The cosmere came about because…it really has two beginnings. First, I’m a big fan of Asimov’s work and if you know Asimov’s work he tied his two universes together later in his life and I thought he did a brilliant job of it, though patching it together later in his life as he did there were certain continuity problems in doing it and I always thought “Boy, I bet he wished he’d done it from the beginning”.
So, as I started to work on things, I thought “Well why don’t I try something like that from the beginning.” Once again I got to see what one of the masters did and learn from them, stand on their shoulders.
The other thing is, early on in my career I realized that if I were writing mini-books, then writing them all in the same series would be a bad for getting published. Let’s say I wrote five books and a publisher rejects the first one. If the other four are in the same series, it’s going to be very hard to convince that publisher to read book two if they’ve already said no to book one. However, if they are five standalone books, set in different worlds, then I can say if someone says “I liked this book but not enough to publish it,” I could send them another one and say “Hey this one is different but similar maybe you’ll like that.” It just increased my chances.
The only problem is that I grew up reading the big epics and I love big epics and they are the books of my heart, like the Wheel of Time. I wanted to write big epics and so I started writing a secret big epic. It started with Elantris, which is the first one that I wrote in the Cosmere and right after it Dragonsteel, which is actually a prequel but in a different universe. I started putting characters from each of these books in the other books to have what I call a hidden epic, mostly for myself, because I had all these books I was going to be selling and marketing separately. But when Elantris sold, all of that stuff was buried in there, and I said “Well, I love it, I’m not gonna cut it, I’m just gonna put it in there to see if people notice.” I’m going to keep telling my hidden epic because eventually I will be telling the greater story with Dragonsteel, and the third Mistborn trilogy dealing with these things and so that’s where the idea for the cosmere came from, those two pieces.
During my unpublished days I wrote thirteen books, only one of which was a sequel. So I had twelve new worlds, or at least twelve new books—some of them were reexaminations of worlds. But I wanted to be writing big epics. This is what I always wanted to do; something like the Wheel of Time. So I began plotting a large, massive series where all these books were connected, so I could kind of “stealth” have a large series without the editors knowing I was sending them books from the same series. It was mostly just a thing for me, to help me do the writing I wanted to be doing. And then when publication came I continued to do that, and told the story behind the story.
Why not do separate worlds? Because it was more interesting for me this way. This is the story I want to tell. The big, overarching story that I’ve planned out. I’ve been talking recently about how my inspiration for this is the idea that in science people have for a long time been looking for a unified theory of physics, some theory that will explain all interactions of physics in a concise way. I wanted to tell about a universe where there was a unified theory of magic, where magic worked according to a unifying principle. Despite the magic systems looking very different and doing lots of different and interesting things, hopefully original for each book, there is an underlying rationale that is keeping them all together. I write what I find interesting, and that was interesting to me.