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Posts Tagged ‘G.D. Falksen’

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.

–G.D. Falksen

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Today we welcome Steampunk Icon G.D. Falksen.

Show, Don’t Tell; or, The Importance of Worldbuilding in Steampunk

As a writer known for my steampunk fiction, I’m often approached by people who are curious about how one “writes steampunk.” This is not an unusual question, and the process is much easier than it looks.  As with all genres, steampunk stories should have well-developed characters, an engaging and well-woven plot, both rich and efficient use of language, and a setting capable of containing all of these aspects.  However, because the steampunk genre is more a matter of setting and environment (as opposed to a specific set of plots or themes), the art of worldbuilding is perhaps the most important part of the process.  Worldbuilding is a major aspect of writing regardless, and it’s also a favorite passtime of mine.  To give examples of the process of steampunk worldbuilding, I will reference my two principle steampunk settings: first, the Cities of Ether, probably best known for the story The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday; and second, the Edwardian-era adventure world of An Unfortunate Engagement.

The first thing to consider when crafting a steampunk world is the question of whether it will be “the real world” (ie, the historical Victorian or Edwardian Era) that has developed into a science fiction version of itself, or whether the setting will be wholly fictional.  Of course, even an entirely made-up steampunk world will resemble the historical world in some degree in terms of fashion, technology and structure, just as high fantasy worlds resemble the Medieval or Early Modern Periods.  And conversely, a real-world steampunk setting may well deviate from the details of historical fact while remaining true to the major events, circumstances and technologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

To explain what I mean by a “fictional steampunk setting” allow me to outline the premise of the Cities of Ether for those of you who are not already familiar with it.  The Cities of Ether, which has been best described as an “Edwardian X-Files”, takes the basic principles of 20th century deep space science fiction and re-imagines them in a context that would have been understandable to a Victorian audience.  It accepts the premise of space as ether, creating an environment that has oxygen and atmosphere but no gravity.  As a result, civilization is based not on enclosed space stations but on open flying cities; travel occurs on flying ships that resemble turn of the century naval craft or aeroplanes; and the “planets” of the setting are continent-sized land masses called “Islands”, which float through the sky.  And while the setting is entirely fictional, its civilizations are closely based on historical examples.  The primary setting for the most familiar Cities of Ether stories is the dystopian city of Salmagundi, which is based on a mixture of Belle Époque Paris and Gilded Age New York.  Other major civilizations are inspired by a range of difference cultural concepts, including a financially cutthroat Victorian England and its industrially-advanced Meiji Japan ally; a dynamic military alliance centered on a democratic Germany; a multi-cultural confederation of cities inspired by India; an old and power-hungry aristocratic union containing the worst excesses of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires; a Central Asian federation; and a nomadic Imperial China.  As you can see, the setting has an extremely large scope and includes a range of historically-inspired but entirely fictional concepts.

For an example of the historical setting, consider An Unfortunate Engagement.  This story is set very clearly in the early-mid Edwardian Era and its scope is specifically focused on England, France, Germany and Russia.  Aside from the events of the story, the background of the setting conforms to the historical reality.  But at the same time, the setting itself is larger than life.  It involves daring chases, gunfights, exploding airships and dastardly spies that clearly give it a fictional (indeed, often tongue-in-cheek) edge.  In fact, there is a distinct dualism between the adventure of the story and the otherwise historical context surrounding it, which adds to the fun.

One of the other key decisions to make when outlining a steampunk world is the role of sci-fi technology and the degree to which it exceeds historical fact.  Because steampunk is Victorian sci-fi, there is a whole range of technological options, reaching from very historically accurate “hard science” equipment to the much more over the top creations of various 19th century authors (indeed, many of the 19th century proto-steampunk authors spanned this range themselves, describing both very realistic inventions and far more outlandish ones).  Regardless of where on the factual-fictional spectrum your steampunk world rests, it’s important to remember that a steampunk setting, like any setting, should feel plausible and internally consistent.  One of the biggest risks a writer new to steampunk fiction faces is trying to overstate the point.  When you start trying to “prove” that the setting is steampunk, it inevitably feels forced and has the opposite effect.  As with anything in writing, the objective is to incorporate the various themes and icons of the subject into the setting so that they feel real, just like any other feature of the landscape.  In the case of steampunk, this means that the advanced technology should be emphasized only as much as it is unusual for the setting: if most of the setting conforms to a historical Victorian level of technology, the advanced science will probably stand out; if the entire setting enjoys advanced steampunk technology, it will seem as “ordinary” as a computer or electrical lighting would be in a modern story.

In the Cities of Ether, steampunk technology is everywhere, from steam-powered automobiles and aircraft, to mechanical computers, to complex communication networks based on telegraph lines and pneumatic tubes.  Steam even fills many of the roles of modern electricity, by powering household machines connected to the building’s heating pipes.  But because all of this technology is commonplace in the setting, to over-emphasize it would undermine the believability of the world.  Instead, the technology is described when there is a reason to describe it, such as when it is being used to set a scene (just as one would describe the presence of automobiles, the paintings on the walls of a room, or key pieces of furniture).

Contrast this to An Unfortunate Engagement, where the steampunk technology is the purview of a small number of mad scientists.  In this setting, even comparatively mundane steampunk technology (for example, a difference engine that can mimic the role of a modern computer) is not widely understood.  The key events of the story are kicked off by the theft of plans for constructing a rigid frame airship along the model of Zeppelins that will eventually be in use ten years later during the First World War.  Additional equipment includes vacuum bottles that can store steam in the manner of batteries, and time bombs of extreme complexity designed by a master clockmaker.  All of this technology stands out in contrast to the remainder of the world, which otherwise enjoys the normal science and machinery of the Edwardian Era.

When constructing a story world, it’s also very important to determine the cultural background of the people in the setting.  This is as important in steampunk as it is in any other setting, but in steampunk we have an added advantage.  Because steampunk is based on the 19th and early 20th centuries (a time period that saw the development of film and photography in addition to the growth of the modern newspaper industry), it is very easy to reference both the aesthetics and the philosophies of the age.  These form a solid background to any setting, and they can serve as a sort of shorthand to help you develop the culture of your world without having to construct it entirely from scratch.  When creating a steampunk world, it’s useful early on to determine which decade it is set in and which world cultures make an appearance.  Technology, ideas and fashion all developed dramatically over the course of the 19th century, and really each couple of decades can represent an entirely new steampunk setting.

To put this into examples, the Cities of Ether is based on a very wide range of cultures set around the turn of the 20th century (variously from about the 1870s through the 1910s).  This is an example of a very large and complex steampunk setting, which as an author I find very useful for variety but which can be daunting at times if one isn’t used to the scope of it.  An Unfortunate Engagement is much more contained, being set in a specific year and confining itself entirely to Europe.  Both of these are equally valid approaches to the scale of worldbuilding.  And as you may be aware, one topic that is near and dear to me is multi-cultural and non-European steampunk, which I’m very proud to have brought into the steampunk discourse several years ago.  I cannot emphasize enough that any culture that existed during the 19th or early 20th centuries is a viable option for a steampunk setting provided you can create an explanation for its possessing advanced industrial technology.  Europe and America are often easiest because historically they were on the cutting edge of industrial development, but they are not mandatory in steampunk by any stretch of the imagination.

Steampunk settings need the usual components as well: politics, social structure, economies, etc.  However, all of these can be approached in the same way you would approach them in any kind of setting.  So long as you have the contextual framework already set up, the rest of the worldbuilding process will flow comfortably into place.   While worldbuilding is most useful for authors, anyone interested in the creative process will find it helpful.  If you enjoy creating characters, knowing what sort of world they live in will help inform their ideas and habits.  Fashion and accessories will vary depending on the world they are made in, and designers, craftspeople and artists can create an entire mythos and a defining look for their work simply by having their personal “world” in mind when making their art.  Most people have a world of their own that they want to create, whether actively or not.

While I have used steampunk settings as examples, these guidelines actually apply to any setting or genre.  The place to start when building any kind of world is with the larger framework, and this is made significantly easier by following a comparable historical example.  For example, European fantasy settings are based on the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, and non-European ones are likewise based on the feudal or imperial models of other cultures, like the various Caliphates during the Golden Age of Islam.  Having a historical model to build from gives you a shorthand for the world.  In addition to providing inspiration, historical frameworks help make the setting ring true to the reader.  If the setting has a military equipped with bows, historical examples such as the English longbowmen can provide details as to how the weapons are used and what sort of tactics work effectively with them.  Historical references can be used to create realistic socio-economic structures, political ideologies, and technological developments.  And should you ever doubt that the utterly fantastic can still benefit from the careful application of reality, remember that the most believable dragons are based on various animal models ranging from serpents to lizards to cats.

 

G.D. Falksen is a history student and author of fiction whose work includes pieces from a wide range of genres, including steampunk, pulp adventure, historical fiction, horror, sci-fi and fantasy.

In addition to writing, G. D. Falksen is a student of history, covering a range of fields but focusing on the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. He is a noted figure in the steampunk subculture, and has given lectures on the subject at various conventions.

For more information please visit his website and facebook page.

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