Tag Archives: Multicultural Characters

International Steampunk

adding-multicultural-touch-steampunkGauchopunk by Phineas Squidd; images from the Steampunk Chronicle websiteAlisa from backMulticultural Steampunk

The Victorian era was the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, and for a time a quarter of the world’s population were British subjects, under British law. As well, Britain had a controlling economic interest in countries like China, and spent a lot of its time interfering with the government of these ‘allied’ states. Britain almost smothered the world with its culture and values, it fashions and traditions. Britannia rules the waves, and the land, the fashions, the customs and all.

Even in the most tropical climates, it was considered ‘letting the side down’ to dress in the cooler native fashions, and so the only ‘proper’ clothing was appropriate to the environs of chilly England. Imagine wearing five or six layers of clothing in the sweltering summer of Australia, Hong Kong, or India. Nor would the British adapt their lifestyle to a different culture or climate. Noel Coward parodied the practice in his song, ‘Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’.

In this Post-colonial era, a writer in the Steampunk genre need not be restricted to the British culture of the Victorian era. I think this is particularly important if you are living in a country that suffered from British Imperial rule or influences. Celebrate your country’s technology and innovation when and where you can. You can compare your culture to the British culture. I live in Australia, which is still part of the Commonwealth, but I always try to add a bit of Aussie glamour to my Steampunk narratives.

I think it is important to consider alternatives to British settings and characters. Other cultures and characters certainly will enrich your story. It is like cooking a curry, tacos, and a stir-fried noodles, and turning a meal that was just a British roast into an international banquet. Steer way from racial stereotypes. Makes your characters well rounded and believable. Don’t try to be ‘exotic’ for the sake it.

People are people. We all have the same basic needs and motivations. A little research will turn up real life historical people from that culture and era, and they can be the starting point for your characterization. The same goes for settings. It isn’t hard to source a few images from any time and place you might want to use as a setting. Authentic details give your work verisimilitude, and adds depth and resonance.

And it can be a lot of fun.


Filed under Characterization, Colonialism, Community, Plot, Setting, Steampunk, writing

Don’t Confuse Nursing With Nurturing: A Steampunk Characterization

Japanese nurse, circa 1905

Japanese nurse, circa 1905

A nurse, smart in crisp white uniform, wipes the sweat from a fevered brow. Her sweet eyes smile down at the handsome young man, and her patient is already half in love with her. Meanwhile, in the crowded ward behind her, nineteen injured or ill men moan and whimper in pain, awaiting her ministrations…

The Nurse as an overworked Angel is not a stereotype. This means that the opportunities for a hospital or army nurse to fall in love with one of her patients is rare. It also means that a nurse won’t be in a crisp uniform by the middle of her shift, as she will be too busy cleaning up after patients, and tending to their needs, making sure they have their medications, so she will be rumpled, and probably quite sweaty if in a tropical climate. To be sure, not every nurse is young, beautiful, and looking to marry a doctor.

Nurses at Claybury Asylum, Essex, in the 1890s. Image from the collection of the Wellcome Library, London

Nurses at Claybury Asylum, Essex, in the 1890s. Image from the collection of the Wellcome Library, London.

Nursing is a calling and a career. It takes an intelligent woman, strong and sound in will and physical form, a woman with a sensible and calm temperament, to make a good nurse. Nurses often didn’t marry, as they were wed to their career. I am inclined to think, after seeing human beings at their weakest and having the deal with the effects of nausea and unpleasant symptoms, most nurses were happy to go home and spend some quiet time by themselves. Private nurses often were ‘live-in’ to care for invalids, which gave them little time for a social life. Romance was the last thing on their minds, particularly after they had been cleaning up puke and poo.

Victorian era nurse wearing a utilitarian chatelaine; image from the Fashions from the Past website.

Victorian era nurse wearing a utilitarian chatelaine; image from the Fashions from the Past website.

Take a good look at the Victorian-era nurse above. This is a posed picture, and I’m guessing our sitter is a nurse in a private sanatorium, as she is wearing a fashionable dress with impracticable sleeves. She might have seemed a better romantic prospect to convalescing patients, particularly if the sanatorium was fashionable or for the wealthy. However, it would have cost her job if she was caught flirting with a patient. Then, as now, it would have been completely unprofessional for a nurse to allow a patient to court her.

In a Steampunk narrative, a nurse need not be female, even though most nurses in the Victorian era were women. This is because nursing was considered a ‘feminine’ profession, because the act of nursing was seen as part and parcel of a woman’s nurturing instinct. It was one of the few actual career opportunities that was considered suitable for a respectable woman. In a Steampunk setting, gender need not restrict women to nursing, or restrict men from the nursing profession. After all, nurses got to work some very complicated gadgets used for various therapies in the Victorian era (a topic for another day).

Don’t be confused by nursemaids; nursemaids were NOT nurses, as they had no medical training, but were women hired to care for small children who lived in a nursery.

Don’t let Hollywood or television influence your characterization of nurses in your writing. Even if your Plucky Girl chooses to become a nurse (or a doctor), don’t forget to shatter the stereotypes, and give her a believable lifestyle. And I’ve never understood how a truly sick person would even be thinking of romance anyways.

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Stereotypes, writing

Multicultural Steampunk

StormdancerCuttlefish by David Freer.The Steam Mole by David FreerCassandra Clare 'The Clockwork Prince'

What do all the above novels have in common? They all have protagonists that are of races other than white European or white American. Three of them are partially or completely set outside of Europe and America. They are all excellent Steampunk books. Unfortunately, because Steampunk is considered to be centred on the Victorian-era industrialisation of Britain and America, most books are set in the UK and the USA. This might seem to limit the racial palette of characters that can be considered character in the Steampunk literary genre. It doesn’t.

Technology and innovation weren’t (and still aren’t) limited to one part of the planet. It was happening (is happening) at different rates wherever any inspired and educated human being can tinker with tools and source good reference material. And if you have read Terry Pratchett’s ‘Raising Steam’, you know that even non-humans can get in on the fun. In the Victorian era, there was innovation occurring all over, in Asia, in Russia, in India, in South America and in Australia & New Zealand.

Of course, racism was a major issue in the Victorian era. The British Gentleman thought himself superior to every other race on the planet, including any person of British descent who was from the ‘Colonies’. This doesn’t mean that a Steampunk story has to reflect that ugly and outmoded attitude. In fact, I would recommend, in this post-colonial era, that you take to opportunity to write against that attitude.

Dorothy Winterman's Asian-influenced Steampunk outfit by Luisa Ana Fuentes.

Dorothy Winterman’s Asian-influenced Steampunk outfit by Luisa Ana Fuentes.

We now live in a global village. Why set unnecessary limitations on your characters?

At this point, I would like to bring up racial stereotypes. If you are going to have a multicultural cast of characters, do not resort to lazy writing and use racial stereotypes in the characterization of your protagonists, antagonists and secondary characters. As well, the race of a character shouldn’t be their defining characteristic, and make them ‘exotic’ or ‘other’.

In my own YA Steampunk work-in-progress, two of the three main characters are from mixed-race backgrounds, and one compounds the issue by being a colonial from Australia. This wasn’t a deliberate choice I made when I was first fleshing out the novel, but it became clear to me that I wanted both the characters to have a broader experience of the world than would be available to a British gentleman. This was made easier by giving them backstories that included travel to other countries without having the superior attitude of men from the British Empire; such an attitude would have interfered with their education from non-British sources.

Of course, this means more research, to get the details right. But think of the fun you will having exploring other cultures!

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, YA Work in Progress