I’m sure everyone who reads this blog has encountered books, movies, games… pretty much everything, actually, where they know damn well it’s flawed, but it’s got enough in its favor that the flaws don’t matter. Then there’s the flip side, the thing that does something unforgivable and is trashed without ceremony (or with one, if you really want to).
So what’s the difference?
I’m going to give a little example from a different field: the Overlord series of games. I’ve played – and thoroughly enjoyed – the Wii game, Overlord: Dark Origins. It was slick, fun, but a little too short. But on the strength of that, I recently bought Overlord and Overlord 2 for PC. Both these games have serious flaws in the interface – it’s frustrating and way too difficult to do certain key tasks. In most games, that would be unforgivable. In these games, it isn’t, because they have exactly one piece of utter brilliance that distinguishes them from anything else I’ve played. They’re funny. Perversely, and often wet-yourself-laughing funny. If you know the standard fantasy tropes (and I’m sure everyone here does), this is a game series that takes those tropes and twists. Of course, it helps that the game was designed by one Ms Pratchett (who, yes, is the daughter of Terry Pratchett) and she clearly shares her father’s interesting view of life. I can’t see anyone but a Pratchett including such gems as “Never trust anything that’s head-height with your groin” in non-player-character dialog. Or describing a succubus with “She just wants a little attention, a little love, a little blood. Just like the rest of us, really” (I should probably mention that the player is the Evil Overlord, with options about precisely how evil you can be).
No matter how frustrating it is to make the game do what I need it to do, these little gems – not to mention the expressions of absolute delight and adoration on the evil little faces of my minions (yes, you get to control gremlin-like minions) – when they bring me treasure – keep me playing.
What it comes down to is that as long as the payoff exceeds the problems, the problems are forgivable. It’s going to vary for everyone, of course, and something that tramples all over your personal hot-buttons would need to be very good elsewhere for the payoff to make it forgivable: but it’s doable.
What I don’t recommend is assuming that you’ve got enough goodies in there to override any problems. There’s no guarantee it will work. Sometimes something can hit a cultural need and take off no matter what the flaws. If the same piece had shown up a few years earlier or later, it might well have sunk without trace. Other times, someone writes something that would have done wonderfully in, say, the 1950s. Today, not so much – our culture has shifted too much. All our cultures have. That or it has no real fit, but fifty years from now people discover it and start saying how much of a visionary so and so was (which is usually not much of a consolation for so and so, who is probably dead). So no matter what, it’s important for a writer to do their absolute best to make their work as good as they can – but don’t get out of joint over the inferior author who just happened to do enough right to become hugely popular. Luck happens. Wish that person well, and get on with making your own. It’s a whole lot easier to see why something did well – or didn’t – in retrospect than it is to predict what will or won’t work. If you’re ever in doubt, a little googling to see predictions they were making 10 years ago won’t go astray (It’s also a neat story seed for near-future stories, since often enough the predictions are kind of sort of there. We do have video phones, for instance, only we call them “Skype”).
Okay. Now I’ve muddled the whole thing into a terrible mess, which is what I get for writing this while I’m at work and while I’m watching a script run so I can work out where I need to start manually testing the wretched thing (don’t ask. I’ll tell you, and most of what I say won’t be polite, even by my standards). Let’s go back a step or three…
Whether something has enough to give you the reader/player/buyer/user/whatever enough of a happy to override any problems with it is a personal thing. Some people have their nitpicker set to max and killed their happy years ago. Perfection wouldn’t satisfy them. Others are quite relaxed about anything that doesn’t stomp all over their hot buttons, and of course you get everything in between. So long as we authors remember that our readers want to get something out of what we write (for fiction authors, the something usually involves emotion at some level), and do our best to provide, we shouldn’t bloody our virtual noses too badly.
And listen when someone like Sarah or Dave says things like “That’s not going to go anywhere because it will make too many people go ick.” Knowing what turns off 90% of your likely readers is a good thing – writing it anyway is (probably) unforgivable, at least as far as said readers are concerned.