Using Real Historical People in Steampunk Stories

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

I was exceedingly lucky in high school, I had history teachers that focused on individual people in history and not just events. This meant we saw past the monuments and to the real people living real lives. We knew that our heroines and heroes had warts, and loved them all the more for their amazing achievements. We could see the struggle and the personal courage it took to stay on track, and succeed spectacularly or fail magnificently.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, using historical personages as characters or in ‘cameo appearances’ is one of the genre markers of the Steampunk literary genre. In my current work in progress, Charles Darwin, his wife and children are making an appearance, as well as a character loosely based on Oscar Wilde. My character based on Charles Darwin shares many of the original’s physical, intellectual, and personal characteristics, but I am picking and choosing through my research to tailor this representation of Darwin to my story.

This isn’t a shortcut to characterization. In fact, I have spent a lot of time researching Darwin, reading biographies, and his own published works, to get a proper handle on the gentleman. I know that, in his later years, he became retiring partly from ill health, partly because he wanted to spend time with his research, and partly due to the mixed reception to his theory of evolution. I know that he was greatly dependant on his wife for moral support when he did give lectures. We might take his finding for granted, but in his day he was considered controversial … most tellingly, he was never knighted for his contributions to science. With his sensitive nature, I can guess how disappointed he must have felt, even with the support of his friends and many noted scientists.

By using real historical characters, you can ground your text and give verisimilitude to the more fanciful aspects of your narrative. But you don’t have to use just the ‘superstars’ of the Victorian era to gain this advantage. A little extra research can uncover a multitude of interesting people. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, took the basis of Darwin’s theories and applied them t the human race, inventing the pseudoscience of Eugenics.

Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton

Just looking at a picture of a person can help inform your fictional version of that character. Notice how extremely well groomed Sir Francis Galton is? I would guess he was a man of some wealth and education, and indeed, he was a polymath and science innovator, and quite the racist. However, you have to remember that racism was the norm, rather than not, in his era. Obviously, intelligence ran in the family, but it could be argued that Francis was actually more intelligent that Charles, as he was an expert and innovator in many fields. For example, it was his work that is still used today in identifying individual fingerprints. The cousins share a similar determined expression, and Francis obviously supported his cousin’s theory of heredity since he built the idea of eugenics upon it. So, is he a likeable man, or not?

That is the exciting part of the process … you decide.


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6 responses to “Using Real Historical People in Steampunk Stories

  1. Well yes indeedy. I use real people where appropriate – and slightly modified ones. I have a story featuring Winston Churchill, except she’s Winifred. And if you know anything about the real Churchill’s (sex-mad) parents it makes her life radically different:

    For a man having a father who couldn’t keep it in his pants, and a mother renowned for her beauty, and willingness to jump into bed with pretty much anyone, is a radically different experience than for a woman.

    (And yes, Winston’s parents were like that – it was a match made in for the bedroom. Research is a wonderful thing.)

    • I had my suspicions about Winifred’s mother … and well, her husband would need to be an amazing lover and intelligent wit to keep Mrs Jennie interested. Then again, Jennie’s father was a famous rake, so she was just following in the family tradition.
      Is your Winifred something of a prude?

      Then again, young wild, old wowzah is a family saying. It means that the wilder you are in your youth, the more likely you are going to be a sour funkiller in your old age.

      • To be honest I’ve only written 10K of that one so I haven’t really got to know her that well 🙂 but she’s a bit reckless and driven to succeed on her own terms (just as her male counterpart was). She’s an “investigating journalist” except, of course, they’ve got her writing society pages for the Manchester Guardian (except her mother, who was also a writer and publisher, got her the job).

        I don’t think she’s a prude but she definitely disapproves of her parents – well, by the time the story starts, Daddy is dead from syphilis.

        Must admit I’d missed that information about her mother’s father 🙂

        Yay, research!

      • Glad to be of assistance. Yay, research, INDEED!

  2. Reblogged this on The Obsession Engine and commented:
    This should interest quite a few other readers of this blog!

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