“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.”
Human, All Too Human
I was reading Ron Hansen’s book, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”, which has been cited as one of the major influences for my all-time favorite video game, “Red Dead Redemption II”.
For a long time, I couldn’t put a finger on why “Red Dead” was as good as it was, despite my countless attempts. I felt that perhaps, it was best left that way.
But the book totally transformed my perspective on the game.
In “Red Dead“, we have a character named Dutch van der Linde, the leader of the gang of outlaws. Reading the book, I was pleasantly surprised to observe just how much the character was based on Jesse James, a real-life outlaw and leader of the notorious James gang.
Both Dutch and Jesse justified their crimes as good causes, as the former rebelled against modern civilization and capitalization, and the latter saw himself as a Southern loyalist, rebelling against the aftermath of the Civil War.
Both descended into insanity as they trod deeper into their criminal nature, developing a bloodthirst for more and more violence, and forgetting the “good causes” that they initially championed. Both were wrecked with paranoia, as they feared their assassination and betrayal by their gang members.
The main characters in the book and the game similarly experienced disillusionment following the derangement of their leaders.
In “Assassination“, Robert Ford grew out of his hero-worship of Jesse after he learned that Jesse had violently interrogated Robert’s family member. In “Red Dead“, Arthur Morgan questioned his own loyalty to the gang after he witnessed Dutch break his own principles and murder innocents in cold blood.
And then, I watched the movie adaption of “Assassination“, and that’s when it really clicked for me.
There’s a scene where Jesse James stands in the middle of a railroad track and feels the rocks under his feet tremble as he stops a moving train to be robbed. The exact scene is played out in one of the first missions in “Red Dead”, with Arthur Morgan standing in the tracks.
But of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty other books and movies that “Red Dead” was influenced by. In creating a compelling new story, the developers went back to old stories and shaped them into something that was uniquely their own.
Think of a work of art that you admire, like your favorite movie, book, or song, for example. Because of how great you think it is, it’s pretty easy to assume that it was simply divine inspiration — that the artist is gifted, that they just created something utterly original out of nowhere.
But more often than not, a work of art is simply a unique combination of the artist’s influences.
As human beings, we pick up certain elements that we observe from the world around us, from other people and their work. We take these elements and apply them in a way that feels natural to ourselves. We do this all the time, even if we don’t realize it — it’s how we learned to walk and speak languages, among many other things. It’s the same when doing creative work.
If you’re seeking to expand your creative vocabulary and skills, consider deeply studying your favorite works. Reverse-engineer them by tracing the artist’s influences. Most of them are generous in sharing who their heroes and what their favorite works are. With the Internet, getting this information couldn’t be easier.
From that, you can not only have a more holistic view of their work, but also an understanding of how they’ve done what they’ve done. In turn, you can apply this understanding into your own work.
J.R.R Tolkien’s amazingly vast world of Lord of the Rings might seem like it came out of a dream, but Tolkien himself took a lot of inspiration from various mythologies, religion, poetry and literature, and even his own experiences in childhood and in serving in World War I.
The same goes to George Lucas, who borrowed heavily from history in creating Star Wars. His inspiration includes the samurai, Nazi Germany, Ancient Rome, the Knights Templar, as well as conflicts such as the Vietnam War and the Cold War.
Inspiration doesn’t always just come around. A lot of times, you’d have to run around looking for it.
It’s like that metaphor of handling a gun. You can’t fire one without any ammunition. And in this case, you can’t create substantial work without having put in the research.