Today we welcome author G.D. Falksen to Steampunkapalooza.
G. D. Falksen is an author, historian and man about town. His adventure serials “An Unfortunate Engagement” and “The Mask of Tezcatlipoca” are appearing in Steampunk Tales. His short story “In The Footsteps of Giants” appears in the Footprints anthology from Hadley Rille Books and“The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday” has been recently reprinted in Steampunk Reloaded, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (it originally appeared on Tor.com).
The Iron Bustle: Writing Strong Female Characters in Steampunk
by G.D. Falksen
One of the greatest challenges any author faces is writing strong, believable, and engaging characters. All of these are difficult on their own, but together they are especially challenging. Making a character with visible strengths is the easiest part; making one that is also complex and realistic is much more difficult. Female characters especially are at risk of being under-developed, even by modern authors; often, a “strong” female character is either strong only so long as a male lead is not around to be upstaged by her, or she is reduced to a one-dimensional cliché that lacks depth and complexity. In steampunk fiction, influenced as it is by the Victorian era, this becomes even more problematic.
The “straw woman” problem has been around for ages, and it is one that we all know perfectly well. It begins with a female character who is tough, witty, confident, skilled, and self-reliant…right up to the point where her strength and independence are at risk of overshadowing an important male character. Then she collapses, loses confidence, or just cannot overcome the challenge she has in front of her. This is a dreadful betrayal, and in steampunk fiction it is arguably even worse. If a steampunk story’s setting is effectively a science-fiction version of the historical 19th century (as the majority are), then it is quite probable that a conventionally “strong” female character (read: outspoken, aggressive, skilled in combat, etc) will have been forced to fight against societal opposition to achieve such a goal. For such a person to suddenly fold in a confrontation without good reason is absurd.
The other great risk that female characters face is that they will be given the opposite mistreatment: unrealistic perfection. This is more insidious than the straw woman problem, because on the surface it can be mistaken for something positive (and the perpetrator may well have good intentions behind it). In this instance, a female character is unreasonably good at everything. She is the best fighter, the smartest person, flawless, constantly witty, and universally desired; and consequently is unlike any real person who could possibly exist. And like the “perfect man” protagonists of many pulp adventure stories (who are at best an enjoyable fantasy), the “perfect woman” is likely to alienate anyone who approaches the story looking for a person rather than a fantasy. Worse, such a character type actually undermines women in literature by presenting the only “positive” female figure as someone who no one could ever be like.
Both of these problems also fail to take into account that what makes a strong character (female or otherwise) is not combat ability, aggression, outspokenness, or other such traits that are often focused on in adventure, fantasy and science fiction. Rather, a strong character is one that is complex, with both flaws and strengths, has the ability to adapt to an unfamiliar situation, and the confidence and courage to carry when faced with a problem. A strong female steampunk character may certainly command an airship, build a fantastic machine, fight an army, or rule a country; but none of these things make her a strong character. She is a strong character because she has the self-assurance and determination to have done these things, and is able to use her skills to do what needs to be done even when they may not be the perfect tools for the job. In the 19th century, as in today’s world, there were women who possessed or surpassed the courage and tenacity of male soldiers, even though they were not soldiers themselves. Throughout history, women have ruled families, business, and countries, without ever once raising a sword or riding into battle. And on the other hand, women have fought on the battlefield for what they believed in since long before the topic of an integrated military was ever broached. This is what makes a female character strong, just as it makes a male character strong. Strength comes not from what a person can accomplish when it is easy for them, but from what they can accomplish when circumstances are against them.
To give an example of how I interpret the concept of a strong female character, I would like to discuss two characters from my serial “An Unfortunate Engagement”, which first began in Steampunk Magazine and which is currently ongoing in Steampunk Tales. The first character is the narrator and protagonist, Alexandra Westminster. Alex is a young Englishwoman of quiet habits and intellectual inclinations, who is thrown into a world of intrigue quite outside her range of experience when she encounters a plot to start a Europe-wide war. While Alex is sent into combat over the course of the story, she is not a soldier. Nothing in her background has prepared for her that, and while she endeavors to do her best, it would be unrealistic for her to beat every adversary she encounters through force of arms. Instead, she uses her intelligence, wit, resourcefulness and courage (things that are fundamental aspects of her character) to overcome the obstacles that she encounters. She stares down armed Bavarians to free a kidnapped friend; she repels ruffians intent on doing her harm; she leads a small revolution to free a camp of prison laborers; and she does it all using the skills that she possesses to their fullest, even when they are not the ideal tools for the job. Alex is not perfect: she is impetuous, overly inclined to trust in the decency and civility of others, and is driven by a deep moral earnestness that sends her rushing off into danger, but she adapts to these character flaws so that they help shape her, but not define her.
The second character is one of the primary antagonists, the Bavarian secret agent Angelika. Unlike Alex, Angelika is very well versed in combat, and she openly commands soldiers and leads them into battle. But this is not what makes her a strong character; as with Alex, her strength comes from being able to identify the skills she has available to her and to use them to accomplish the tasks ahead of her. She is not well-liked by the men around her because her behavior does not conform to societal norms in the Edwardian era, but she perseveres in spite of this because she knows who she is and what she intends to do in her life. She can be extremely manipulative and treacherous, the resulting combination of her espionage background, political mind, and society’s refusal to afford her the privilege of “masculine” aggressiveness. As with Alex, Angelika’s skills are merely a set of tools for her to use. Her strength comes not from them but from her ability and willingness to use them as necessary in a given situation, and her refusal to give up simply because she faces a challenge. Her flaws are not failings that detract from her, but yet another set of traits that help present her as a person.
One can find numerous archetypes for female characters as well as male ones in steampunk fiction, but ultimately these are all window dressing. They help shape the character as she is presented to the audience, but they do not define her. A character, in any genre, is defined by a core personality, just like a real person is. The strongest characters are those with complex and engaging core personalities who refuse to allow circumstances to diminish the core that makes them who they are.