Steampunk Stereotypes (and how to avoid them)

Helen as Sophie Watson

‘A Room With A View’

Helena-Bonham-Carter-in-The-Lone-Ranger-3-jpg

Red Harrington; Image from the recent remake of ‘The Lone Ranger’.

Here we have two pictures of the same actress: Helena Bonham Carter. Period dress is kind of her thing, so that it doesn’t take much effort to find her in Victorian or Edwardian costumes. The first outfit isn’t Steampunk (but could be modified to meet the Aesthetic), while the other outfit is pure Steampunk. A prosthetic leg modified to be a weapon? Genius!

The Steampunk genre has it own stereotypes, just like any other literary genre.

To name a few examples (most of these can be of any gender):

  • The Airship Pirate
  • The Intrepid Explorer
  • The Genius Engineer/Inventor
  • The Mad Scientist
  • The Evil Scientist
  • The Living Robot
  • The Trickster/Thief who is secretly a Rebel Leader
  • The Plucky Girl (often disguised as a boy)
  • The Pilot/Captain (of airship, submarine, mole machine, etc.)
  • The Scheming Gold Digger

There are other stereotypes; you can see a more detailed list here. You can see an overlap of characters with other genres, because the Steampunk genre is open to a good mash-up with other genres. It is a genre that embraces other genres affectionately. Not every stereotype on the list will occur in every Steampunk story, though some novels give it a damn good attempt.

Now re-examine the two images of Helena above. You can immediately identify the picture on the top as ‘The Plucky Girl’, and who often reacts in a fairly typical way. The image on the bottom is not quite so easily pigeonholed. In that movie, Helena is playing ‘The Cathouse Madame with the Heart of Gold’, but Red Harrington isn’t quite a square peg in a square hole. She also runs a carnival, and she has an ivory prosthetic leg that conceals a loaded gun. She has a troubled background that gives her motivation for her actions; she acts rather than reacts.

There is nothing wrong with using the ‘usual suspects’ in a Steampunk story. However, it is lazy writing to stick to the stereotype of a ‘stock’ character, and a genre-savvy reader will soon be able to predict your plot from the selection of stereotypes. If your goal is to be unsurprising and boring, go right ahead. If you want to fully engage your audience, you should grow your characters beyond their stereotypes.

So, how do you shatter a stereotype? First up, what makes the stereotype tick in the first place? Break down a stereotype into its components, such as personality, motivation, background, intelligence. Using Red Harrington as our example, tarts with hearts are used in fictional tales as a metaphor for unexpected kindness and/or integrity, so under their hard exterior they are decent human beings. Another version of you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. They are a stock character in every literary tradition. Red follows in this tradition almost to the letter; what makes her stand out is her prosthetic leg and her ability to sharp-shoot with it, and she seems more grumpy than kind.

So how would you change the stereotype? On my own, I would probably make her the inventor of her leg gun, and have her working on a whole range of covert weaponry. The Bustle Bomb. The Glove Grenade. The Killer Cane. If tarts with hearts are meant to be kind, I would make her secretly educating a whole regiment of women suffragettes who are masquerading as her ‘girls’, conflating her character with the Trickster-Who-is-Secretly-a Rebel-Leader stereotype. I’m sure you can come up with ideas of your own.

You can take the general aspects of the stereotype and beef it up to extra extremes; this would work best in a humorous story or a satire or a parody. You can completely turn the stereotype on its head, such as having the Intrepid Explorer unable to find his boots under his own bed. Have fun with breaking all the so-called rules.

An Incomplete List of Steampunk Novels:

  • Michael Pryor: The Laws of Magic series & The Extraordinaires series
  • Richard Harland: The Worldshaker Series & ‘The Black Crusade’
  • Scott Westerfeld: The Leviathan trilogy
  • Stephen Hunt: The Jackelian series
  • David Freer: The Drowned World duology
  • Ged Maybury: Across the Stonewind Sky series
  • China Miéville: The Bas-Lag series and ‘Railsea’
  • Gail Carriger: The Parasol Protectorate series
  • Cassandra Clare: The Infernal Devices trilogy

I also run a Steampunk-themed site on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

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13 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Getting Started, Steampunk, writing

13 responses to “Steampunk Stereotypes (and how to avoid them)

  1. Patrick Earl wanted me to add some of the older Steampunk authors to the list: Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs or Arthur Conan Doyle.

  2. Don’t forget Michael Moorcock. 1971’s ‘The Warlord of the Air’ got alternate futures, cameos, and airships. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warlord_of_the_Air

  3. Interesting article. I have a feeling that I went completely the “wrong” way with my steampunk stories. No standard stereotypes at all. I say “wrong” only because I have very few of the normal steampunk tropes since my setting is barely different from the real Vicwardian world, except for transportation (mostly).

    I allowed one change: Faraday demonstrates the partial nullification of gravity in 1843. This allows for big technology changes (there is flight, all different methods) but far less social change.

    And then I chose to write murder mysteries in that setting 🙂 and stories based in India with a female mixed race protagonist.

    Hey ho. People who’ve read them like them a lot but the genre mash-up lacks appeal, apparently. (So I hope you don’t mind me putting some links in.)

    Anyway I’m branching out: Ice pirates, in my released-next-week book “Frozen Beauty”, multinational crew led by a Chinese woman, also set in India. This most resembles Firefly/Serenity (well, I think so) and each story is written like a TV episode. Preorder: http://bit.ly/frozen-0101

    And in a couple of months the Adventures of Harriet Edgbaston – set in East Africa in 1896 during the Anglo-Zanzibar War (yes, there was one, shortest actual war in history, it’s longer in my world). She has goggles 🙂 and flies an ornithopter.

    Too many stories, not enough time.

    http://steveturnbull.me/books

    • You went the complete RIGHT way with your stories. I do like that your protagonists are all strong and female. And I am stealing ‘Vicwardian’.

      • Thanks. I stole Vicwardian from somewhere else 🙂

        I forgot to mention that Tunnel was probably my first steampunk as well – back in the 70s. Personally i don’t class Verne, Wells et al, as Steampunk because it’s not retro-futurism. To them it was just speculative fiction.

      • I would class them as pre-Steampunk is I was making an academic classification of the genre. I tend to include them as example for people new to the genre, because they are so well known. Same as Frankenstein & Dracula … they aren’t Steampunk, but any modern television remakes tend to include genre markers and aesthetic values from the Steampunk genre.

  4. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    This post has some great reading suggestions for the Steampunk Literary genre, so I am reblogging it.

  5. I really enjoyed this post, and the replies, especially Steve Turnbull’s response. I’ve read all of his Maliha Anderson stories so far and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience as an introduction to Steampunk set in an alternate Vicwardian era!! I’m relatively new to Steampunk and have only just started adding it to my work as I love all the inventiveness and excitement that goes into the worlds, stories and events!! 🙂

  6. My spouse and I stumbled over herre from a different web address and thought I might as well chefk things out.
    I like what I see so i am just following you. Look forward to finding out about your web page yet again.

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