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How to write strategy and schemes beyond my real-life capabilities?

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I am interested in how to write compelling schemes, large-scale strategies and tactics etc.

There are lots of fictional stories where the characters are amazing strategists, or incredibly intelligent. I doubt that authors, put into the same situations as these characters, would have the same incredible level of insight and be able to create such effective, comprehensive plans.

I don't mean only military strategy, I am also interested in how to portray a convincing "battle-of-wits" between two very intelligent characters (for example Death Note).

Often characters come up with meticulous, mind-bendingly brilliant plans which predict actions and reactions of other entities, or which somehow circumvent possible problems etc., and then they follow them through to the end to triumph or accomplish something unbelievable. I am unsure of how to write this kind of plot in a way that seems believable.

How can I write about characters scheming masterful strategies that are extremely convincing and surprise the reader?

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12 answers

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All that has been said here about doing research, and about the advantage of the author's omnipotence, is valuable. But there is a more basic answer as well. Don't show how the sausage is made. Your hero is a tactical mastermind. Fine, have men drink a toast to his brilliance in the tavern after the battle. But don't explain the plan and its execution in excruciating detail. That's pretty boring anyway. Fiction is about moral choices. Battles, in faction, are about courage, not tactics.

And consider how you know that real people have exceptional gifts. How do you know that Einstein or Jonas Salk or Bobby Fischer or Bach or Schrodinger or Socrates or Aquinas were geniuses? Unless you happen to be pretty highly gifted in their respective fields, you know it because you were told it was so and you believed it. How do we know the characters in your story are geniuses? Because other characters tell us so.

There is a genre is which, to an extent, the actual works of genius is presented, or, at least, it appears that a work of genius is being presented. But there is a reason that people make jokes about Sheerluck Holmes. Much of it is baffle gab. And what remains involves authors who have genuinely made themselves experts in a field, or were already before the decided to become authors. They don't have to fake it because they actually know their stuff. So if you want to be one of them, start studying.

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The author doesn't need to have the same tactical genius of those characters, because the writer has a serious advantage.

As an author, you know everything and you can change everything of your story. You almost have omniscience and omnipotence over your fictional world. I say almost since you won't know every detail immediately - especially if you are a discovery writer - but surely you know more than the characters involved.

You don't need insight, since you don't need to make any "prediction" on future events. What you need is to portray your characters as insightful, intelligent, innovative or sly. And that's just a matter of portrayal! How do you portray a character as brave? You make him face his/hers fear. You make him/her confront danger.

Showing tactical mastery might be slightly less straightforward, but it can be done still. You have to keep in mind that the characters, unlike you, don't know everything about the world and are working with limited resources.

Let's say the heroine Alice, tactical genius in a medieval setting, has to lead her ragtag rebel army against the Evil Dark Tyrant™ Bob. You already decided that Alice has to win the battle for plot reasons, but of course, she doesn't know that. And her victory has to be believable and portray how much a good strategist she is - she can't just pull fresh troops out of nowhere, erase the enemy army with make-believe magic, or anything like that.

So, how can she win? To her, winning the battle must be like solving a puzzle - maybe crossworld one. Ask yourself: what does Alice know ....

  • About the enemy's generals?
  • About the enemy's information network? What do they know? What do they believe? Are there blind spots in their knowledge?
  • About the enemy's army? Composition, average size, location, morale? Possible weakpoints? Possible points of strenght?
  • Who will lead the enemy's army? Bob himself or someone else? How did he fare in other battles? Is there any peculiar / recurrent trick or strategy he uses? Does he rely much on something?
  • About the battleground? Can she pick a battleground of her choice? Is she forced to lay siege?
  • About her own generals, her own armies and strenght? Her own supply line?

Alice must try to answer those questions in order to plan. Some of those will be difficult, if not impossible, to answer. As the leading general, she must have a network of spies/messangers/scouts tasked with providing her with useful informations. Some will be reliable, some will be misleading. She has to listen and make assumptions in order to formulate her plan. If you show this, you will show how versed she is in dealing with strategy. Quoting Sun Tzu's Art of War:

Every battle is won before it's ever fought.

and so, a great deal of tactics happen way before the actual battle (or war). When she's finished gathering information, Alice's goal should be maximizing her gains while minimizing her losses. That usually means winning with the fewer cost in terms of lives/resources lost, (of course it all depends on what Alice wants. Maybe she's not so protective of her men).

In order to do so, she might...

  • ..leverage one of her strenghts against the enemy,
  • ..make use of the enemy weaknesses or blindspots,
  • ..trick the enemy into doing something - falling into a trap or in a predicted behaviour

We could make countless examples of what are good tactical moves. For example, if the enemy is known for relying on a strong cavalry, the number one priority could be negate his cavalry. Alice could choose to fight upon a hill, in a marsh, build trenches, deploy pikemen, and so on.

Like a chess game. You both need powerful and less powerful pieces, but what you need most is the ability to outthink and outmaneuver your adversary. This means that you can see "farther" that he does - meaning you can predict a greater number of moves into the future. A simple example of that, often show is movies, is the Feigned Retreat: you make your army run away from the front line, in order to make the enemy think you are fleeing. If the enemy falls into the trap and pursues, there is a good chance that its soldiers will break formation, becoming more vulnerable to your retaliation.

There's surely a lot to consider, and it might be a lot to take in. I do recommend some books on military tactics - I have already mentioned Sun Tzu, but others may be found.

Now, if you want to have multiple strategists in your novel (as, for example, in game of thrones) things will get a little more complicated. Now it's not only Alice and Bob playing chess, but it's 10 playes on a very odd, 10-sided, four dimensional chessboard. Yet the basic rules are the same - tacticians will try to get information, predict what their enemies will do, and try to outsmart them.

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Your main advantage as a writer is that you KNOW what is going to happen.

Dumb example first to make a point
I have an IQ of 100. I am writing someone who has IQ of 1000. He says "I am so smart I can predict a coin flip!" The coin is flipped. "Heads!" my character calls. The coin falls heads.

There, I wrote someone so smart that he can predict coin flips at IQ 1000. Now you can also add some fluff. "I could tell by the way your muscles were tensing up, and because it was a 1968 quarter."

In battle you can do the same thing, only often a coin is replaces by people minds. "I know that Bob the general grew up on the Baltic region where they prefer the five point pike formation." (quick Wikipedia search) "Pike formations are best countered by a phalanx unit, so I will send the phalanxs against Bob". And as no surprise, Bob does use too many pike units in his army and loses the battle.

The idea is the same, I made a prediction bases on "smart people stuff", and the world acted as I predicted making my character smart.

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Here's an element you want to consider: if I'm reading about a group of characters coming up with a plan, and then I read about them enacting that plan without a hitch, I've just read the same thing twice. That's boring.

You have two ways out of this problem, and both serve you for creating "genius" characters.

  1. The plan is not discussed beforehand. First time I read about it is when it is enacted. In this case, I see the success of the plan. It appears a stroke of genius because it worked. I get a partial explanation of how it worked after the fact, when I'm already duly impressed. If there were any holes in the plan, I don't get to see them.
  2. The plan is discussed beforehand. It appears smart because you don't leave any gaping holes - you have, as @Amadeus points out, an infinite time to come up with a plan. But then, because of some circumstance that could not have been foreseen, the plan fails, and your genius has to solve the new problem you created for them, looking even more impressive.

Note also that you are the creator not only of the solutions, but also of the problems. You needn't write your character into a corner and then find a genious way out of it. Instead, you can tailor the problem to the "genius" solution you want your character to find. Consider, for example, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. The solution is taking a 3D approach. Now let's create a set of problems to which this is the correct approach, and voila! Ender is a genious.

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You have an advantage that people in the moment do not have: You have all the time in the world to think it through, and you can time-travel to the past to fix anything that goes wrong.

I wrote a battle scene recently that in the book took place in the space of an hour, and my expert soldier with decades of experience planned the battle in about sixty seconds, on the spot. It took me weeks to come up with that plan, drawing sketches, thinking of ways to let the severely injured guy contribute instead of being a liability, coming up with the enemy's best strategy I could think of. And the at least two weeks of work, puzzling and a dozen revisions of the plan before I even began writing, when condensed into half a page, resulted in a strategy my test readers found brilliant and entertaining, in keeping with the reputation of my character as a brilliant strategist.

But I took advantage of the fact I could go back in the book, and make changes to what had already transpired, for example to move my setting to something slightly more advantageous, e.g. near a natural barrier that wasn't there in my original draft, which my strategist knew the enemy would try to use to their advantage. (And knowing how they'd move when he gave them the opportunity let him turn that into a trap.)

You can do lots of things that way, go back and invent an emergency to get rid of a character, or add a new character, or change the setting. Try to not do this for convenience, happenstance works best when it works against the heroes. So, for example, I can give my strategist a reason to use subterfuge by going back and injuring some of his crew, now he can't use a head-on attack. I can go back in time and invent a reason they lose most of their weapons.

What you have, that your characters do not have, is all the time in the world to think about it, and the ability to tweak the setting, history, and setup in ways that seem innocuous, but are crucial to the strategy. So you might think,

"This doesn't make sense, they could just retreat. So what can I put behind them, so they can't retreat? A lake? Another army? Lions or cave bears? The enemy blew up their bridge? Ah, what if I put a river back there, two chapters ago ..."

By revising the past you have made it harder for them, and they can't just retreat, so it makes sense they have to go forward (or sideways).

It can take a lot of time, revisions, and puzzling to figure out a good strategy, but none of your sweat and headaches have to appear on the page. From the reader's perspective, the setting is what it is, they never saw anything else, and the strategy is the first thing that popped into your character's brilliant mind.

Other art can be like this too; in popular music many artists report hit songs that last 3 or 4 minutes took them over a year to write, to get the lyrics and rhythm and notes exactly right. An artist paints a painting in months, that you see and absorb in a few minutes. Even in food, some delicate new recipes take months to get right.

You have time.

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1

Often characters come up with meticulous, mind-bendingly brilliant plans which predict actions and reactions of other entities, or which somehow circumvent possible problems etc., and then they follow them through to the end to triumph or accomplish something unbelievable. I am unsure of how to write this kind of plot in a way that seems believable.

Rule #1 It's not stupid if it works.

Many of the most brilliant acts of generalship and/or tactics have been "stupid" on the face of things. Bobby Fisher's legendary queen sacrifice is a great example, although it's so well-known that it may no longer seem like such an audacious move. Also, see several of the Confederate campaigns in the American Civil War, where an outnumbered Southern army divided itself further (huge no-no in most tactical books) in order to achieve victory. As a final example, Julius Caesar's plea to the mutinous troops in 47 BC would have been pretty stupid if they'd just killed him.

As a general rule, all of these things are only considered brilliant because they did work. A player who sacrifices a queen and loses is a fool. A player who sacrifices a queen and wins is a genius. As the author, you have the power to ensure that their risky gambits work and that their tactics succeed, which will help solidify the idea that these are geniuses making great moves rather than idiots bungling things.

Rule #2 It's what we don't see that matters

If you're dealing with something rather opaque, like most mystery or battle-of-wits situations, then you get to rely heavily on what the characters do outside of your narration. !!! How did he bribe the arch-bishop??!?! How did he break that one henchman out of jail?!?!?! Doesn't matter, and you don't have to explain it.

Rule #3 Reputation is king

Boba Fett is lionized as one of the fiercest, toughest, most awesome characters in the original Star Wars trilogy. But he accomplishes very little on-screen, has his bounty handed to him on a silver platter, and gets eaten by a giant ant lion because a blinded guy accidentally bumps into him. What he does have going for him is a reputation. Everybody who encounters him expresses their belief in his competence and abilities.

It's relatively easy to build up minor villains and heroes, and then have them make the claims that you want the reader to believe instead of trying to directly make those claims as the author.

Summary Audience expectations and perceptions are what matter

If your audience thinks that your villain is a genius, then you can get away with almost anything. As Peter Benchley said (talking about Jaws):

I said “Steven, that is completely unbelievable. It can’t happen. A shark does not bite down on a SCUBA tank and explode like an oil refinery.” He said, “I don’t care.” He said, “If I have got them for two hours, they will believe whatever I do for the next three minutes because I’ve got them in my hands, and I want the audience on their feet screaming at the end, ‘Yes, yes! This is what should happen to this animal!’”… Reality may be great and truth may be wonderful, but none of it holds a candle to believability…. His ending brought people to their feet, screaming.

The hardest part is not to come up with a believable plan but to prepare your audience so that they want to believe it and can experience it with so that everything makes sense in their mind.

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Read. Watch. Take notes.

Read books, read newspapers, study history, watch movies and plays... and take notes.

You will find examples full of backstabbing, betrayal, dirty dealing, clever schemes, dastardly plots, diabolical designs, cunning cads, biting retorts, and witty dialogue.

And that's just high school... ( ~ ^)b --☆

The world is your library, all of time the stage performance for an audience of one... you.

Make use of those resources...

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One of the things I find most powerful for constructing strategies or schemes which may go beyond what the author could do themselves is show don't tell. If you tell the audience what the strategy is, they can poke holes in it. "What if X happened?" "What if Y didn't show up?" However, if you show them what happens, that's all they have. It's frustratingly hard to distinguish brilliance from madness.

Somewhat case in point, I had an English teacher who admitted that he and his friends liked to play Chicken with cars when he was a young and foolish age. They'd all stand on the curb, wait for a car, and then try to run out in front of it to the other side of the road. The guy who left the curb last was the cool cat. He was the one that had the real brass balls.

My teacher was the guy with the cojones. Nobody could ever figure out how he managed to leave the curb that late without being totally freaked out. He never told them. He just showed them. Over and over, he won the game.

Many years later, seeking to put us students on a less reckless path, he let us in on the secret. He told us how he did it. In all reality, he was too scared stiff to leave the curbside. It terrified him. So he remained frozen in place until his raw desire to stay "in" with his friends broke free the mental cement that held his feet in place and he quickly fled in the winning direction. But he never told them that! He showed them the cool kid.

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As an author, you have a couple of superpowers which you can bestow upon your characters:

  • Super perception. You know every detail in your story, including those a normal person wouldn't even notice. You can let your characters notice any small detail which will help them to accomplish their goals.
  • Super memory. Any factoid in your world is either invented by you or something you can look up in a matter of hours. So you can have your characters recall any relevant information on the spot.
  • Super people knowledge. You know when your characters are lying or bluffing or how they would behave in hypothetical situations. You can let your characters know that too. Call it intuition or knowing that person very well.
  • Super thinking speed. When someone follows a plan and something goes wrong, they need to make up a new plan on the spot. Due to the time pressure and stressfulness of the situation, this often goes badly in the real world. But as an author you have as much time as you need to come up with a new plan which you can then hand to your character within seconds.
  • Super luck. You can have events play out exactly the way which benefits your character most. You can then retroactively attribute this to the superior intellect and planning skill of your character. The main difference between a genius plan and a stupid plan is that the first one works and the latter one fails.
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The simple truth is that most fiction plots aren't believable at all, once you distance yourself from your immersion and think them through.

Almost all fiction plots employ a fair amount of good luck and handwaving. Authors get away with this with two simple tricks.

1. Tell the reader that your protagonist can do X

The first trick is to posit the protagonist's superhuman abilities.

A playwright whose name I forget brilliantly illustrated this by writing the IQs of his characters on their foreheads. Thus, whatever the person with an IQ of "145" said came off as intelligent, and whatever the person with an IQ of "79" did was considered stupid.

In the same way, writers of fiction simply state that their characters are strong or clever or whatever and the reader takes this as a fact and thereby allows the writer to let the character win every fistfight or find all the clues to a murder mystery, and the reader will not notice how unlikely this would all be in real life.

Of course good writers don't just say "John was stronger than any other person on Earth" but let the reader come to that conclusions by illustrating this. I just read one of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, and in it Child writes that "in the military Reacher failed driving but excelled in everything else". There are other similar messages, some through backstory others through on stage interactions, that build an impression of ruthless courage combined with above average fighting ability all of which makes it believable when Reacher wins against all odds in the end.

2. Fulfill your readers' daydreams

The second trick is to get the reader on the side of the protagonist so that even if what the protagonist achieves is somewhat unlikely the reader will be pleased to see the protagonist achieve it.

If the reader really, really wants the protagonist to win, because the reader identifies with the protagonist, shares his goals, and feels for his losses, he won't mind a little bit of suspension of disbelief to allow the hero to overcome the antagonist or get the girl.


One other thing helps, and that is the distribution of intelligence among your readers. About 98% of the population have an average or below average intelligence (IQ 130 or lower), and because of their limited cognitive ability they won't be able to distinguish real brilliance from fake brilliance.

This means that when you present something to your readers that appears brilliant, they will assume that it is.


Examples.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo's willpower to overcome the lure of the One Ring seems superhuman. In fact many of the other characters are either shown to succumb to it or state that they would. How then can Frodo's achievement be believed? Because Tolkien has Gandalf and the Elves continually comment on the unique strength of character of the Hobbits. They say Frodo has willpower, therefore the reader believes that he has.

Why do readers accept the superhuman powers of comic book superheroes? Because they themselved would like to have similar powers. Therefore they allow their idols to have them and don't find the concept ridiculous.

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The best way to write a clever person engaging in a battle of wits is to research the situation thoroughly and then let your characters work through the problem at a speed that is minutes compared to hours of research.

Consider the following scenario:

A modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Watson are in a sinister trap by Professor Moriarty. Moriarty has tricked the pair into entering a room with a Nuclear Bomb, a timer counting down from ten minutes and a gun with only one bullet. Moriarty, from a safe location, presents the following challenge: When the clock hits zero, the door will open and the men are free to go. However, if the gun is not fired, the nuclear bomb will go off, and London will be a crater. And if the gun is shot and at least one person in the room is not dead before the clock hits zero, then Moriarty will remotely detonate the Nuclear Bomb. Because they suspected that the case was nuclear in nature, Sherlock and Watson are both wearing radiation proof suits, so they won't get irradiated and die shortly after and the room they're locked in is shielded, so the radiation will remain inside, but they still have quite a problem on their hands. Who will take the gun and what will his target be? Or more importantly, how do they get out of this alive?

Well, that's where your research needs to play in. We know that, because this is Sherlock Holmes with Nukes, Watson lives, because Watson is the narrative voice of all Holmes stories, so by dint of story existing, he lives. Watson would never shoot Sherlock, and Sherlock would see the logic in shooting Watson over himself because they still need to beat Moriarty, and that's his job. And neither will nuke London, a major city and seat of their nations government nor through inaction let London be nuked.

Sherlock's answer depends on what research I, the real writer, am free to set up the scenario so there was a way out of the death trap... and the solution has already been presented in my scenario, but it requires you to know what I did and how Holmes can use it to his advantage.

While Holmes is thinking it out, he and Wattson argue over which of them will die and who will sacrafice himself. Watson would naturally make the argument that Holmes needs to live. Holmes calls him an idiot for not seeing the obvious, Wattson insists he can't beat Moriarty. The fight goes on, the clock gets closer and closer to zero. Drama and tension ensue. Finally down to the wire, Holmes convinces Watson to give him the gun and let him do what they both know he needs to be the one to at least shoot the gun... He cannot watch his friend commit suicide. Watson agrees, and stands in the line of fire. Holmes aims the gun at Watson and hesitates... Watson now starts to get upset because there are now seconds left on the clock. It's in the final moments, and if Holmes doesn't act now, the whole arguement will be for naught. Holmes still hesitates. As we get to the final five, Holmes takes a deep breath and...

Yells "Duck!" Watson does so, Holmes pulls the trigger, the bullet flies over Watson's head and hits the Nuke. It explodes... but with a much less dramatic and definately not "London Destroying" blast. In fact, the room is intact. The door opens, Holmes grabs Watson and they run out, closing the door. Moriarty is irrate and presses the detination button... and the bomb explodes but only with enough force to destroy the bomb. It doesn't make a mushroom cloud... it doesn't even break the shielded room.

Of course, we halve to have Watson ask Holmes what the hell, as the readers are doing. It's then we get the solution to the puzzle: It's a Nuclear Bomb!

Or to explain, Nuclear Bombs are very sensative and difficult devices. One of the many reasons is that, to get that detonation that you want, you have to implode the Uranium... and in order to do that, the fissile material is surrounded with conventional explosives that are rigged to go off with precision timing. If any of these explosives are even the slightest bit off time (with a second between detonations being way too late) then you go from having a Nuclear Bomb to a very expensive Dirty Bomb.

Knowing this, the answer is elementary. If you detonate even one conventional explosion early, the Nuclear Bomb is just a Bomb. London is saved, both heroes now have a survivable chance. Sherlock wouldn't tell Watson this because Moriarty is watching them from a far so if Holmes told Watson this, then Moriaty would have ample time to remotely detonate the bomb. Holmes needed to wait until the last second before he enacted his plan as he figured that Moriarty would be so caught in the drama of the final second disarm that he would not know what was happening until it was too late, and if the remaining packets exploded they will still die. And what Hollywood movie would have a ticking time bomb that was Disarmed with 9:30 minutes to spare and cut to the Bomb Squad having cake in the office while celebrating the Squads new disarmament record.

Since the gun firing disarms the bomb and the clock opens the door, if Holmes would additionally risk Moriarty pressing the button anyway, which is still leathal while they waited for the clock to hit zero. And of course, the shielded room and proper radiation gear was just writing out the problem in that the radioactive core is going to be spread by the blast. Which did happen, but again, it was minimally reduced.

I did nothing clever. I just researched many aspects of the Cold War including the weapons systems and hey, it's unlikely that disarming a nuclear bomb will ever be important in my entire life. But it hurts no one to know the basic principle of it and if you don't show it, someone who does know this trick will show you.

And, to be meta, even the use of Holmes was an allusion to a trait of the character. Holmes knows what is important for him to make his deductions because he specifically studies the things he needs to know that many other people will over look. And only those things. There's a cannon story where Watson lists Holmes' areas of expertise and among them, it's not astoronomics. In fact, Watson was shock to learn that Holmes could identify where a body came from by the dirt on his boots, but literally did not know that the Earth revolved around the Sun (yes, you fans of the BBC series, that exchange was from the books. They weren't just making it up).

As Holmes reasoned, knowing all the soils of London was more important because it was useful for solving London based crimes... but knowing the earth revolved around the sun was useless when solving London Crimes. At best, he would only need to know that it rose in the east and set in the west, but why it was always that way was useless and retaining that fact took up too much memory in his brain that could be used for knowing something useful.

And that's really the trick. It's not about being witty, clever, smart, or stratigic the moment you write the plan down. It's about researching the things that make you say "I never knew that" and then writing about characters that did. Just because they Have 10 minutes, doesn't mean you should write the entire scene just as quickly.

There are two rules about the difference between a good Lawyer and a Great Lawyer:

"A Good Lawyer will only ask questions when he wants the answer. A Great Lawyer will only ask questions when he knows the answer."

"A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge."

Translation: Know the outcome before you do it. Works for clever characters and the clever people who write them.

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One way to depict a brilliant military mind is to find a successful battle or campaign in history which starts from similar conditions to the type of starting conditions you want at the start of the battle or campaign in your story, and then more or less copy the historical battle or campaign.

But you change details to perhaps copy an event in Earth's recorded history into a space war, or a war in Earth's distant future or past, or on a another planet, or in some fantasy setting. And you change some details so that instead of maybe a few leaders have the good ideas that lead to victory, the protagonist thinks of all the good ideas himself. And possibly you might shorten the campaign or battle to omit as many of the boring parts as possible. And possibly you think of ways to increase the apparent odds against victory - while keeping those apparent odds irrelevant to the outcome - to make the eventual victory seem more impressive.

And the same thing goes for other types of strategic thinking. You can copy examples of brilliant political strategic thinking or brilliant financial strategic thinking from history, and have your brilliant characters behave like the most brilliant politicians or financiers in history.

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