The Mortality Doctrine's James Dashner Talks Girl Gamers, Virtual Reality, And Those 'Maze Runner' Comparisons

No one can say that The Mortality Doctrine's James Dashner goes easy on his characters. Everybody’s favorite characters in The Maze Runner series were put through trial after terrifying trial, enduring painful losses, horrifyingly impossible situations, and enough near-death experiences to make anyone crazy. But it’s this kind of high-octane, end-of-your-wits, edge-of-your-seat story that makes Dashner’s books so much fun. You might say they read like movies. And Dashner, who gets a great deal of his writing motivation from film and visual media, would probably love you for it.

In a Q&A with Bustle, Dashner cites The Matrix and Inception as the motivations for his latest trilogy of novels, the Mortality Doctrine series, which takes on virtual reality, gaming, and a motley crew of young gamer-coders turned hacker heroes. With a whole virtual playground at his disposal, Dashner conjures up some pretty creative (and terrifying) challenges for his geeky heroes, but he also shows off his nerd colors, and this nerdy writer got the chance to geek out with him.

With his out-of-this-world plots and the cruel scenarios he puts his characters through, it turns out Dashner is having just as much fun writing his stories as you are reading them. (And, as he mentions, humming along to Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Aliens, and Braveheart soundtracks while he does so). I had the chance to talk with Dashner about his inspirations, girl gamers and coders, and the comparisons that will likely be drawn to his iconic Maze Runner series.

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Bustle: I have to start off by asking, because every gamer in the world would probably kill me if I didn’t ask: Do you game?

James Dashner: I game in a lot of ways. I absolutely loved it growing up, and what I’m really into now is board games. Any kind of gaming has always been really fun to me, including video games.

I really enjoyed Skyrim. My oldest son is 15. It’s almost more fun watching him play than for me to do it. We kind of do a family game night thing. There’s so many cool board games now, so I almost enjoy that more.

What made you want to write about this virtual reality gaming experience in The Mortality Doctrine?

Ever since I saw The Matrix, which is one of my favorite movies of all time, I just kinda had this cool idea in my head. In fact, there’s a plot twist that I thought was going to happen in The Matrix, but never did. And it just never left my mind. And then when I saw the movie Inception, it also triggered a lot of things. So I always tell people, it’s kind of like The Matrix meets Inception, and it was gelling inside my mind for years before I actually sat down and wrote it.

I love that concept that if a dream seems real or a virtual reality seems real, then how do you ever truly know that you’re not in it?

I love that concept that if a dream seems real or a virtual reality seems real, then how do you ever truly know that you’re not in it?

Do you think we’ll achieve a realistic virtual reality experience in the future?

Oh, I think we’re definitely going to achieve it. I don’t think it’s possible; I think it’s inevitable. Just the way our technology advances, I think 10 or 15 years from now, we’re just going to have something that is spectacular and amazing and lifelike, and it’s going to be fun to watch it develop.

If we fast forward to the future where something like the VirtNet is a reality how would you use it?

I love to explore. You know, if you’re in Skyrim, it’s almost more fun to walk around and explore mountains and valleys and just see what’s out there. I would just lose myself there, pretend like it’s real, explore space, discover planets, alien worlds… I think space would be high on my list of things I’d want to do.

In Mortality Doctrine, you create this really really cool coder fantasy playland. What inspired this focus on coding?

It was definitely inspired by my dad. He was a computer programmer, and he was always on the cusp of the latest technology, the latest language. He was always excited about it and he always had like four computers in his office in our house. I mean, he was the biggest computer nerd you’ve ever seen in your life.

I want my books to represent strong female characters. I want them to represent different races, different cultures... I just absolutely love creating strong female characters.

In The Mortality Doctrine you have a really amazing number of badass women coders. Was that a conscious decision?

That is conscious. I want my books to represent strong female characters. I want them to represent different races, different cultures. One of my pleasant surprises from Maze Runner has been how much we’ve been praised for having a major Asian character and a major African American character, and I was really glad they did the same thing in the movies.

If I do anything consciously, it’s purposely avoid stereotypes and cliches, especially when it comes to women, because I think you can do a lot of good by changing that stereotype that’s lasted for so long and is finally crumbling of what a teenage girl is, what a grown woman is, and all that stuff. So, it’s definitely a little bit conscious, but I just absolutely love creating strong female characters.

Do you have a favorite character from your own books?

I think Bryson from Mortality Doctrine. I just think, he’s a smart aleck and he’s a little bit reckless, but he’s got a heart of gold, and his loyalty to his friends and the fact that he’s not afraid to show how scared he is when he’s scared.

I worried about it, because so many people are used to Maze Runner and have a relationship to all those characters. I really worried about being able to do that again. But I felt that by the end of the third book, I’d really solidified those relationships, and they felt real to me.

There’s a lot of dying in The Mortality Doctrine series.There’s also a lot of dying in gaming in general, but in the VirtNet, you have gamers committing suicide just to see how it feels and playing games where they’re guaranteed to die and feel it. A lot of parents have a lot to say about games, how they’re too violent, there’s too much death. So I was wondering how you feel about that as a parent?

That’s a fantastic question, something I’ve thought a lot about. Now that I have all these readers and fans and kids, sometimes I feel I should be more responsible when I’m writing, but then I think the main purpose of my books is to entertain and to help people escape, and I constantly get letters and e-mails and tweets from kids who suffer everything from cancer to panic disorders, anxiety, surgeries, depression, and all these things where these books have helped them, helped them escape, and helped them be entertained. I think that far outweighs the potential damage that violence does.

Is there an interview question that you’ve always wished someone would ask you?

This is weird, but my friends and family always make fun of me because I watch a lot of movies and television. So I always get kind of defensive about it and want to explain myself. So I wish someone would ask me, “why do you watch so much television and so many movies?”

And the answer would be: It is by far the most valuable source of my creativity, so I consider it part of my job. Everyday I watch at least one movie or a couple of TV shows in the middle of the day, and it just really gets my juices going, and some of my best writing has come right after I do that. I have like 10 TV shows I’m following — Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Homeland, American Horror Story… and I’ll go back and watch old shows like Sopranos and The Wire. I just love it. It’s just the dialogue and character development and scenes, how they build scenes and plotting. Everything that makes you a good writer is very evident in television shows and movies.

Any idea what’s next?

I definitely have an idea for a sequel series [to the Mortality Doctrine]. I have no plans to right it immediately, but I’ve planted a couple of seeds in [the books] that would make a really cool sequel series, and we’ll just have to see what happens over the next two or three years to see if I go that route. The series is so fun, because it’s literally limitless...

I’m actually going to write a thriller/horror novel next. I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time. I’ve been wanting to do a stand alone novel for a long time. I just finished up the last Maze Runner novel. It’s a prequel that bridges the last prequel I wrote to the first Maze Runner book. So I’m done with that forever, and I really want to do something different. Maybe pay a little homage to Stephen King and maybe write something in his vein.

"I constantly get letters and e-mails and tweets from kids who suffer everything from cancer to panic disorders, anxiety, surgeries, depression, and all these things where these books have helped them, helped them escape, and helped them be entertained."

Anything you’d like to add?

Mortality Doctrine sometimes gets lost in all the Maze Runner hysteria, but I’m just really proud of it. It’s probably one of the most crafted stories I’ve ever put together. I put a lot of pre-thought, pre-writing, pre-planning into it before I actually wrote it. I just hope people will keep discovering it.

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