Weirdo GooseWe Geeks come from all sorts of weird places. Walking around Little Five Points today in Atlanta, I was struck by the beautiful oddities around me, reveling in the weirdness that seems to ebb from every stoop. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t amazed by strange objects, stores, and people. And this works, because a writer I have a habit of watching people and making up adventures about them.

The odd places attraction comes from my childhood. My godparents used to bring me to Northampton, MA and I’d get to visit the most eccentric stores. The best, of course, was Faces. Faces, for anyone who’s ever been to Noho or Smith College, is definitely a Pioneer Valley landmark. Back when I first visited, it was one floor, and more than anything, it had toys–toys so lovely and fantastic, so colorful and funky, so beautiful and eclectic, that I never wanted to leave. There were magnets and doohickeys, sandscapes, and well, to save the trouble of description: ThinkGeek has a great page with many of these objects of which I speak.

I’ve always been more crafty than makey, but I realized as I was going through chapter two, and thinking about Professor, that much of her character comes from my love of odd toys. Half of what I found today and wanted to take home were odd toys, strange dolls, odd tinkerings. But I exercised restraint. (And holy crap did I ever fall in love with Bungalow360 Bags… I was so close to buying one, but could hear my husband complaining about the purses I already have and… darn, darn, darn).

Anyway, what I’m trying to say in this late night post is that oddity, eccentricity, and the writing process really do go hand in hand. It’s no surprise that the steampunk movement is so complex, so broad, and so unbelievably artistic… We tinkerers (whether in a literal or literary sense) are really part raven, drawn to the stunning, the strange, and the shiny.

(Note: I did not get the Bungalow360 bag, but I did score some great perfume, some skull and crossbones hair clips–oh so cool–and a great shade of lipstick; I said restraint, not complete denial.)

Mad ScientistMad 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.

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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.