How many, many fantasy novels begin with The Wizard buying The Ranger a tankard of ale? As they whisper over their foamy mugs, a cast of archetypical characters joins them beside the fire, and a new adventure begins. In fantasy fiction, each character plays a role straight out of myth, the kind of role Joseph Campbell might have described in his work dissecting folklore. But as writers pull the fantastic into a more technological time, the characters must catch up. What happens when the world changes, when the age of knights and yeomen gives way to a new epoch of technological wonders and scientific marvels? What happens to the Rangers and Wizards and Grizzled Veterans when fantasy becomes steampunk?
Steampunk captures a time when the rural world collided with the urban, and traditional folk ways met mechanization. The genre is frequently associated with the Victorian and Edwardian periods of British and world history lasting roughly from 1837, when Queen Victoria took the throne, through the end of World War I. It was time of rampant modernization, overwhelming change powered by the steam engine. Today’s authors are as inspired by this social and technological upheaval as were classic writers like Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, and H. G. Wells (all pioneers in speculative fiction).
While fantasy fiction is patterned on the myths and legends of the ancient and medieval world, steampunk fiction takes its cues from the works of these Victorian-era authors—and then takes it one step further, into the imagined future of a world powered by steam. And the poor characters inhabiting these new settings? Well, the archetypes of fantasy found they needed to update their resumes to fit into the changing world.
Heroes Wanted: Must Have Farming Experience Street Cred
Most modern fantasy literature centers on the Youthful Hero, an orphan typically raised in an agrarian setting, often by distant relatives. Innocent and unsullied by the world, he will come to discover that he is in fact the heir to some crucial lineage: destined to be a king, a hero, a savior. The Youthful Hero is Frodo, unknowingly inheriting the One Ring. You also remember the orphaned farmhand-turned-sorcerer Garion in David Edding’s Belgariad, whose naivete was rivaled only by his hidden magical powers.
But in the time of the steampunk era, urbanization has dragged our orphaned hero into the city. The Youthful Hero must become the Waif. Raised in an orphanage or on the streets, the Waif is not typically an heir. Instead, the Waif’s attempts to escape the inhumane conditions of squalid poverty will entangle the Waif in some world-changing scheme. Modo, for instance, is the orphaned hunchback of Arthur Slade’s The Hunchback Assignments. He rises from an attraction in a freakshow to a shape-shifting teenage spy out to save the children of England from being turned into clockwork automatons. Not bad for a thirteen-year-old.
Now Hiring Scientists (Please Bring Doctor’s Note Certifying Mental Health)
The brains behind many fantasy adventures is the Wizard. Wizards are masters of fate, mystically wise, and they are in demand for their ability to tap primal powers, divine providence, or whatever other ethereal energy turning the heart of the world. The wizards of steampunk work a more modern magic with the power of science.
When evil, the scientist or inventor plays the part of the Mad Scientist, bent on harnessing the forces of nature and discovering secrets-that-man-was-not-meant-to-know in a crazed bid to rule the world or exact revenge for some long-ago slight. (Think of Sauron if he wielded gears and a soldering iron instead of magic.) When good, the scientist plays the role of the Inventor, using his talents for the benefit and edification of society (though sometimes their inventions can have unexpected consequences). It is the Inventor who is responsible for such marvels of the steampunk world as fabulous airships, electrically-powered ray-guns, mechanized automatons, brilliant computational difference engines and even steam-powered mail-delivery systems.
The die from which all Mad Scientists are cast is the notorious Victor Frankenstein: Driven to delve into the mysteries of life itself, he creates an abhorrent humanoid monster and then pursues his creation to the uttermost north seeking to destroy it. He contrasts sharply with Agatha Clay of the steampunk comic Girl Genius. At times a bit mad, Agatha is an Inventor whose only desires are to perform well in school and to become renowned for her inventions. She’s an entrepreneur, not a demented plotter.
Guides Wanted: Must Be Comfortable Piloting and Repairing an Airship
In fantasy, the Youthful Hero might be destined to save the world, but he’d get lost on his way without his mentors the Wizard and the Grizzled Veteran. The heroic Grizzled Veteran of fantasy fiction is a renowned warrior. He’s seen his share of battles and adventures, tangled with villains, dallied in court intrigue, and confronted dark powers. He’ll protect the Youthful Hero with his very life, if need be.
The Waif might be more street-savvy, but without a protector, the Waif is probably doomed. Luckily, there are plenty of archetypes ready to play the part.
One of the best known character types is The Gentleman Explorer. He’s plumbed the deepest jungles of the world, safaried on the Serengeti, hunted dangerous, exotic beasts, or done business in the farthest orient—all clad in leather, khaki, pith helmet and monocle. Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, is one of the most famous Gentleman Explorers. He embarks on his quest to circumnavigate the globe simply because a fellow gentlemen made a bet with him. For the Gentleman Explorer, the quest isn’t a driving ambition; it’s just sportsmanship.
Other adventures might require a specialist. On the deck of a hydrogen-filled zeppelin airship or piloting a biplane, you will find another veteran, the Aviator. An Aviator’s domain is the sky and he may be a merchant pilot, a veteran of an old air campaign, a young hotshot ace, or captain of a mighty dreadnought. Manned flight is one of the most important strategic and trade innovations of a steampunk world, and it is the role of the Aviator to keep the skies safe from enemies and bustling with commerce. Deryn Sharp of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan is an unconventional choice for an Aviator. As a young lady she dreams of flying, and dresses as a boy to join the British Royal Air Force. After a test-flight gone awry she ends up on the titular airship Leviathan.
Finally, Mechanics are the worn, oil-smeared veterans that keep the wheels of technology greased and turning, the coal-fires stoked, and the bellows pumping. In the animated series Fullmetal Alchemist, Winry Rockbell is the dependable Mechanic and childhood friend who repairs hero Edward Elric’s mechanical prosthetics whenever they are (inevitably) broken in adventures and battles.
Sales Opportunities Available: No Need for Character References
There are always fast talkers and shady ladies around the seams of society. In fantasy stories, one staple amoral archetype is the Rogue. A rapscallion, a scoff-law who lives on the boundaries of society, he may win hearts and woo noble ladies with his wit and charm, rob from the rich to give to the poor, or use his talents to track less savory criminals to their lairs. Technological advances provide a host of new career paths for the Rogue.
Most famously, a quick flight class can send the Rogue aloft, becoming an Air Pirate. The scourge of the skies, an Air Pirate is often charming and debonair, a cut above the common cut-purse and as likely to be the hero as the villain. His trade is the plunder of more reputable ventures, using his found wealth to fund a lavish lifestyle and support a crew of like-minded scalawags. Lee Scoresby of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (a/k/a The Northern Lights) is a mercenary best known for his balloon piloting, even if his heart isn’t in it. This heroic Air Pirate’s fondest wish is to retire from aeronautical adventures to a ranch in Texas.
Down on the ground, there are Misfits who live on the margins. They may be tinkers, circus performers, political dissidents, or traveling people. Though society has rejected them, each somehow exists in a tenuous symbiosis with the establishment. Misfits often provide some essential service or survive on the scraps of more permanent settlements, cobbling together bits and pieces of technology to meet their own needs. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s seminal work The Difference Engine centers around Sybil Gerard, daughter of a political dissident. Working as a prostitute for the political elite, Sybil is a quintessential Misfit: at odds with society by birth and career, and yet central to the unfolding events of her world.
Two more powerful varieties of Rogue are the Aristocrat and the Captain of Industry. These characters see themselves as above the plebian masses, and often as above the law. The typical Aristocrat is unconcerned for the feelings and well-being of anyone else. Claude, of Cat Rambo’s story “Clockwork Fairies,” is one Aristocrat who is particularly blind to his own prejudices, instead consumed by matters of class and society. A dean at Oxford University, he woos and wins an unconventional inventor of beautiful clockwork figures, only to try to turn her into a high-society lady in sort of steampunk My Fair Lady.
Villain, Entry-level Position: No Experience Required
Heroes are nothing without their Villains. Fantasy stories frequently occur in a world that is starkly black and white, good and evil. This is not to say there are no nuances or shades of gray, but in the final accounting each character must stand either with the forces of good or with the forces of evil. And the Dark Lord—be he an evil wizard, a dark god or a villainous warlord—is the embodiment of evil. But morality in a steampunk world is not so clearly delineated.
While there are certainly heroes in steampunk, and there are definitely antagonists, there is no single embodiment of evil that must be defeated to save the day. A Villain might be any kind of character in a steampunk tale, but the Villain’s evil is a much more personal variety of bad.
In many ways, that’s the greatest strength of steampunk as a genre: A steampunk world is dynamic and constantly changing, marching to the beat of progress and science. Just as it pushes the archetypes of fiction into a new technological era, it challenges our understanding of what the future can mean. As long as there’s steam in the boiler, readers can expect some ripping good yarns.