Monday, February 9, 2009

Strengths and Weaknesses

It's a fundamental precept both of real life and of good fiction that a person's greatest strengths are also their greatest weaknesses and often vice versa.

For example, the character who has an indomitable will, that allows him to persist against incredible odds, generally is also pigheaded when he is wrong. (Something DC failed to do with silver age Green Lantern Hal Jordan -- who is almost preternaturally reasonable in applying his strength of will -- but, if I recall correctly, used properly with Kyle whatshisname.)

Well, this principle is being tested now in biology, where scientists are using HIV's fast mutation rate against it. They have done trials with a new drug called KP-1461, which takes the place of the cytosine and thymine base pairs during reproduction, quickly mucking up the genetic machinery.

It's certainly an interesting idea, but I'm not sure it's a good one. Sure, given that mutations are overwhelmingly nonpositive for the mutated organism, an increased mutation rate in HIV should lead to a decreased viral load. However, given that there are billions of HIV virus "cells" in any given patient, aren't we giving them a pretty high aggregate chance to win the genetic lottery with a really good mutation? Especially if we use this on thousands or millions of patients?

One thing you have to remember: sometimes a strength is just a strength.


Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

I first realized this Strength/weakness connection when I was about 16. I had a friend who was in a "Cinderella" situation at home, and it amazed me how much she could endure.

But about your strong-willed character staying level, I'd have to say that is very possible, he's just going to be someone who was made aware of his tendancy early and had years to adjust.

Imagine the critter-smooshing guy in Mice and Men (am I getting this right?) if he learned every time he got it wrong, that strength would be under control pretty quick.

This is me; at least half the time. I am very strong-willed but I used to leverage it with great reasonableness, for example, with my sister, knowing it made her nuts. That was still very much a strong-will/power thing.

(Pig-headedness in a story just irritates me; all it seems to do, story-wise, is slow things down and as such it just seems like a cheap plot device.)

Dal Jeanis said...

Welcome, Amy Jane!

Obviously, other characteristics can offset the natural pitfalls of the character's "big one".

On the other hand, if you don't have your characters shooting themselves in the foot with their favorite hair-trigger gun, you aren't having all the fun you can with them.

And if they never make a mistake at all, they're Mary Sues.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Ah yes. Mary Sue. And a year ago I'd have no idea what that means.

I have been so close to my characters for so long I no longer trust my own judgment about how much trouble I drag them through. (this will be one of the specific evaluations I ask from my test readers.)

Do you ever have trouble just letting your characters be/act *stupid*?

I mean, I've worked up to being a sadist-- making life hard for them-- but I still have a very hard time sending them on the easy/obvious "fall". (Don't go down those creepy dark stairs! Especially not in that mini-skirt!)

Making one character distinctively impulsive helped, but keeping 3-D people from being level and rational in all their responses has been confusing. (In my circle I am legendary for thinking things way further than necessary/normal. It's something they've begun accepting as my quirk and laughing about.)

I'm not good at guessing how far "normal" people would take an idea and have begun quizzing random people for input.

Dal Jeanis said...

One possible solution to that is to give them (your characters) a limited amount of time to think. And there's nothing wrong with having one or more ideas that they rationally should have come up with, pop into their heads later. The new approach doesn't even have to be better, just different or look better from the point of view of what actually happened. You can also have another character ask "why didn't you ..." and they say their version of "great idea, if I had thought of it."

Make a list of five or seven reasonable approaches to the problem-- don't worry about "best" --and have them jump to the one that most fits their personality. Remember, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Thanks. That's helpful-- especially the limited time to think bit; puts everything in perspective.