Inspired by MacGyver
I always think that any protagonist is pretty much someone you want to be or someone you want to screw, and Mark Watney is probably the person I wish I was. Of course, he’s better than me in every way and doesn’t have any of my flaws.
I also drew on other role models, some from real life and some from fiction. For example, I’m hugely fascinated by space and I’ve always followed the history of space flight, so the events surrounding the troubled flight of Apollo 13 had a big impact on me.
I admire any astronaut. John Young, who went on to be commander of the 1972 Apollo 16 mission, is the quintessential astronaut for me: highly competent, fearless, intelligent and seemingly immune to stress. When Apollo 16 launched, his heart rate never rose higher than At the same time I was a huge fan of the TV series MacGyver when I was growing up in the 1980s. It definitely had an impact on what I considered to be entertaining problem-solving in fiction.
Of course, anyone who was selected to fly to Mars would be pretty smart and have some key skills but, like every other writer, you imagine yourself in that situation, which is why he turned into a nerdy technical guy instead of a heroic space commander.
Finding a name
I’ve always had a hard time naming characters, so it took a while to figure out my protagonist’s. I settled on an everyman name. I wanted a name people would remember but not one that was too far out there. Watney is sort of ordinary but it sticks in your mind, too. Mark is actually a derivation from Marcus, which in turn is derived from the Latin word for the god Mars.
One of the main reasons for making Watney a smart-arse, apart from my own sense of humour of course, is the fact that there’s a lot of exposition in the book. I had to explain how the Sabatier process works for making fuel out of the Martian atmosphere but I didn’t want it to turn into a Wikipedia article. I realised that if I had a funny guy telling jokes, he could get the science over entertainingly and people would want to keep reading.
I also knew he had to farm food so I made him a botanist to explain how he can grow potatoes so well. I’m a science geek and it always bugged me if I saw a TV show and the science was wrong. It ruins it for me so I wanted to make The Martian as accurate as possible, and Watney is the mouthpiece for that.
I loved creating Watney. He was such a fun voice to write in but I don’t foresee a sequel. Plunging him into terrible trouble again would just strain credibility.