Mad scientists. Cooky engineers. Lunatic tinkerers. The figure of a maker of some kind is one of those essential ingredients in steampunk literature that, though it thoroughly amuses, often borders on the humorous if not cliche. For dissenters, the folks who think steampunk is ridiculous (though some of the language I’ve seen is considerably more forthright in tone), these characters are often the point of their frustrations. Why? Well, I think as steampunk has grown as a genre of literature–sometimes a part of fantasy and sometimes a part of science-fiction–it’s begun its own long line of stereotypes and archetypes.
While not everyone agrees with me, I tend to see steampunk less as an extension of science fiction and one more of both sci-fi and fantasy. Technology and magic blur anyway (what matters if teleportation is done with microchips or mysterious energy? same idea in the end). Steampunk’s fantastical elements aren’t always magic, either. There’s something to be said about the Victorian or pseudo-Victorian setting that’s as specific as fantasy settings.
To me, the mad tinkerer is much like the wizard in fantasy literature. Sure, it’s a tired archetype. How many sage, white-haired old men can there be, after all? I’ve picked up one too many books, excited at the prospect, only to be disappointed by the wizard character as just another rehashing of Gandalf. Gandalf is great. Just not a million times over.
So, how do we prevent our inventors from becoming hackneyed versions of the Wizard of Oz (there’s a confused genre for you)? Sure, there are plenty of historical analogues for this (from Newton to Einstein), but getting your steampunk tinkerer right means thinking–just slightly–out of gear.
- The young, half-starved, mad with ideas inventor has been done. Try tweaking the age–maybe the inventor began this later in life, and found a propensity for technology.
- As above, half-starved and poor? I smell cliche. How about from a normal family? Or a family that is well-to-do but not supportive of tinkering or inventing? Or someone from a religion, like a monk or a nun?
- When there are female tinkerers, they tend to err on the side of tomboyish. How about a female inventor who’s just as feminine as can be–like someone’s mother? A mother who’s discovered her calling while staying at home with her kids–a true mother of invention!
- Scientist? Alchemist? Tinkerer? Engineer? If none of these terms work particularly well, use your own. Stuck for ideas? I like the Online Etymology Dictionary, The Indo-European Roots Index, and Old Norse Online. Or, for an easy reference with research already done, there’s always Gary Gygax’s Extraordinary Book of Names.
- The ingenue. Don’t have one. Or if you do, at least make an attempt to make her cool.
- It’s a mad mad mad mad mad mad…. okay. I’m all for eccentricity. But science and madness do not have to go hand in hand.
Of course, that’s not to say my advice is law. I don’t even follow it all the time. My own tinkerer is in her 50s, tomboyish, a little person, and certainly a little batty in the brain. You don’t have to knock all the stereotypes to make for a good inventor, but you do have to spend some time thinking about what will set them apart from the crowd.
Behind the goggles, we all need to stand out.