The Boondock Saints used to be one of my favorite movies. Then I saw the sequel, which was kind of mediocre, but what really ruined the first movie for me, was the attitude of the director on the commentary track. He would critisize other sequels for their lack of understanding of how to do a sequel and he would then go on and do the exact same things in his own movie.
I get that this is actually pretty absurd. I shouldn’t not like a movie because of extraneous things like this, but I’m only human and I can’t keep everything cleanly compartmentalized. However, in this case, Troy Duffy, the director, just lacked any sort of self-criticism, which would have enabled him to make an actually good script for the sequel. Not that the script of the first one was particularly good, as it relied mostly on the charisma of the actors and pretty unique action.
Self-Criticism is actually a skill and its very hard to acquire. The important part is that you have to get over the “this can’t be good, because I can’t do anything good” mindset and into “this can’t be good, because its been done to death before” or “this can’t be good, because the main character has no redeeming qualities” mindset. A lot of people are unwilling to like their own stuff, but when you can actually come up with real reasons why you should dislike your own creations, you are probably well on your way to becoming good at what you are doing.
One of the first questions you will come up with is that is this actually original. The answer is, no. Your idea is not original. Quoting South Park, The Simpsons already did it. That’s not a reason to not do it. You can still take a new angle, combine it with another idea in a unique way, or simply do it better than anyone before. Has someone done those things yet? There’s a good chance, yes. Just don’t worry about it. As long as you’re not ripping anyone’s work blatantly, its ok. Do try to be original, just remember that most of the time your originality is more of a new perspective on an idea or a combination of existing ideas than something completely different from what’s been done before.
And its ok too. Enjoying something requires indoctrination. There’s always going to be audience for truly strange and exotic stuff, but most of the audience will be more interested in something they’ll know they have a good chance of liking. (Of course, this only applies if you are actually going for an audience.)
How do you develop self-criticism then? First, learn to criticize others. Read critics’ opinions on things you know about and think about what they have brought up. Were they right to do it? Are they focusing on things that really matter (like I didn’t do in the beginning of this article)? Are they bringing in their own prejudices and letting those blind them?
Then, ask others to criticize your work. Feel free to defend your work, but also remember that any critique you receive might very well be correct. Actually, if there’s no personal problem involved, all critique is correct, at least from that persons point of view. Of course, one persons stance might not be very representative of your audience as a whole, but still, if that’s all you can get, use it.
Remember that the point here is that you learn to identify these things in your own work. You’ll probably never be able to do it on your own, but since you are still the person who is primarily responsible for you work, being able to identify at least the most glaring problems is a very good skill.
So, why am I writing about this on a gaming blog? Because this is a good skill in RPGs as well. A GM won’t get into a rut, if she can avoid using the same basis for adventures again and again and can analyze what went wrong in a game or campaign afterwards. Players don’t have as much of a chance to affect the games, but they have some, especially in character creation.