How do you craft protagonists? Do you start with them, or do you start with a plot first and then figure out the characters from there?
I wear one hat as an academic. I teach at the university, I have a master's degree in English. And then I wear another hat as the writer. And the academic and the writer don't interact as much as you would think they do. Because writing is an art, and part of it is so instinctive, that you have to... it's more like you train yourself with these "muscles" to use. And when you go into it, writing a book is almost like a performance art. In that I go and I perform for several hours. And then I get done, and then I can hand it over to the academic and say, "What do you think of this? What am I doing right, what am I doing wrong?" The academic has a lot more to do with editing. And the academic also observes my process and then learns to talk about it.
And I've learned that, for me, character is one of these things that I can't plan out too much ahead of time. Writers tend to fall into two camps. They tend to be, as George R.R. Martin calls them, architects or gardeners. Gardeners nurture a story. Stephen King is a gardener. Start with just some sort of idea, and see where it goes. And architects build an outline.
And I architect my plots. I build an outline, I build a world. My framework for my worlds, my worldbuilding... in something like Steelheart, I'll spend a lot of time saying, "What's the visual sense of this world? What's the underlying mechanics of what is making people become these Epics? Where does this all come from?" And build this all into a document, what the world feels like, what different cities feel like, and things like this.
But then, the person I place in this world, I found that if I put too much structure for that personality, the entire book feels wooden. It feels like this thing that I have created that the character just has to mechanically move through, and therefore can't be alive. And I found that, in order to add a sense of spontaneity and life to my fiction, I have to let the character develop naturally. I have to say, "All right, here is all of this stuff." And put the character into it. And then see if they follow the plot. And if they don't, I will rebuild my outline to fit what this character is doing.
So, yes and no. I often will have a conflict for a character that I'm putting them in, but I don't know who they are until I write the first scene. And that usually requires me to write three or four different scenes and throw each of them until I capture the right voice, like I'm casting different people in the role.
To use a very specific example, there was the annotated version of Steelheart, you talked about the main character, one of the main facets is that he has terrible metaphors. But I believe you didn't even discover that until you made a terrible metaphor in the first chapter.
Yeah, I don't even think it was the first chapter. Might have been the second, I might have re-added in them earlier on. But I'm writing along, I'm like, "Who is this guy? This feels bland. Who is he? What is he passionate about? What goofy things does he do?" And then I was trying to come up with a metaphor, and I wrote one, and it was bad. Like, it was just terrible. And I'm like, "Oh, I can't use that." And usually, I have to go through, like, six or seven. But I'm like, "This is a majestically bad metaphor." And for the rest of the book, I'm like, "This is him. He wants so hard to do things the right way that he goes too far and tries too hard, and they come out wrong." And I'll tell you guys, writing bad metaphors that are good bad metaphors is really hard. Because to make them work... it was a real challenge. It became the hardest aspect of the book, in some ways, coming up with his metaphors. Which are supposed to be bad.