Blast From the Past: To Forgive or Not to Forgive

So I ran into a complete “do not want” when I started to write this post, and instead went looking for something appropriate from the much earlier days of this post. And lo and behold, I found an old gem about how readers will forgive most things as long as you give them enough pleasure in the process. By which I mean if you give a satisfying story in some way, all sorts of technical issues will be forgiven because the readers liked enough about it to overlook the problems.

So without further ado, here’s the rest of the piece.

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. Yeah, I can understand. Something that clunks along with a shining gem of awesomeness stuck in the middle makes a lot of things forgivable. As long as there’s something shiny, or lots of shiny.

  2. So as a writer, the idea is to maximize “goodies” while minimizing problems in order to maximize the number of people where goodies > problems.

    The catch is that one man’s goodie is another man’s problem. In Big Blue, for instance, I tried really hard to get the military activity right and that was a selling point for some people. But I also received complaints because of the details about the military activity. Go figure.

    1. Or someone can have a problem with something that is also a reader cookie for them.

  3. “the thing that does something unforgivable and is trashed without ceremony”

    This was me with ST: Into Darkness. When they showed the Enterprise -the ship that Gene himself said could not enter the atmosphere, that we see struggling, with the hull temperature rising, in Tomorrow is Yesterday, that ship – coming out of the water like the Yamato and flying off I pretty much stopped watching. (Okay, I sat through it to see Benedict, but even he could not save it.)

    Unpardonable. Even with the BS about it being an alternate universe. Some things cannot, should not, be changed.

    I have not seen a ST movie since then.

    1. Or the previous movie where it’s been built on the planetary surface. :/
      There was much about the reboots that were interesting and awesome and then there was just too much that was just….No, no, no, no…

    2. The very early Enterprise design was supposed to be capable of landing, but that was when it had a crew of a dozen. The engine nacelles and saucer were the landing legs and landing pad, respectively. Then they flipped it over and gave it a crew of 430, and it couldn’t land anymore (except for an emergency crash landing of the saucer section after explosive separation from the engineering section, per some of the Star Trek material).

      1. According to Inside Star Trek (by Steven E. Whitfield)*, the whole reason behind Enterprise (and other Constellation Class ships) not being able to land was production costs. They decided that it would be too expensive from a special effects stand to show the ship landing every episode or so. From that decision was born the transporter (and shuttle craft) 🙂

        We can see some of those early concepts in the Enterprise Class (Enterprise D) with the detachable saucer and battle bridge in TNG.

        *Well worth the read if you can find a copy. **

        **one of my favorite parts of the book is the discussion of spelling and pronunciation of Vulcan names – one Vulcan in particular.

        1. Small pedantry: ENTERPRISE was *Constitution* class.

          Yeah, budget did a lot of things. The reason shuttlecraft looked like shoeboxes? That’s all they had the money to build–curves are expensive.

          “Beam me up Scotty!”? They wanted the transporter to have a receiver, but they couldn’t afford to build it.

          McCoy’s exotic medical tools? They bought a bunch of exotic salt shakers for the salt-vampire episode and didn’t use them because the audience wouldn’t know what they were. But they’d spent the money, so they had to use them. So they came out of Sickbay’s props budget. That one actually worked out well for them, for a change.


    3. Now I’m hearing a voice sing ‘Uchuu Senkan Entaprisu’. And getting a bunch of suggestions.

    4. The biggest flaw in Star Trek Into Darkness (STID) is that they tossed away all the character development from the first film, and went right into tension between the main crew. Scotty as a peacnik?!? Nope, stop the film and let me out, as I’m totally done.

  4. Since various posts here over the past week have gotten me thinking about character-centric fiction, I will say that in character-centric stuff, the one unforgivable sin in my mind is making it about a character I don’t like. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four of those where the story could have worked if only I didn’t find the main character a complete $@#$%^!!. One of those would be that Star Trek reboots that Wyldkat and paladin discuss above; it’s hard to enjoy anything in a story about Kirk fulfilling his destiny when you’re rooting for Kirk to get eaten by the giant bug. I’ve had similar problems in other genres, including mystery (nothing is at stake except the detective’s ego, and I hate the detective), romance (the only reason I want these two horrible people to get together is because I don’t want them inflicted on anyone else), and fantasy (yes, I get it, your author thinks you’re awesome, now go away).

    Of course, I don’t know if this is advice that can be put into practice in any way, since one man’s awesome badass is another man’s Mary Sue.

    1. Or GOT. After a bit, every character I liked got messily and horribly killed, and I stopped caring and started cheering for the ice zombies. Go ice zombies!!!

      1. Having gotten partway through the series of books, I expected the dying, and frankly, was why I stopped reading the series – the only character I even vaguely liked was Tyrion; which was the main reason why I even started watching the series at all.

    2. I’m aware I’m in the minority, but I kinda liked Chris Pine’s Kirk. I find him funny. Still not the same, of course, as the originals, but I have to give the actors credit for doing their best and carrying off a number of the little character quirks and such (my favorite characters from TOS were Spock and McCoy). I do agree that the plots suffered from the writing (I liked the first reboot, was okay with the second, had more fun with the last one) but it’s not something I blame on the actors, myself.

      The biggest weakness to me was Sarek, even though he was such a minor role. He paled greatly to Mark Lenard’s Sarek.

      What entertained me was finding a great number of Diane Duane’s ST novel influences coming through in the reboots.

  5. You mean like great stories set in an Empire where everyone has four-character names, often without a vowel? Yes, Pam, I just read the latest, yesterday. I think you wrote yourself into a corner with that concept. “w is a silent vowel”?!?

    I apparently missed the previous one. 36 made sense, anyway, which is pretty amazing for a series. Oh, how exciting! Amazon says I missed three of them. The “Buy with 1-click” button is evil.

    1. Dammit, the Oners were suppose to be bit players. They were BAD. They were the reason Earth was acting so aggressively. So they got stupid &^%$ names so the readers would instantly recognize “Oh, right, the _other_ bad guys.” On those rare occasions I would need them.

      And then I made the mistake of writing too much back history for them . . . and the stories started coming . . .

      I’d recommend reading them in (1) Shadow Zone (2) Last Merge (3) Nowhere Man order, just assuming those are the missed ones.

      1. And I had (note the tense) missed Flying, too. They read amazingly well out-of-order. Great job on that. I had also forgotten that Esbo is Kitchen. (No one who hasn’t read it will even understand what that means.)

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