Please welcome Phoebe Darqueling back with another fascinating article, this time about the Steampunk genre. I enjoyed discovering the different female character types prevalent in Steampunk, recognizing quite a few from my reading. If you have the same twist of mind as I do, you just might discover your next (or first) Steampunk novel hidden amongst these descriptions.
With no further ado, here’s Phoebe of the Steampunk Journal:
In black-and-white science fiction and adventure films, it’s fairly common to have a token female character who is the “plucky reporter.” This archetype is born of the desire to have a female character (who does often end up being the love interest), but needing a period-appropriate reason for her to be present. As a job that can be viewed as one-part secretary and one-part gossip, being a journalist was a suitable role for women of that era. Sometimes, there are female researchers or scientists in these old movies, though they are often the daughter of the male head scientist as their “in.”
In the same way, Steampunk has developed some of its own archetypes for empowering women, but without straying so far out of historical bounds to be completely anachronistic and distracting. When I sat down to write Riftmaker, I was new to the Steampunk genre and still figuring things out. I ended up using several of these archetypes myself to help me decide what kind of characters I wanted to include.
The Angsty Aristocrat
In short, no one puts baby in the corner. These are the women of means who rebel against their gilded cages. They often refuse to marry whom they are supposed to. They are sick and tired (or just bored) of their current existence and seek adventure. She wants passion and a way to shake herself out of her placid existence. She just might consider wearing a pair of trousers, but more than likely, her fine bustled gowns and elaborate hairdos are going to be the norm.
In Riftmaker, my character Olivia fills this role. She longs for adventure, but also sometimes has trouble seeing past her own station and the trappings of society to find a way to strike out on her own. She’s extremely spoiled and feels entitled to the world, but this has as much to do with her upbringing and being told this was so as any inherent quirks of her personality.
The Private Detective/Problem Solver
This is often an offshoot of the Angsty Aristocrat, but it doesn’t have to be. Affluent women in the steam era were known for their commitment to charitable works, but this archetype goes beyond writing a check and gets her hands dirty. More than likely, she’s got at least one set of men’s clothes in order to help her sneak out of the house and avoid detection. She uses her connections and wealth to help the downtrodden or get to the bottom of a mysterious disappearance of a peer or loved one. Chances are she finds much more than she bargained for and becomes embroiled in a conspiracy. She may work on the quiet or have an established role, such as a police matron, but the men around her will not be supportive of her efforts.
In Riftmaker, the closest I have to this archetype is Grace. She’s not a detective, but she is an outspoken critic of the regime and the treatment of the poor.
The Tinker Girl
Much like the aforementioned “plucky reporter,” the Tinker Girl likes to understand how the world works and isn’t afraid to ask questions. Most often, if you try to get her into a dress, you’ll have a fight on your hands. She will more than likely have some kind of goggles to help protect her while she does her metalworking. She is rebellious and stubborn, and usually thinks she’s smarter or more knowledgeable than she really is so gets herself into trouble. There’s a good chance her father is an inventor and she grew up without a mother present, much like the female researcher of the 1950s films.
Adelaide is definitely my Tinker Girl in Riftmaker. She and the other people of the Kitetowns do lots of different odd-jobs to get by, but her favorite thing is definitely any time she can pick up a shift at the machine works. Of course, as a child, she really shouldn’t be doing such dangerous work, but just try to stop her.
The Spinster Scholar
I use the term “spinster” here loosely because in the Victorian era, one only had to reach the ripe old age of 25 to start having that label applied. What’s important about this archetype is that her work (whatever it may be) is much more important to her than anything else. She eschews what society expects of her and does not give any real thought to having a family. She does not care at all for fashion, but also just wants to be left alone so isn’t going to go out of her way to rock the boat. Oftentimes, she has some kind of elaborate pair of spectacles or goggles to help her with her research, which may be scientific or supernatural in nature.
My Spinster Scholar Lucy in Riftmaker was actually inspired by how I felt at the moment I was writing it. I was married at the time (and still am), but my husband was away on an archaeological dig for months. I felt like half of my brain was missing and everything was “loosey-goosey.” So, I decided to create this scholar with low self-esteem who walks around in a kind of daze since losing her mentor (and one true love). It’s not something to aspire to, but it also rang very true to how I felt at the time without my partner.
The Airship Captain/Adventurer
If the world of your Steampunk story involves airships, there’s more than likely going to be at least one female captain. She may or may not be accepted by her male counterparts, but more than likely she will because her crew will be composed of men and they defer to her. If she is a side character, the main character is usually unsure if she can be trusted, and as often as not, she turns out to be a villain. If she is the main character, she’ll be brave and physically fit, and eschew the annoyance of dealing with skirts flapping in the wind for the comfort of trousers and a long coat. However, she’ll still probably have a corset (most likely made of leather) that she’ll wear on the outside. Flight goggles are a given.
There’s only one flying contraption in Riftmaker, and to call it an “airship” is an overstatement. However, I do have a dynamic female character who I think more or less fits this archetype. Heather is a member of an elite group of thieves and enforcers for a cult. She is merciless and cold, but as she finds out the world is much bigger than she originally thought, curiosity starts to thaw her.
So, as you can see, there are some tried and true tropes to lean on in any genre, and Steampunk is no different.
Can you think of other examples of characters or archetypes I missed?
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Find more character spotlights, book reviews, guest posts, and interviews with Phoebe Darqueling during the Riftmaker blog tour, Jan 24 – Mar 6.
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Thanks for having me!
Any time. I always learn something from your articles.
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