The evolution of a novel is such a complicated, complex, and strange creative process that it’s hard to step people through it. I don’t think even I can fully comprehend it. But by the time I was writing the Mistborn books, I was in a different situation with my career. I’d sold Elantris by that point and the publisher was saying, “We want something else from you.” Rather than taking one of the thirteen books that I’d written before, I wanted to write something new. I wanted to give people my newest and best work.
At that point I had time to sit down and ask myself, “What do I want to be the hallmark of my career? What am I going to add to the genre?” I want to write fantasy that takes steps forward and lets me take the genre in some interesting direction. At first I wanted to play with some of the stereotypes of the genre. That’s a dangerous thing, though, because, as any deconstructionalist will tell you, when you start playing with stereotypes, you start relying on something that you want to undermine, and that puts you on shaky ground. I was in danger of just becoming another cliché. A lot of times when people want to twist something in a new way, they don’t twist it enough and end up becoming part of the cliché that they were trying to redefine. But I really did want to try this and went forward with it anyway.
A lot of fantasy relies heavily on the Campbellian Monomyth. This is the idea focusing on the hero’s journey. Since the early days of fantasy, it’s been a big part of the storytelling, and in my opinion it’s become a little bit overused. The hero’s journey is important as a description of what works in our minds as people—why we tell the stories we do. But when you take the hero’s journey and say, “I’m going to make this a checklist of things I need to do to write a great fantasy novel,” your story goes stale. You start to mimic rather than create. Because I’d seen a lot of that, I felt that one of the things I really wanted to do was to try to turn the hero’s journey on its head.
I had been looking at the Lord of the Rings books and movies, and the Harry Potter books, and I felt that because of their popularity and success, a lot of people were going to be using this paradigm even more—the unknown protagonist with a heart of gold and some noble heritage who goes on a quest to defeat the dark lord. So I thought to myself, “What if the dark lord won? What if Frodo got to the end in Lord of the Rings and Sauron said, ‘Thanks for bringing my ring back. I really was looking for it,’ and then killed him and took over the world? What if book seven of Harry Potterwas Voldemort defeating Harry and winning?” I didn’t feel that this story had ever really been approached in the way I was imagining it, and it became one idea that bounced around in my head for quite a while.
Another idea I had revolved around my love of the classic heist genre. Whether it’s Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery or the movies Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job, there are these great stories that deal with a gang of specialists who are trying to pull off the ultimate heist. This is the kind of feat which requires them to all work together and use their talents. I hadn’t ever read a fantasy book that dealt with that idea in a way that satisfied me or that really felt like it got it down. So that bounced in my head for a while as well.
One more of the ideas for the Mistborn series happened when I was driving home to see my mom. She lives in Idaho Falls, and after passing Tremonton on the I-15, I just went through this fog bank driving at seventy miles an hour. Even though my car was actually driving into the fog, it looked like the mist was moving around me instead of me moving through it. It was just this great image that I wrote down in my notebook years before I ended up writing Mistborn.
After a while, all these different ideas, like atoms, were bouncing around in my head and eventually started to run together to form molecules (the molecules being the story). Keep in mind, a good book is more than just one good idea. A good book is twelve or thirteen or fourteen great ideas that all play off of each other in ways that create even better ideas. There were my two original ideas—a gang of thieves in a fantasy world, and a story where the dark lord won—that ended up coming together and becoming the same story. Suddenly I had a world where the prophecies were wrong, the hero had failed, and a thousand years later a gang of thieves says, “Well, let’s try this our way. Let’s rob the dark lord silly and drive his armies away from him. Let’s try to overthrow the empire.” These are all the seeds of things that make bigger ideas.
Feruchemy goes back to being in high school and being an insomniac, being really tired and wishing I could store up my sleep, so I’d be sleepy when I wanted to be sleepy. Kelsier’s inspiration was a guy who had been only out for himself, who realized the greater import of doing something.
After I outlined the book, it turned out to be quite bit longer than I expected, and I then began working through those parts that weren’t fully developed yet, changing some things. I ended up downplaying the heist story in the final version of the book, despite the fact that it was a heist novel in one of my original concepts. But as I was writing it, I felt that if I was going to make it into a trilogy, I needed the story to have more of an epic scope. The heist was still there, and still the important part of the book, but it kind of became the setting for other, bigger things in the story, such as the epic coming-of-age of one of the characters, the interactions between the characters, and dealing with the rise and fall of the empire. But that happens in the process of writing. Sometimes the things that inspire you to begin a story in the first place eventually end up being the ones that are holding it back. Allomancy, the magic system in the book, was a separate idea that came about through these revisions.
I wrote the books in the trilogy straight through. I had the third one rough drafted by the time the first one had to be in its final form so that I could keep everything consistent and working together the way I wanted it to. I didn’t want it to feel like I was just making it up as I went along, which I feel is one of the strengths of the series. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to have that opportunity again in a series, but it certainly worked well for the Mistborn books.