To forgive or not to forgive

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.


  1. “Easier to beg forgiveness than ask for permission” is probably not a tactic a writer ought to use very often. Sometimes something with a large gross factor is important to the plot, and has to be in there. But a cany writer won’t drag out the scene, nor be any more explicit than he or she can get away with. But usually the “ick!” can either be edited out altogether, or happen behind closed doors. But anything you’ve got misgiving about, or several of your beta readers objected to, needs to be reconsidered before the paying customers get their hands on it.

    1. Pam,

      Exactly. I rely a LOT on my betas for that, since my personal “ick” levels are…. well, I think they exist somewhere, but I haven’t really managed to do more than approach the general vicinity of them.

      Unless I can smell it. I have an unfortunately good sense of smell, and certain stinky items will send me running for the bathroom so fast.

  2. Eh. I try to be aware of other people’s icks, because my icks are weird. But yeah. There’s a romance writer I want to dip in oil for her political beliefs (they’re that dumb and weird) but whom I read because her characters are otherwise fun, so you ignore the tourettes-like political preaching.

    OTOH her latest I read had SEVERAL logic flaws. That means it never got finished. I read ahead and saw that not only was the end as predicted, but she’d committed several unforced grievances against logic, character and rationality in getting there. And then I said “ew” and put the book in the trading bin. What does it mean for her? The next one won’t be bought in any format not even used till I read enough of a sample to make sure she’s back on her meds or what have you.

    1. I shall remind myself never to write unmedicated. Given what happens when I AM medicated, this is probably not quite as good an idea as it seems.

  3. I think it would be pretty hard not to offend someone or other. I know someone who got so upset by the living cat-fur blanket in _Brother’s in Arms_ that she won’t read anything by Bujold ever. (I think someone told her about the kitten-tree in _Cetaganda_.)

    The point being… I know some*one* who had a “won’t forgive” reaction to the cat-fur blanket.

    1. Oh, yes. No matter what there will be people who get offended. It does help to be aware of the more common sins and avoid those, though, just on the “Let’s not piss off more people than we absolutely have to” principle.

  4. You can’t please everybody, of course. I wonder how many people won’t read Lackey because of Vanyel’s homosexuality and there are plenty of people who won’t read Williamson because it’s “violent, right wing, gun porn”. I really don’t like “evil” (as I define the term) protagonists and cross that line too far, or too often, and say bye bye to me as a reader (I know. I know. Big threat there.)

    But every one of those things has its own following. For me? I write the kind of stories I like to read figuring I can’t be alone. (But then, considering my sales, or lack thereof, I could be mistaken. Insecurities R us.)

    1. I’m fairly sure there are quite a few who won’t go near Lackey because of Vanyel the Wet (Yes, they’re good books, but he’s STILL wet 😉 ). My personal bug-bear is characters who don’t do anything. You know, the ones who have stuff happen to them, but don’t ever actually initiate anything.

      Since I tend to write Evil Bastard – don’t ask me why, because I have no idea, there’s probably a pretty good chance I’ll hit your “ew” buttons at some point. For me the fascination seems to be the evil SOB who chooses to do good. Not really “anti-hero” in the classic sense, but something close to it.

      1. I can take most anything in small doses. Some things the dose has to be _really_ small, but an occasional line crossing can be tolerated. Cross the line too many times and it becomes “this isn’t for me.”

  5. “For the Overlord!”

    “For you, Master!”

    Must go send my evil minions out to slaughter more sheep and kill more elves….bwahahahahaha

  6. What fascinates me is that my wife takes one look at SF or fantasy films and says, “Ick! Monsters, ugly, oooh… go watch it by yourself.” Then she turns on an in-depth doctor show where they are chopping some poor soul into pieces, or a “I suffered xxx abuse” show with all the details (where I get too angry to watch!) and she wonders why I ask her to turn those off, or I go quietly away to another room and do something else. One person’s ick is another person’s fascination? She’ll often assure me that this is factual — which doesn’t reduce the ick factor at all for me.

    There’s a mixture of hot buttons, payoffs, and other stuff going on there that’s pretty difficult to fully analyze. I think you’re right, though, part of it is whatever attracts you (as Sarah has commented, there are some things that you couldn’t pay me enough to write OR read), along with figuring out the right way to hit the audience. Payoffs… yeah, if you’re going to drag me through the muck, there better be a real good payoff somewhere too. I don’t enjoy wallowing in the muck, although I gather there are those who do.

    Incidentally, I’ve never found the assurance that “this is historical” or “real” to be sufficient to justify some of the wallowing. I want to hold my history and reality to a higher standard!

    1. It’s always a personal thing. And sometimes something that works in small doses is a turn-off when the author is wallowing in it. I suspect the only real rule there is is “Everything in moderation – including moderation”

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