Steampunk is a fun genre. We can all agree on that! But, it’s less of a genre than an aesthetic in a sense that it can support any king of genre. Steampunk is incredibly flexible. You want a murder mystery or a time travel literary drama set in an alternative history where everything is powered by steam? Great, you can do both! You want romance? Perfect, steampunk is also romantic!
These days there is a visible peak in interest for steampunk with the rise of flexibility in writing genres and reaching audiences. That’s the reason why I decided to write an article about some major tropes which make steampunk what it is.
If you wish to write steampunk, you will most probably use some or all of these to really show your readers what the genre is.
Steampunk novels are usually set in an alternative universe and anywhere in the world – could even be a secondary world – and often is. But, there are a few settings which regularly pop-up throughout those novels.
One such setting is a clockwork setting. Often steampunk characters enter clock-towers or factories and use giant clockworks to move around, escape, hide or fight. It is popular to have wickedly fun fights in this setting because it poses a lot of threats. And the more limits to your characters you set, the more fun and intense it gets.
Another likely setting will often be a train. Whether it’s a train robbery or a train trip o a train murder mystery (not that one, too close to ripping off Agatha Christie), trains pop-up in steampunk novels like nowhere else. The reason for that is the trains are sort-of fun and romantic. And so in a way that we would all like to take a trip in a 19th century cross-continental train. That sort of nostalgia for something we never experienced nor we ever will is what draws us to seeing steampunk trains as excellent settings.
This one is obvious. You do not want to market your diesel-punk as a steampunk and for obvious reasons. This gene is defined by the use of steam-engine. Stories are usually set in an alternative reality where everything is run on steam – even the little gadgets which can only be limited by your creativity.
Don’t skip this one. Your readers are very familiar with the genre and they are expecting steam-engine to save the day. How about running away on a train? That kills two birds with one stone.
Humans vs. Machines
This is a prominent theme featured in steampunk. Machines are what makes the whole thing so interesting and the development of the machines can always be a great source of conflict.
Think of The Dolls of New Albion: A Steampunk Opera. It is one of my favorite pieces of music ever written. And, it includes a great conflict in the third act which ultimately shapes the whole story. It features the fear of being chased into suicide by the human-like dolls.
Some authors have previously included notes of cyber-punk deliberately and it too works well in the context of our theme. You may have characters who partially turn into machines or you may have characters who are completely run on steam. Or, have everyday objects run on steam show unusual behavior.
There is a particular set of characters steampunk often contains. The readers will expect some of them to appear in your novel, too.
Having an adventurer as the lead or as the most prominent supporting character is a must. But apart from that, a polymath is one of the most popular character types in steampunk. A polymath is a person of great knowledge in many areas and they always serve a bigger purpose in the scheme of things.
Often you will find a princess or a very strong female character who acts very modern compared to the time period. Steampunk has no objections if you have a female polymath or a female adventurer lead character. This makes it a good genre for mirroring the contemporary.
As I sad earlier, steampunk is more an aesthetic than a well-established genre. It can work perfectly with any given genre and there is a slight rise in demand for romance in this setting.
But, a typical steampunk reader will most often expect a certain story-line from you. And the story-line is usually a quest. This is a genre that bears very well the Hero’s Journey plot-structure. The journey must be intriguing and most of all fun.
You will usually find there is an object that holds some form of power, a villain that has a way of misusing the object and a hero or a group of heroes on a quest looking for fun who entangle themselves in the plot and ultimately win the day.
Some things you just can’t ignore. One is, for instance, the Victorian clothes mixed with wild west clothes – sometimes even on the same character. Steampunk is usually set in the Victorian period, but almost never later than World War 1. Research the clothes extensively because your readers will expect an authentic representation of this fictive time.
The other popular aesthetic are gadgets. Have them serve a purpose and have them be interesting! I can’t stress enough how important it is that they are fun. And if you go for introduction-buildup-payoff, some gadget can even save the day.
The aesthetic period chosen for steampunk is almost always Victorian with notes of western. Keep this in mind when prepping the novel and be sure to research time-period. Perhaps, the best way to research is to actually read steampunk.
Keep It Fun
Nothing compares to this. Steampunk is fun, adventurous, wild, crazy… But, the focus is on fun. This is the genre that gives you the opportunity to go in any direction and the only real thing the reader truly expects is that once they buy your book they have immense fun.
By writing steampunk and publishing it, you are making a promise of a good time ahead of the reader. This genre tolerates impossible escapes, wicked battles, steaming romance and so much more.
Everything in your book must serve a purpose, and the purpose of steampunk is to provide fun for the reader.
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did be sure to spread the word about it so all the aspiring authors can find useful content we produce weekly. Also, be sure to leave a comment so we can start a discussion. What are your thoughts on steampunk and the tropes that must appear in such novels?
As always, keep writing!
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.