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Flaw Exploitation

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"Gentlemen, the principal question is not to know which of our four lackeys is the most discreet, the most strong, the most clever, or the most brave; the principal thing is to know which loves money the best."

Heroes have moral standards; villains exploit that. Villains have no concept of loyalty; heroes abuse that. Sometimes, villains have standards; both heroes and worse villains can use that. Flaw Exploitation is the action of either a Hero, Villain, or even Innocent Bystander to take advantage of the inherent flaws (or to be more charitable, character) of their opponent in order to win.

This is similar to the Hero Ball and Villain Ball in that both deal with the inherent limits heroes and villains have or place on themselves, but differs in that the former deals with the two tripping themselves up, whereas Flaw Exploitation is someone else doing so. Neither the hero nor the villain needs to make mistakes for Flaw Exploitation to occur, just act in character.

A Smug Snake abusing a hero's Lawful Good morality to avoid getting punched in the face would count. Said hero being Lawful Stupid wouldn't. A villain's henchmen being talked into doing a Mook–Face Turn in the face of their bosses' policy on failure would count, but a villain doing a Revealing Cover-Up wouldn't.

Most villains will do this by snatching some completely random Innocent Bystander off the street to use as a hostage, because the hero just can't Shoot the Hostage, no matter how many million lives are at stake. Bonus points if it's a woman, a child, or for the 4X multiplier, a little girl. But if it's the Old Master...

Exploiting an opponent's character and flaws is a tactic as old as time and thus Truth in Television. There's a deeper level to this in literature. In some settings this means that evil is fundamentally flawed and incapable of long term gains, since a competent hero can use its very nature to defeat it. On the other hand, a clever villain can make a hero set for destruction because his ethical code and a Moral Dilemma are in violent opposition, creating a Tragic Hero.

It's worth noting that neither the hero or villain would see the flaws exploited as, well, flaws, but as character traits. Character traits of such importance you cease to be a Knight in Shining Armor or a stylish Card-Carrying Villain if you change them. If they do recognize them as weaknesses that can be abused, they'd all the same see them as inherent to being good/evil and necessary. If they don't, say "Hello Anti-Hero and Anti-Villain!"

When used against a hero, will often lead to a Sadistic Choice. The Manipulative Bastard finds this easy as breathing, while the Guile Hero will have to utilize this out of necessity. The Fettered is a type of character that can frequently find their self-imposed limits exploited - and by contrast, one of the reasons The Unfettered is so terrifying is that it's nearly impossible to do this to him.

Feed the Mole runs on this. Batman Gambit is based on this. Xanatos Gambit is arranged to work regardless of the mark giving in to the flaw or not. The Corrupter uses this to bring out the worst in other people. The Manipulative Bastard and The Chessmaster like to use this. Fantastic Fragility relates to magical weaknesses. See also Complexity Addiction and Fatal Flaw. Attack the Injury is a physical sister trope, where someone attacks an existing injury/flaw in order to gain an advantage.


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    Film — Animation 
  • Aladdin: Realizing Jafar's wishes are motivated by his lust for power, Aladdin points out that the most powerful thing he can be is a genie, omitting the major side effect of all that power: being bound to a lamp when not serving another, and forced to use all that power solely to grant the wishes of its owner.
  • Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker has another heroic example: Terry realizes the Joker's biggest weakness as a comedian is getting heckled, something Bruce would never do because he takes everything too seriously. Flippancy (and flipping out) ensues.
  • Frozen: Hans gets Elsa to have a Heroic BSoD by telling her her sister Anna is dead and it's her fault. Then he tries to kill her.
  • Hercules: Hades tricks Hercules into giving up his strength by exploiting his one "weakness," his love for Meg.
  • My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks: The Dazzlings take advantage of Sunset Shimmer's Heroic Self-Deprecation by giving her a "The Reason You Suck" Speech, reminding her that she's Reformed, but Rejected. This shocks Sunset enough to keep her from speaking up about the Dazzlings' plans.
  • Rise of the Guardians: Pitch uses Jack's wish to regain his memories and fear of disappointing the Guardians to keep him from returning to the Warren in time to help the others. As a result, Easter is ruined and the children stop believing in Bunny.
  • Turning Red: In the climax, Mei exploits her mother's hatred of "gyrating" to "keep her busy" while the rest of the family prepares to do the red moon ritual again.
  • WALL•E: Captain McCrea messes with AUTO's lack of depth perception to trick it into thinking that he has the plant.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • After hearing Jay Lethal proclaim there were no challengers to his World Title left in Ring of Honor, Colt Cabana decided to end his self imposed five year exile from the promotion, playing to Lethal's pride for a non title match, which after winning he shouted "That's how you beat the World Champion!".

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • How a Tau world managed to fend off Hive Fleet Gorgon. Gorgon didn't have the numbers of a usual hive fleet, instead having an extremely fast rate of new adaptations. A first wave of hormagaunts got tangled in the underbrush, where they were slaughtered by Kroot forces. The waves after were smaller and nimbler... and therefore more vulnerable to Tau plasma fire. The wave after that was immune to plasma weaponry, but not solid-ammo Kroot rifles. And so on and so forth, until the Tau found the critical weakness: the Tyranids' reliance on a globally Jack of All Stats army meant there were fewer synapse creatures around, and by targeting them managed to push the swarm off the planet.
    • Ogryns are a human subspecies with great strength, paired with childlike faith in the God-Emperor and childlike naiveté as well. Getting them to join a rebellion is less a matter of bribing or corrupting them and more telling them the Emperor is angry at the loyalists.
    • Several Ork Waaaghs! have been efficiently dealt with by challenging the Warboss leading the whole horde to single combat, and killing him usually means the rest of the Waaagh! falls apart into rival factions, led by Nobs fighting for dominance over the other groups/clans that comprised the Waaagh!. This works because the strategy exploits the Orks' belief in Might Makes Right, and killing the strongest Ork in the army causes the others to fight for his spot. The problem is that it really has to be single combat; the Warboss fighting one enemy by himself is fine, but those same Nobs serve as bodyguards and will intervene if someone tries to backstab the Warboss.

  • In Othello, Iago is the master of this, playing Brabantio's racism and paternalism, Cassio's low alcohol tolerance, Othello's jealousy, and Roderigo's lust (and lack of grey matter) all to his own advantage.
  • In The Pirates of Penzance, the titular pirates won't hurt orphans. Everyone seems to know this and use it to escape from them, even Modern Major General Stanley.
    Frederic: Then, again, you make a point of never molesting an orphan!
    Samuel: Of course: we are orphans ourselves, and know what it is.
    Frederic: Yes, but it has got about, and what is the consequence? Every one we capture says he's an orphan. The last three ships we took proved to be manned entirely by orphans, and so we had to let them go. One would think that Great Britain's mercantile navy was recruited solely from her orphan asylums, which we know is not the case.
    • That's just the best-known one. The entire play is about this trope. For example: Fredric's loyalty (by the pirates), the pirate's patriotism (by the police), Fredric's naivete (by Ruth), and Stanley's patriotism (by the pirates).

    Visual Novels 
  • After he is expelled, the protagonist of Double Homework returns to his school to visit his old summer class. Dennis catches him, and is about to tell everyone about his role in the Barbarossa incident when the protagonist starts showering him with praise. Dennis relents, and accepts the gesture.


    Web Animation 
  • RWBY:
    • Maidens pass on their magic to a successor when they die. The successor can be chosen if the person in a dying Maiden's final thoughts are of an eligible female who is younger than 30. If the person the dying Maiden thinks is too old or not female, the magic will go to a random young woman. However, it is possible to exploit what a dying Maiden is thinking of as she dies by forcing her to focus on a specific eligible female; this can benefit assassins, strategically chosen end-of-life carers, and can even be exploited by dying Maidens themselves if they want to try and counter attempts to manipulate their choices. Both Cinder and Spring Maiden gain their powers through assassination and General Ironwood tries to make Winter Fria's successor by controlling her end-of-life medical care. Cinder's attempt to assassinate Fria results in Penny becoming the Winter Maiden instead of Winter; when she fatally injuries Penny, Penny seeks assisted suicide from the ineligible Jaune in order to redirect her dying thoughts away from Cinder and onto Winter.
    • Knowing that Yang has spent her life searching for her mother, Raven tries to exploit that by offering Yang the option to live with her and learn the secrets of Remnant as opposed to joining Qrow and Ruby in the war between Ozpin and Salem. However, Yang turns these offerings down out of loyalty to the family who raised her.
    • The Ace-Ops is an elite team that was put together on the basis of how their Semblances work together, and were forbidden from allowing themselves to get too attached to each other. Team RWBY fights them by splitting them up and then exploiting the fact that the Ace-Ops are not used to fighting emotionally. As a result, Marrow, Elm and Vine all hold back, with Marrow being reluctant to use his abilities until it's too late, and Elm and Vine being too focussed on Elm's anger and betrayal to work properly together. Harriet is so obsessed with competition that Ruby is able to completely isolate her from the rest of her team.
    • The villains' plan to obtain the Relics depends on exploiting General Ironwood's unresolved PTSD. This results in him turning on his allies and being unable to trust the very people who can help him fight the Big Bad. In Volume 6, the villains debate the threat Ozpin poses to their plan because they fear that if he can reach through Ironwood's flaws, their entire plan will fall apart. After Watts and Tyrian spend most of Volume 7 pushing Ironwood to extremes of paranoia, Cinder completes his fall by triggering his PTSD. From that point on, Ironwood descends so far into villainy that Oscar lampshades that he's become as dangerous a threat to Remnant as Salem herself.

    Web Original 
  • At the Superhero School Whateley Academy in the Whateley Universe, there are Combat Finals at the end of the Fall 2006 term. In one chapter of Joe Gunnarson's Call the Thunder, Diamondback finds herself teamed with the Supervillain Hekate, who everyone in the entire school knows will backstab Diamondback first chance she gets (and who is much more powerful magically than Diamondback). Diamond lays a very cunning Batman Gambit that only works if Hekate shafts her as soon as she gets the chance. Hekate grabs the Villain Ball for everything she's worth, leading to a very satisfying demonstration of this trope.
    • Double example: In "Boston Brawl 2", power-armored Ironhawk grabs a little girl and holds her at knifepoint to stop the heroes, to exploit the classic hero flaw. It fails horribly because of the second example: the little girl he grabs is Generator. She uses her power (she can animate things if she can touch them and they aren't too big) to take over the control switches for his power armor, and she beats on some of the other villains using Ironhawk like a remote-controlled toy.
    • In "Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy", one of the antagonists in the big trap (it's a simulation they can't get out of) is a power mimic. Phase beats him by giving the mimic a copy of his powers and then using Flaw Exploitation to take advantage of the weaknesses of his own powers. note 
  • In Worm, Taylor targets Scion's psychological weak points by reminding him of the death of his counterpart and taking advantage of his inability to deal with loss, driving him past the Despair Event Horizon so that he would allow himself to be killed.
    • Taylor has to do this a lot since she always faces overwhelming odds. One good example is when she bluffs a mech made by Dragon that if it keeps attacking it risks injuring a teammate whose new power makes them immune to its sensors (something highly unlikely but technically possible). Taylor banks on Dragon never allowing her mechs to risk causing injury and is proved right when the machine shuts down.
    • Taylor's fellow Undersider Tattletale commonly makes use of her superpowered intuition ability in this way, perceiving weaknesses then using them to manipulate or provoke. We see this early on when she stalls a Flying Brick from attacking by threatening to reveal a damaging family secret that she just deduced.


Video Example(s):


Auto lacking depth perception

Because Auto can only see in 2D and has no sense of depth, the captain puts up a picture of the plant and with his hand under that plant in order to trick Auto into thinking that he's holding the real plant. After that, he blends in with a picture of himself before jumping up to grab Auto.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (25 votes)

Example of:

Main / FlawExploitation

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