The Big Idea: V.E. Schwab
Posted on September 25, 2013 Posted by John Scalzi 18 Comments
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.)
Vicious: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. See the book trailer. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.
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Now I must read this book!?!!!
… Good job. :)
Great post. I was lucky enough to read Vicious a little early, and I have to say, it’s quite, quite brilliant. I can’t recommend it enough.
Great post! Love hearing about how VICIOUS came to be. I read the first 100 pages early, and it is so compelling, smart, and full of the things I love about those with superpowers, namely all the things Victoria mentioned that compelled her to write the book. When I get my copy today, I’ll be diving back in. greedily.
GAH can’t wait to read this! And I absolutely loved hearing about where it came from and how it evolved. Thanks to both of you for sharing! :)
I really enjoyed reading about how the story evolved unexpectedly out of the original idea. I love hearing about the process of writers going from the idea kernel to the full blown narrative. Can’t wait to read this one!
I work in the graphic arts field at the gritty, inky end, and I recently read a short article by the artist on the art direction and development for the cover of this book, and now HERE’S THE BOOK! Small, inky world!
No such thing as too many stories about ordinary people who just happen to have superpowers. Isn’t it the quintessential Cinderella story that’s popped up in different forms over the years? Dorky/awkward/angry/otherwise flawed average Joe suddenly finds he can lift cars/fly/incinerate people with his mind? Hadn’t heard of “Vicious,” will have to put it on hold at the library.
Has anyone read the short story “The Healer,” by Aimee Bender? Another real-people-surreal-abilities type of thing, and available full text here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/137330728/Aimee-Bender-The-Healer
This book already was on my radar thanks to the rather brilliant and ruthless short story that is up on Tor.com. It’s in the next shipment of books I’m going to order. :)
I can’t wait to read this book. I love hearing about how books come to be. :)
I’m a little scared to read this book. Like I’m about to board a moral roller coaster and I missed the safety video. I refuse to keep my hands inside the car.
Awesome post! I love books that deal with that moral grey area, and where the heroes and villains aren’t clear-cut. I can’t wait to read this book!
Currently reading Steelheart, so I might try to fit a book in between to cleanse my palate, but this write up definitely piqued my interest.
Hey Patrick, where’s that Vicious art direction article at?
Okay, I’m going to have to stop reading the Big Idea posts. MUST READ ALL THE THINGS! It’s problematic due to the time-sucking day job. But then quitting the time-sucking day job would mean I couldn’t buy books. Dilemma.
Adding to my to-read queue!
I wanted to read this based on the cover alone, but the excerpt is what sold me. Does anyone know if it’s going to be a series?
This is not my normal cup of tea but after reading that excerpt…DAMN. That was very well done and now the book is on my Amazon wish list.
Downloaded and listened to the audible version. Awesome! Not at all my usual cup of tea, but it was gripping.