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'You're trained not to talk about yourself': Mike Chen on writing inclusive superhero stories in We Could Be Heroes
Mike Chen is a big fan of Doctor Who. He even named the city in his upcoming novel, We Could Be Heroes, after Roger Delgado, the actor best known for first bringing one of the show’s most iconic villains, The Master, to life. In fact, references to the long-running British sci-fi show pop up throughout the book, most notably in the form of the names of his main characters, the super-strong superhero Zoe, and memory-stealing supervillain Jamie (aka the Throwing Star and the Mind Robber), both of whom are named after Doctor Who companions from the show’s "classic" era: Zoe Heriot and Jamie McCrimmon.
“I usually try and find one thing that I like and make that the theme for the book,” Chen tells SYFY WIRE of his approach during the naming process, having even chosen a Who reference to be Jamie’s villain moniker, and basing his appearance on the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith. “‘The Mind Robber’ is one of my favorite classic Doctor Who episodes, and so when I was looking at the different episode names for inspiration, that one just fit.”
But despite the references to the timey-wimey series, We Could Be Heroes doesn’t actually have anything to do with time or space travel. Instead, it revolves around Zoe and Jamie’s quest to unravel the mystery that is their pasts after they run into each other at a support group for people dealing with memory loss and recognize the other as each of their alter egos. Neither can remember anything prior to two years ago, beyond their own names and the fact that they each have superpowers, which then leads them to form a tenuous partnership during their joint investigation.
“The idea really came from thinking [about how] if you could blank slate yourself, would you be the same person?” Chen says about the novel’s central theme. “Because we have all sorts of things that f*** us up. So if you could remove that, how much of you would fundamentally be the same? That was one of the main ideas I wanted to explore.”
One of the ways Chen does this is through chapters alternating between either character’s point of view, thus giving readers both a glimpse into Jamie and Zoe’s individual headspaces and the way they wield their powers, as well as the friendship they begin to form as they dig deeper into both their histories.
“I wanted to ground them both in their reality. I didn’t want them to just be a hero or villain. I wanted to show that they’re both big dorks," says Chen, who intentionally avoided pursuing a romance between the characters. “I really wanted to write a friendship story. That was really important to me because I don’t think we see nearly enough of that, and because of that we have these weird societal pressures.”
When the novel first begins, the city of San Delgado — which Chen closely based on his own home city of San Francisco — is slowly beginning to see the emergence of “extraordinaries,” people with powers who are using them for good or bad. But as we quickly see with both Zoe and Jamie, even their powers come with realistic conditions or limits, such as Jamie needing a few seconds to warm up before he can go through people’s memories and erase or stun them, or Zoe discovering that substances like alcohol can actually affect her ability to use her powers effectively.
"I wanted someone to be super strong physically, and someone to be super strong mentally, so they are at that opposite ends [of the spectrum]," Chen explains. "But I didn't want to make [Zoe] like The Flash or Superman. She's basically really tough and can kind of fly. And then with Jamie, I didn't want him to be all-powerful because you can overpower [someone] in a story like this. So his [power] is very, very specific and I was just trying to pull back a little bit from what you typically see in those types of mental powers."
This grounded approach — which was inspired in part by Marvel's Jessica Jones crossed with the levity of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow — can also be applied to the big threat the duo eventually go up against, with Chen wanting to root the villain in empathy and intelligence.
“They have a humanitarian vision and are driven by a combination of love and science, and there’s so much more to them than when you first meet them,” Chen says about the book’s Big Bad. “The best villains in this genre work because they really do want to fight for justice. They just cross the line. Magneto is the classic example, and Killmonger, particularly the way he was written and portrayed [in Black Panther].”
That's not the only way Chen is infusing the superhero genre with his own point of view. He's also made an effort to make it more inclusive, with Jamie being pansexual and Zoe being Asian — identities that are still all too rare in mainstream superhero stories, especially in film and television.
“I was talking to a friend who’s pansexual, and he was like, 'There are no bi or pan dudes in anything, except in Legends of Tomorrow, with John Constantine,'” Chen says about his choice to delve into that aspect of Jamie’s character. Zoe being Asian was based on his own desire to see more representation among superheroes. (He'd actually envisioned her as Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star Ming-Na Wen, one of the few female Asian American heroes in terms of Marvel's on-screen representation.)
“We just don’t see that many cool Asians out there, and I had a really hard time with that for a while because, as an Asian, culturally we’re raised to always demure ourselves,” Chen says, relating it to his own experience as an Asian American author and how he’d needed some time to get comfortable with including that kind of representation front and center in his own work — especially his first two books, Here and Now and Then and A Beginning at the End. “You’re trained not to talk about yourself or feel like you are self-promoting and I really have to get over that because I realized that [this kind of inclusivity is] much more important than my own feeling uncomfortable with it.”
There's still some time before We Can Also Be Heroes makes its way into stores, but Chen has another project that will be published later this year: a short story in the upcoming Star Wars anthology, From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back. Though he can’t share too much about it, he teases, "It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and it’s so important to Star Wars. I can’t believe they let me do it." He even had three back-up ideas in case his first one was rejected. “This feels like a lifelong dream.”
We Could Be Heroes comes out on Jan. 26, 2021. You can read a SYFY WIRE exclusive excerpt of the first two chapters here.