My main character of my Steampunk novel is a seventeen year old girl called Alice. She is a polymath, and finds it difficult to gain respect and recognition for her inventions and education in the male-dominated field of science in Britain, in the 1870s. How you build a character should link back to your setting and plot. I am going to run though how Professor Alice was developed.
When I first had my idea for the novel, I knew it was going to be about a woman fighting against the established patriarchal restrictions built into the scientific society of Victorian England. So the fact she was female was a given. And she had to be tough and resilient.
She also needed to be rich. Alas, but only the daughters of the wealthy usually had access to a proper scientific education. A poor girl would be lucky to scrape enough education to read, write, and do figures. I made both her parents well educated, so that it was more likely that Alice would receive a better education than watercolours and piano playing. By making them minor nobility, it also gave me the opportunity to explore the class system of the Victorian era.
Now to pile on the negatives and increase her struggle. Red hair was NOT a fashionable colour in the 1870s, and was associated with prostitution and the lower classes. I didn’t want Alice to be a conventionally pretty woman. As well, I made her tall, in an era when small women were favoured over tall women (and I suffer from height envy – if I can’t be tall, I can at least write about tall women). In this way, she is visually striking without being considered beautiful, so that her looks would create uncertainty in social occasions. No hiding away like a wallflower for my Alice.
She was going to be having a lot of adventures, so she had to be fit and active. As well, she doesn’t wear corsets or skirts on a daily basis, because they restrict her movements and bustle skirts are simply dangerous in a laboratory. This would also add to the perception of her unnaturalness or Otherness in society.
When you look at characters in books, don’t assume that their appearance was just a random choice by the author. A small, brown-haired Alice with no money or education would not have been able to function within my plot.