Let's take a trip in a steam-powered flying car! Copper, scrap metal, and visible cogs: put on your top hat and grab your pocket watch; we're going to explore the fabulous universe of the Steampunk novel!
If you want to write a novel more or less associated with this literary genre, we offer you a small overview of its themes and codes to give you some hints to exploit in your universe.
So, what should you focus on when writing Steampunk?
1 - Imagine a retro-futuristic world
The basic idea of Steampunk is to conceive the future... through the prism of the past. It's like putting yourself in the shoes of a 19th-century person and imagining the craziest innovations of the centuries to come through his eyes.
To build your Steampunk world, you can start by asking yourself this question: what vision of the future could our ancestors have had, according to the technological level of their time?
This leads to the notion of a "vintage future"! Once you've engaged in this thinking, push the concepts you imagine to their limits ... without closing the door on fantasy since, as we'll see later, Steampunk is often at the intersection of several literary genres.
2 - Take care of the aesthetics of your Steampunk novel
Steampunk is a literary genre with a strong visual universe. Its codes are emblematic and expected by the fans of the genre. Play with them while reinventing them according to your desires! An aesthetic of DIY and recovery accompanies Steampunk coloring. The attention to detail is king, and the visual universe is loaded.
The most typical codes are the use of copper, visible cogs, leather, metallic textures, and patinated colors, all associated with classic 19th-century elements.
In terms of clothing, you will find frock coats, top hats, corsets, dresses with petticoats, ruffled shirts, aviator glasses, pocket watches, pistols ... But you can of course deviate from these classics to create a unique look for your characters.
3 - Where should your Steampunk novel be set?
There are a few iconic locations of the genre, such as underground cities or islands floating in the sky. However, as for the dress style, nothing prevents you from choosing a less expected setting or even reinventing the typical steampunk settings to create something unique.
If you want a more realistic setting, we recommend places like :
- The Wild West
- Russia of the Tsars
- The colonial empires
- The World's Fairs. With clear preferences for those of 1851 (London) and 1889 (Paris)
4. Start from an uchrony to create your universe
If Steampunk goes hand in hand with a solid aesthetic, it is also necessary to think about the context that underlies this genre. Steampunk has strong links with History in general and with uchrony in particular (it happens that a personality who really existed can be found in a Steampunk story).
In a few words, uchrony means a fictional world built from a modification of our real past. Thus, we change a small element in the History of humanity, and we imagine the consequences of this modification.
In the Steampunk trilogy "The Mysteries of Larispem" (Lucie Pierrat-Pajot), Paris has become an independent city-state where the butchers have taken power and constitute the strong caste of a populist regime... From this change of paradigm, History is reinvented. It is not systematic, but it is often the case in Steampunk!
If you feel like it, you too, take inspiration from the politics and trends of the 19th century to see how you can deviate from them and create an uchronistic context for your novel.
5 - Play the hybrid steampunk card
Traditionally, Steampunk is urban and Victorian-inspired. But nothing prevents you from moving away from this image, and mixing inspirations to create a more original universe.
Even if you want to focus on the 19th century, don't forget that the period was vast, and its universes varied. In 1850, not everyone was walking around in a frock coat or corset in the streets of a big city...
You can write about Steampunk worker, aviator, oriental ... Think about the different social strata and civilizations that existed at the time around the world (or create the ones you like) and reinvent them in a steampunk style.
Here's another hint: the imaginary world of the pirate is very fertile in terms of stories, scenarios and personalities. Find out where Steampunk pirates come from to compose a story rich in adventure and originality.
In the comic book "Castle in the Stars", Alex Alice imagines a world where the conquest of space took place a hundred years ahead of time, in the 19th century. The story takes place onboard an incredible flying machine capable of traveling through space. We are far from the foggy streets of London or Paris at the time of the creation of the Eiffel Tower ...
Also don't forget that it is not rare to meet a magician or a winged cat in a steampunk novel
6 - Highlight machines
Steampunk likes to deconstruct the way the machine works, as much in terms of the themes addressed in the story and aesthetics (think of pocket watches with their apparent cogs).
This is not insignificant when we know that this literary genre celebrates the time of the industrial revolution when everything seemed possible and imaginable with a few mechanics!
It is not surprising, in this context, to see a display of extraordinary machines in Steampunk novels: steam-powered flying cars, airships, zeppelins, hot-air balloons ... Or even the famous Ethernef of the Castle in the Stars, an aircraft that is supposed to propel itself in space with gas.
7 - Steampunk character ideas
The character archetypes presented here can be protagonists, antagonists, or minor characters. The same character can also combine characteristics of different models.
- The Engineer: often innately or precociously talented, able to create and use a wide variety of gadgets and other mechanisms.
- The Gentleman: Always acting with tact, chivalry, and an often British sense of humor. His main occupations are making tea and asking for duels.
- The Detective: Can be a tough guy or a gentleman, both possessing a keen analytical mind and a keen sense of observation. Often accompanied by an assistant.
- The woman of action: At the opposite end of the spectrum from the precious Victorian stuck in her corset, regularly combined with the engineer archetype with a tomboyish streak.
- The child in the street: If he is not an orphan, he is a beaten child. Resourceful, he can act as an assistant or engineer.
- The worker : Strong figure of the industrial revolution. A situation of misery or intense labor allowing the introduction of a reflection on the social frameworks emerging at this period.
- The plague doctor: Although completely anachronistic, nourishes an aesthetic and themes that can be perfectly integrated into a steampunk story.
- The Mad Scientist: A recurring antagonist, often playing the sorcerer's apprentice, leading to a confrontation with concepts that are beyond his grasp. Regularly in search of immortality, energy, or personal satisfaction. Creates a duality with an engineer protagonist, as they often share similar talents and goals.
8 - Examples of concepts for your Steampunk story
- Esotericism: Since the Belle Époque led to the golden age of the occult, it is natural to find elements of it in Steampunk. You can pick among many traditions: alchemical, Egyptian, fairy, voodoo, masonic, spiritism... This trope is ideal for detective stories.
- Relationship to artificial life: The presence of conscious machines leads to moral questioning on the part of their creators. For example, one wonders if an automaton can feel human feelings or at least to understand them. There may also be a strong technophobia among non-artificial populations, leading to racism, resulting in acts of extreme violence against mechanical organisms.
- Time travel: A timeless classic. Steampunk emphasizes the aesthetics of the object, allowing for dechronology and past, present, and future environments.
- Humor: Steampunk is without question one of the most fantastical forms of science fiction. The term itself was coined to mock "cyberpunk" and its derivatives, expressing the fed-up with SF universes too serious and similar. Irony is a key concept of the genre, although this does not prevent authors from tackling darker themes, as science fiction always allows moral reflection.
Banditry: Due to their urban expansion and successive waves of immigration, European cities have seen the emergence of poor and ill-famed ghettos where famine and unemployment were the order of the day. To anchor the story in reality, the use of slang specific to the criminals and police officers of the time is a major asset.
This article is intended to scan the themes associated with Steampunk, but don't take it literally either. Feel free to develop your own world without worrying about shackles. It is better not to lock yourself into a too rigid framework in fantasy literature and let your imagination speak.
If you have other ideas and suggestions, or would just like to chat about it, feel free to express yourself in the comment section below!