People in the acting profession have a saying, “Never work with children or animals.” This can have two meanings. The first one is fairly obvious in that children and animals haven’t the same skills as an adult actor and can give unpredictable performances. The second meaning is all about how an animals or a child can be a scene stealer, simply by being themselves. In written narratives, the writer is in complete control of the behaviour of the characters … but animals can still be scene stealers.
Think of Nana in ‘Peter Pan’, Think of any story by Beatrix Potter or A. A. Milne. The animals live on the page and capture the imagination in ways that human characters never can. This is partly because we automatically anthropomorphise any animals in print, giving them feelings and emotions that really don’t apply to them. They are almost as well known as human stereotypes. Nana, as a loyal dog, is protective of her ‘puppies’. Jemima Puddleduck is a feather-brain. Pooh bear loves honey. I’m certain you can think of dozens of these character traits. Proud eagles. Wise owls. Sly cats. Dirty pigs. Cunning foxes. None of these animals are actually feeling any of these emotions, but human beings love to attribute them to animals.
However, a writer can work with these expectations in two ways. You can base a human being on an animal as part of her characterization. An owlish woman might have feathery hair and wear very large bottle-thick glasses, prefer to work at night, and have a very quiet way of moving. A bullish man could be big-boned and placid, but be quite stubborn about his routines, love women and his food, and hate flies. In this way, you can layer a character’s personality without actually overtly stating it. You might call your owlish woman, Twyla -meaning twilight, and have her blink when she is in bright light, but don’t actually state she is owl-like. Let your readers work it out for themselves.
Secondly, you can use animals as analogies in your narrative. A woman who wants to save her village might own a Saint Bernard. A man with clever hands might have a pet raccoon. An easily frightened child might build a robot rabbit. These are really obvious, and you can be more subtle.
The Steampunk genre, as a science fiction genre, can go completely crazy with both these methods. Just because Steampunk is all about science and gadgets doesn’t mean you are limited to just human beings.