If you’ve been following me for awhile, you will know how much I enjoyed Mike Chen’s books. Here and Now and Then then A Beginning at the End and now We Could Be Heroes. I love the way Chen presents characters and moral ambiguity. His upcoming book, We Could Be Heroes, is no exception. After reading I knew I wanted to host another interview, so let’s go!
An emotional adventure about two misfits who have extraordinary powers, but have forgotten who they were before. The vigilante and the villain must team up to stop a mad scientist who threatens the city, while trying to figure out who they really are.
Jamie woke up two years ago in an empty apartment with no memory and only a few clues to who he might be, and also with the power to read other people’s memories. In the meantime, he’s become the Mind Robber, holding up banks for quick cash. Similarly, Zoe is searching for her past, and using her new extraordinary abilities of speed and strength…to deliver fast food. And occasionally beat up bad guys, if she feels like it.
When the two meet in a memory-loss support group, they realize they are each other’s best chance at discovering what happened to them. The quest will take them deep into a medical conspiracy that is threatening to spill out and wreak havoc on their city, and maybe the country. As the two get past their respective barriers, they’ll realize that their friendship is the thing that gives them the greatest power.
The line between hero and villain is pretty nebulous in We Could Be Heroes, can you talk about characters you like that also walk this line?
I think the most interesting characters are always within this push and pull. In Legends of Tomorrow — my favorite show on TV right now — Mick Rory is a notorious bank robber who starts off as a villain, and STILL gives into these tendencies, but he will do anything for his found family (and he writes romance novels, which is such an awesome character quirk). In Doctor Who, my favorite iteration of The Master was Michelle Gomez’s version from a few years ago, who wrestled with redemption and morality instead of the usual maniacal version of the character. In literature, Fonda Lee’s Green Bone saga has protagonists who do many morally questionable things but you understand and empathize with them.
Was it easier to write Jamie or Zoe? Who came to you first?
They’re both fun in different ways. Jamie is so neurotic, I probably relate to him way more, and I loved adding little touches showing how his neuroses helps him be a better cat owner or library borrower. So that came very naturally, along with the way he feels he really needs to rehearse and push himself to act like a villain — that overthinking is something I battle, so it was very easy to write. Zoe was just fun to write, so that comes easily in a different way, and I think we’ve all had friends like Zoe where they really want to do better but they’re just kind of disasters. These two have such strong voices that they just kind of fell together.
I did actually write Jamie first, and that was because he was the POV in a short story that inspired this book (more on that below).
Did you always know they would meet at a memory loss group? How much of the plot do you know before you start writing?
This story originated in 2016 as a short story called Anonymous, which was published in the June issue of Storyteller (now defunct). Jamie and Zoe were roughly the same, and the story is similar to the first half of chapter 5 at the support group, except back then it was an AA meeting. Given the emphasis on memories in the story, it made sense to shift it to that rather than stick with addiction. So I had a sense of who the characters were already when I started to expand — their voices, their quirks, their powers, and their backstories. What I didn’t know, however, was where it would be going. So that took some time to build out, including the addition of the mystery villain and the electricity part of the plot. But the tone and chemistry was set up very early on.
If this was adapted into a film or tv series, who would you cast as Zoe and Jamie?
I usually cast actors early on in the drafting process to help me get a sense of their vocal cadence, expressions, and mannerisms. I do a lot of visualizing when I think out a scene, so this helps a lot. Because of that Jamie has always been Matt Smith, and it’s funny because my editor asked me who I based him on and when I told her, she said “I knew I recognized it.” Zoe has been Ming-Na Wen, particularly some of her tougher looks from Agents of SHIELD. Zoe is quite a bit younger than Ming-Na Wen, so that wouldn’t work in a real-world perspective, but that’s what I see in my head, and I actually posted an aesthetic with this: https://twitter.com/mikechenwriter/status/1316052280060174336
How much do you know about a character before you begin writing? Do you know their pets?
I start with very basic traits and motivations. So in this case, casting an actor and general plot motivations. Quirks get layered in as I draft, from vocal quirks to personal likes (as in Jamie’s obsession with coffee). Sometimes, major things like pets are put in from the very beginning. Almost all of the animals in my books are based on my pets past and present — in this case, Jamie’s cat Normal is based on my cat Nermal in pretty much every way. https://twitter.com/mikechenwriter/status/1173964964760969217
Being defined by our past, versus our current choices, is a big theme in We Could Be Heroes, did you know you wanted to discuss that when writing or did that theme sort of just emerge?
I’ve realized that unintentionally this is a theme I keep returning to. My fourth book after HEROES deals with it as well, and I just turned in a proposal that does as well. They’re all dressed up in different ways and viewing it from different angles, but this is something that has always fascinated me in stories and though completely accidental, it’s apparently woven into the fabric of my storytelling. I’m guessing even if I try to move away from it, it’ll come through!
You were able to write a short story for the Star Wars universe, what other universe would you love to dip your toes into?
So many! Being very geeky about stuff, there are so many franchises that I adore and I’m constantly thinking about stories (this fan fic I wrote for Star Trek TNG is one of my favorite things I’ve done https://www.fanfiction.net/s/13078056/1/Sight). That being said, I feel like my style of writing and storytelling doesn’t fit for every franchise I love, so the great thing about Star Wars was that the anthology is very character focused. Anything I do would have to be more character-driven than plot-driven. So in addition to Star Wars, I’d clearly love to write for Star Trek — particularly the TNG/Picard period, though I really love Discovery as well.
Doctor Who is so big for my family that our daughter and dog got their names from it, though I am intimidated because Doctor Who time-travel stories are usually have very clever, intricate plotting and I worry about pulling that kind of thing of (I feel like my time travel in HERE AND NOW AND THEN was pretty straightforward). To round out my love of space opera, I’d love to do character stories in Mass Effect or Robotech (one of my biggest influences growing up), and as superheroes go, I would love to be able to write any of the classic X-Men and something in the irreverent universe of the animated Harley Quinn show.
About the Author
Mike Chen is a lifelong writer, from crafting fan fiction as a child to somehow getting paid for words as an adult. He has contributed to major geek websites (The Mary Sue, The Portalist, Tor) and covered the NHL for mainstream media outlets. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, Mike lives in the Bay Area, where he can be found playing video games and watching Doctor Who with his wife, daughter, and rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter