Marissa Meyer on creating a new world of superheroes — and villains — in Renegades
'My goal was to take these things that have been done a million times and give them a new twist,' the author says
Marissa Meyer might be best known for the Lunar Chronicles, her best-selling series of fairytale retellings with wild twists. But now, the author is dipping the toe of her glass slipper into the world of superheroes with Renegades, the first book in a new duology.
As usual with Meyer’s work, Renegades is not your average superhero story. The heroine, Nova, isn’t really that at all: She’s a villain who goes by the alias “Nightmare,” and has some very good reasons to be fighting for revenge against the heroes — the Renegades — who run the city. As she puts her plans into action, unexpected sparks fly between Nova and a guy named Adrian… who just happens to be a Renegade with his own reasons to retaliate against the villains.
Meyer sat down with EW to preview this new superpower-filled world, and shared some of her tricks of the trade, like how she writes such cinematic action scenes, and how she keeps track of the slew of new characters that populate Renegades’ pages.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for Renegades come from?
MARISSA MEYER: The idea started years and years ago. I was on a book tour or something, and I was sitting in the back of this car on the way to the event, and caught, out of the corner of my eye, a sign. You know how sometimes you see something out of the corner of your eye and think it says one thing, and then you look again and it says something completely different? So, it was at a construction site, and I thought it said, “Coming soon, the Hero School.” And I looked again and it was not that at all. I don’t even remember what it was.
But I just started thinking, Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a school for superheroes — à la X-Men and Professor Xavier? But my mind went in a different direction, like maybe there’d be a school for superheroes and a school for super-villains, and they’re against each other! But maybe a girl and a guy fall in love!
After many, many renditions of the book, the school element ended up getting taken away. But the idea of this girl who’s a villain and this boy who’s a hero being at odds with each other as their alter egos, but then falling in love as just normal people, just started to emerge.
Why is the hero group called Renegades?
Well, the Renegades were a group even in the earliest drafts of the book, but they were very different. Back when the series included this whole element about the schools, there were legitimate superheroes who were trained at these schools, but then not everyone was buying into the… they felt like they were being oppressed and forced to do the will of the government and blah blah blah. So the Renegades in that version had been a small vigilante street gang, almost.
Like rebel heroes?
Exactly. But then as the story changed and evolved, where there’s the backstory of Ace Anarchy having destroyed the city and then this group of rebels rose up from the ashes of that and kind of reclaimed the city for themselves. So that was the Renegades.
How did you come up with all the characters’ powers?
You know, sometimes they just came really easily. Like Nova, she has two powers: One of her powers is she never ever sleeps. And that’s very much a vicarious-living thing, because there were so many times when I’ve thought, “If I didn’t have to sleep, I could be so productive!” And then her second power is, of course, making other people fall asleep, which is just kind of a natural counterpart to that.
Then Adrian has the ability to draw anything and bring that thing to life.
Is it kind of like Harold and the Purple Crayon?
Sort of! Maybe that’s where the idea came from!
I was curious whether Adrian’s power came from himself, or from his marker.
It’s from him.
So can he use any marker?
He can use anything, yeah. And I honestly don’t know where that idea came from. There have been so many superpower stories, and I’ve determined it’s pretty much impossible to come up with something that hasn’t been done before.
But it’s funny the way your characters are like, “Oh, great. Another fire elemental. Real original.” It was a good way of addressing it.
Well, thank you, because that is one of the challenges I came up against again and again writing in a world of superpowers: They’ve all been done a million times — especially elements, or being invisible, or flying. These are not original concepts, but my goal was to take these things that have been done a million times and give them a new twist, or maybe poke fun at them here and there. And then, of course, set it in a story that I hope will feel very original.
Can you explain the differences between some of the terms you use in the book, like prodigies, gifts, and elemental powers?
So in this world, “prodigy” is the term that I’ve used to describe pretty much anyone who has superpowers. It’s the catchall term: If you have an extraordinary ability, then you’re a prodigy. Within that umbrella, they start to distinguish themselves between heroes and villains, of course.
And then as you get further into the book, you’ll see that there’s a little bit of a hierarchy and some prejudice against people who have really cool, powerful gifts, and people who have really silly, kind of stupid things. So the world has naturally started to segment itself into, “Okay, you may be a prodigy, you may have this extraordinary ability, but it’s really kind of a stupid, useless thing. So you’re not really a superhero.”
What’s one of the stupid powers?
Like, at one point it’s mentioned that there’s a boy who has the ability that he can fold things into origami and make his origami creations to life, but they’re not like, sentient beings. It’s just a little crane that flies around. It’s cute and lovely, but he’s probably not going to be saving the world with that sort of thing.
You’re so good at taking a familiar story, whether it’s Cinderella or superheroes, and then digging into a dark or different side of it. Why does that appeal to you?
As a reader, I love retellings, and I love that whether it’s fairy tales or whether it’s superheroes; there are these things that appeal to us on a mass level, whether it’s because of vicarious living, or just that fairy tale dream of becoming a princess, or whatever it is. We all have a big piece of ourselves that falls in love with these stories, and it’s often at a very young age, so we develop deep attachments to these fantasies.
So I love that there’s that inherent familiarity. But at the same time, as we’ve seen, you can still do so much with them. It’s not a genre that ever seems to tire itself out. There’s always going to be a new way to tell the story of Cinderella. There’s always going to be something new that can be done with superheroes, and I just find that really appealing.
When I initially started reading this book, I thought it was going to be all from the villains’ perspective. Why did you want to tell both sides?
I think the story required it. There will be parts of the story that Nova is keyed into, and there will be parts of the story that Adrian is keyed into. So really, it was a necessity. At the same time, it is a love story, and it’s both of them falling in love with each other. So I wanted to be able to show the struggles that both of them go through, and the conflict on both sides.
Because even though they don’t figure out each other’s secret identity for a long time into the story, when it does happen, I wanted to be able to show that it’s not just that Nova has something against his family and the Renegades, and very believable and justified reasons for being against them. But Adrian also has very believable and justified reasons for being against the villains. I wanted to be able to draw on that as much as I could.
Tell me more about Nova’s tinkering abilities. Is that just her brain, or is it a power, too?
It’s not a power. It’s just something that she has always been into. Actually, in one of the earlier drafts of the book, Nova didn’t have any superpowers. She started out as more of a Batman character where she made herself into a superhero-slash-villain just through her own intelligence and her ability to create things.
As we’ve seen from the Lunar Chronicles, I love writing characters who can do things with their hands, who can fix things and make things. I’m just really fascinated by those skills because I do not have them at all. That was just one of the elements of her character that I fell in love with and wanted to keep even after she did, then, develop her own superpowers.
Your action scenes are so cinematic. Can you break down how you write one? Do you visualize all the action first in your mind?
Action scenes are very hard. They’re not something that comes naturally to me, and I imagine probably not for many writers. I always end up getting into situations where it’s not just a one-on-one battle. There are always multiple people with different weapons and powers.
When I’m writing an action scene, first I need to know where it starts: Where is everybody, and what is the situation at the start of the scene? But then I also need to know what the resolution of the scene is going to be: Who wins? Who gets injured?
And then I just start making a really loose outline that’s like, “So-and-so punches so-and-so, and then she comes in with this power and that injures him, and he falls here. It’s just a really skeletal outline to wrap my head around the blocking of it. And sometimes I will even stand up in my office and go, “Okay, so if he’s holding her like this, and she does this —” and I’ll try to visualize the physics of it.
So it’s like you’re storyboarding it.
Exactly. And usually by the end of creating that loose outline, I will then be able to visualize it in my own head. You mentioned it being almost like a movie, and action scenes for me are always very much like I’m just watching a movie in my head and then trying to record it as it’s happening.
You’re so prolific. Do you feel like you have a solid sense now of how many months it takes you to write a book? Is it pretty standard at this point?
Yes and no. I mean, on average I’d say 9 or 10 months. But like, Fairest I wrote in a couple of weeks. It was really easy and fast. Whereas Winter took me like two years — so it really kind of depends.
When you’re building a new world, how do you keep everything straight? Do you have a serial killer wall with Post-its and strings?
I do have a whiteboard — actually, I have three whiteboards — in my office that I’ll use for things that I have to address regularly, but that I tend to forget. So, for example, on my whiteboards in writing Renegades, I had one whiteboard that listed Adrian’s team and all their names and ages and powers, and then one whiteboard listed all the villains, and one listed all the Council. I was constantly having to refer to all those people — but that’s a lot of people to keep track of.
As far as other world-building stuff, I write in Scrivener, a writing software, and you can create additional pages on Scrivener just for notes and things. So I’ll usually have a settings note in which if I name a street, then I’ll go over and put that street name [in the notes] so I can keep track of things like that.
Two of the most powerful members of the Council are a gay couple who happen to be Adrian’s adoptive fathers. How did those characters come about?
As you’re creating your world, sometimes something just pops into your head and feels right. So when I had this idea of Adrian being adopted and having two dads, for whatever reason it just clicked for me. I think it goes back to this: My husband and I adopted our two girls through the foster system, and when you’re [entering] into the foster system, you’re required to take a lot of classes and training programs. And when we were going through the program, easily half of all of the couples that we were in these classes with were same-sex couples.
I remember at one point having this thought like, how lucky we are to live at a time in a society when so many more people are able to give loving, protective, stable homes to these children, when not that long ago these couples would not have been able to do that, and the children would have been stuck in foster care. That just meant something to me at the time, and I think played a part in choosing this story for Adrian.
Is Renegades the start of a series?
It’ll be two books — a duology. This book has had a complicated path. It was originally sold as a trilogy, and I wrote the first four drafts of Renegades conceptualizing it as a trilogy, and it just wasn’t working.
What wasn’t working about it?
For me, the heart of the story was always going to be Adrian and Nova and their relationship. But in trying to make that into a trilogy, there just ended up being all these other elements piled on top, and their love story kept getting lost in the jumble of it all.
So finally, I was kind of at my wit’s end after I’d written the fourth draft of it. I had a little bit of a breakdown on this phone call with my agent. I was like, “I don’t know if I can write another draft of this book! It’s just not coming together. I just want to write about Adrian and Nova but I can’t because there are all these other things happening!” And she’s like, “Well, have you thought about making it a standalone?”
We approached Macmillan, and they were on board with the idea, so I went back and rewrote it as a standalone. But then in writing as a standalone, it became clear that actually, their story can fill two books. So yeah, it’s been a journey!
Renegades hits shelves Nov. 7 but is available for pre-order now.