distinct disadvantage of being a serialized TV series, and you’re looking at over 80 hours of material, with the vast majority of that being unrelated to combat and warfare. However, it’s one of the exceptionally rare cases where I can point to a fictional character who lives up to their reputation as a strategic genius. (And, no, linking to the second season was not an error.)

Another example of a strategic genius would be Grand Admiral Thrawn from Star Wars. This also comes with a caveat, the original version of the character has some very interesting (and plausible) rationale behind his methods. As other writers worked with Thrawn, his strategic insight degenerated into a superpower. There is a valuable lesson here though, writing this kind of a character is not easy, and will require a lot of work from you.

The old aphorism, “write what you know,” is in full effect. If you want to write a strategist, you’ll need to learn how to be one as well. You don’t need to be as good as they are, but you will need to learn how to become one.


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P.S. As a quick aside, there is a reason I’m so focused on Sci-fi at the moment, there’s a much larger post in the works, and I’ve been pushing pieces of it live on the Patreon Discord over the last few days. I haven’t intentionally gone silent. So, keep an eye out for that.