Friday, January 29, 2010

Focus on Character, Not Accoutrements

The phrase "steampunk" evokes a sense of the world of a novel described as such for people who know what the term means, and also has connotations of a certain worldview associated with it. These are traditionally dystopian societies that possess steam technology taken to a high level, sometimes in abundance throughout all cross-sections of life, and sometimes only allotted to the very highest sectors of life.

To be "steampunk" is to incorporate some or all of these elements into your tale. High-level steam-powered technology on its own does not a steampunk tale make, nor does slavish devotion to SCIENCE (yes, the capital letters were needed :P) above all else.

What does make a steampunk tale then?

Several factors might be included, truth be told. High-level steam technology, a dystopian government, and some sort of war making life a cruddy existence are all possible factors to include. Read pretty much any steampunk work and you can get an idea of what should be included. Many of them do a fairly good job of including the needed elements to have the label make sense.

With the technology in particular, I try to make it a part of everyday life without making it overly fantastic. By that, I mean no rocket-packs, personal propeller hats, or armaments that turn you inside out. Sure, some of those advances would be cool -- but do they really serve any purpose? Not so much.

Better to make the technology common but not over-the-top. That's one of my complaints about sci-fi stories in a lot of respects. The technology takes center stage over the plot and the characters, the very things that make us actually care about a story. If all we have are flashy gadgets (particularly in movies) then you don't get the same powerful story that resonates throughout generations.

I know, I know ... I'm starting to sound literary. There's something to be said for focusing on character though, seeing as enduring characters are what make fiction great.

Just saying.


Brandon said...

Excellent post! I think the same could be said about the fantasy genre as well. Monsters or magic or undead armies can crowd out the characters. And like you said, it's the characters that keep us hooked--not the fancy worldbuilding (although when done right, the details of the world certainly enhance the experience).

It's always about the characters, isn't it? :)

Brandon said...

Eh, meant to say fantasy genre in general, back there. Obviously, steampunk is fantasy. :)

Amalia Dillin said...

This argument is probably a good half of the reason that my first drafts lack virtually all physical description of places and setting. It just doesn't MATTER to the characters, and so it doesn't matter to me either.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I like to think of the setting and such as an extra layer- it makes the book fun to read, but doesn't drive the book.

I read somewhere that writing historical fiction is simply telling a story with a unique setting. I kind of like that- it reminds me of what's important.

Gary Corby said...

This is very interesting stuff. I'd argue that if you're going to use an exotic setting, be it either in the SF&F sense or the historical, then it should be for a reason; otherwise the story could be told as well or better in contemporary.

In Stephanie's case for example, by no means could Hatshepsut be separated from her environment. Her setting isn't there merely to add a bit of extra colour, it's necessary.

dolorah said...

What: no "Go Gadget" gadgets?

Hmm, well, your characters are well written from the little I've seen. And I agree, characters are what keep you reading.

Great post. Thanks.