In explaining the Big Idea behind her latest novel Vicious, V.E. Schwab notes that the elements (and even characters) that you think are important when you begin the novel are not always the elements that are important when you finish the novel — the writing of the novel itself reveals what’s interesting about the world you’re building.
Vicious started as a lifeboat book.
I’d been riding the publishing waves for a couple of years. My first novel was still months out from hitting shelves, I was working on my second, and I was already having trouble adjusting to the transparency that came with writing under contract. I felt exposed. Instead of working in a dark, comfy shell, I was working in a bubble, intensely aware of my editor’s looming form and impending judgment. And at some point, pinned between deadlines and watching eyes, I remember making a decision.
I was going to write a new book. And I wasn’t going to tell anybody.
It felt so…devious.
And I couldn’t wait to start.
The question was, where to start? If I could turn off the business side of my brain, recently so loud and intrusive with words like sellable and marketable and audience so that the only voice in my head was my own, what would I write?
Not superheroes, mind you. Not the classic kind from the Golden Age of comics, paragons of self-sacrifice and justice battling their evil counterparts. I’d recently absorbed the Watchmen graphic novel, and was completely taken by the realness of those characters. They weren’t self-identified heroes. They were people. Damaged people. Self-interested, maladjusted, strange, and complicated people. Stories like Watchmen reinforced an idea that I had already pondered and wanted to explore further: real people don’t automatically become superheroes. They just become the same flawed people with superpowers on top. It changed them, yes, but didn’t automatically make them better. If anything, I thought, it would probably make them worse. And as someone who has always liked her people painted in shades of gray, I loved that conceit. I went with it.
This isn’t the part where I say that Vicious spilled out, fully realized and everything I wanted it to be. It didn’t. It wasn’t some brief, passionate affair. A fiction fling. Hell, Vicious wasn’t even Vicious. It started out as the story of a man named Alt. Now, Alt’s not even in Vicious, but I wouldn’t have Vicious without him.
Alt shows up in a city called Merit (which is in the book). He has the ability to see people’s future in reflective surfaces (it’s kind of killing his love life) and he’s only in Merit for a couple days when two groups try to recruit him. One group called themselves the heroes, and the other group, the villains. The heroes had a sense of purpose, or at least delusion, but the villains only took that name because they were against the heroes. And I was utterly fascinated by the idea that these terms—hero and villain—were meaningless to them, that it wasn’t really a matter of good and evil at all, merely opposition. The villains weren’t against society. Nor would they even consider themselves evil. The members of the villain gang were there only because they had vendettas against the members of the hero gang. It was personal.
The leader of the “heroes” was a man named Eli. The leader of the “villains” was a man named Victor. I started to write a flashback with the two of them as college students, more as an exercise in backstory than anything else. But something happened. Within a few pages, Victor and Eli became immeasurably more interesting than Alt. Theirs was a story of two brilliant, damaged boys and a dangerous idea. A theory turned experiment with disastrous results. A world filled with jealousy, and murder, science and power and revenge. A world without heroes.
The title came the day I opened a fresh document and started to tell their story.
Victor and Eli took over everything. They were smart, and cunning, and deranged. They were deeply flawed, and their superpowers, instead of making them better, made them worse.
And they were so damn fun to write.
They never behaved like heroes (whether that automatically makes them villains, you’ll have to decide for yourself), but from the beginning, they both had rules. Victor had cold, hard logic and a level of detachment that allowed him to assess everything rationally, while Eli had a massively distorted moral compass, a sense of God-given purpose. These personal forces guided them as much as any ability (and it’s not about their abilities, really; it’s about what the abilities—the search, the attainment, the aftermath—bring out in them).
Of course, it’s not just their story. The world of Vicious is populated by a variety of other EOs—ExtraOrdinary people—the most important of which is a pair of sisters, Sydney and Serena, who find themselves on opposite sides of the same fight. You might argue that thirteen-year-old Sydney is the only real hero in the book (I would argue there are no heroes in this book).
I spent more than two years building the world of Vicious, writing it down in order—from Victor and Eli’s first interaction sophomore year, through the experiments that changed everything, to their final confrontation in a half-built Merit high-rise ten years later—and then breaking it apart and putting back together in a different shape. By the time you hit the end, you’ll have all the pieces. By the time I hit the end, I wasn’t ready to let go.
My Tor editor and I joke that Victor is my sociopathic supervillain alter ego—we certainly have a similar wardrobe, and we would both rather observe and assess than engage—but honestly, he probably has more of me in him than I’d like to admit. So does Eli, for that matter. They all do. The cast of Vicious is my best and worst, all the strange and sick (and sickly funny) little quirks, and I love every one of them.
I hope you will, too.
(I eventually told someone else about the book.)