Steampunk Character Archetypes
What is a Steampunk archetype?
An archetype, stereotype or recurring character, is one that people will recognize fairly quickly even though it isn’t someone they can name. In the Steampunk genre, this character is usually a main character, a hero or villain with a recognizable style of dress or equipment including traditional Steampunk elements for example corsets, cogs and gears, bronze, top hats or goggles.
From video games to table-top-miniatures, comics, adult and children’s literature, Steampunk can be found anywhere. It seems the reach of Steampunk is as varied as the sum of its parts. It’s a genre built on strangeness, and as a result defies professional and academic study, but there are signs and patterns, and together we’ll pick out a few that can define a familiar character.
Goggles are one of the most recognisable elements of the fashion like the Steampunk mechanic character. You can learn some of the most popular archetypes and characters in the genre below. Learning the different archetypes puts you in a good position to create your own persona.
A brief to Steampunk
Steampunk is known for its blend of fantasy and technology. It’s often placed in alternate timelines. Steampunk’s interest in technology like pocket watches ( see our shop to buy here ) seems to delve into the morals of overarching technology in a society that’s not entirely sure what to do with it.
Steampunk tends to be optimistic at its heart. Often accompanied by the archetypal Hero’s Journey. The Protagonist is happy to tinker and play while the world around them looms menacingly either converting their technology or possessing something similar in desperate need of a foil to restore balance.
Archetypes as those who fit a certain narrative shape. From adventurer to the Fool. These roles are here to help define in simple terms the shape of someone’s story, giving writers and audience both a chance to step beyond into new stories.
Here, dear reader, are but a few. So, hold on, strap yourself in, and be ready with your pocket money. These roads are guarded by interdimensional street urchins.
Professor Steg, Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman, Steampunk Pilot
While the story isn’t expressed as Steampunk through and through, it does have elements that would be welcome into any time-travelling bookshop. Fortunately, The Milk is a children’s story of 160 pages centred around a father who does his best to explain what took him so long to fetch the milk for his two children’s cereal. There are pirates, a volcano god, and a group of gelatinous aliens that go around replacing geographical locations with commemorative dinner plates.
The main element that stands out as valid for all looking for an andverer archetype is Professor Steg, who is in fact a stegosaurus who travels through time in a hot air balloon. When looking for a steampunk Adventurer to emulate, you can’t go wrong with Professor Steg and his magnificent time-travelling air balloon.
This Herbivorous gentleman will add class to any bookshelf, not to mention trump any other mention of steampunk pirates as this fellow has graced all of the best parts of history. He is surely to be a welcome addition to my next dinner party. All I have to do first is build myself a pocket in time in which to hide from any further court demands.
Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, Hellboy, by Mike Mignola,
Karl Ruprecht Kroenen who director Guillermo del Toro adapted further in his movie adaptation into a gas mask assassin with dust for blood. The man is a wind-up assassin. Fascinating. Cool, and a downright badass, just don’t ask his opinions on politics.
The man, if he can be called that anymore, is a sinister blend of manners and menace. Both able to maintain an air of politeness, while harbouring ideas that would have even the most prickly of us cheering for the big red man to hit him again.
The man reminds me of a party I once went to. Ghastly affair. Now, I’m known to be a rather portly chap, so you can imagine my discomfort at having to squeeze myself into a rubber catsuit. By the end of the night they had to ring me out like a damp sponge.
Dishonoured, Corvo Attano, Spy
Technically a cheat, but I prefer the man to the one previous. Corvo is everything that one looks for in a servant: loyal, silent, and possesses the abilities to topple society’s power dynamic from within. I once made the mistake of asking if he wouldn’t mind helping me tidy up. Later I would find my household ransacked, my servants killed, and worst of all, he’d stolen the last of my biscuits.
Set in the bleak industrial city of Dunwall, Dishonoured brings a certain mythology to the genre that separates it from other Steampunk games. Dishonoured is about identity, even the choice to hide one’s face behind a mechanical mask is an act of rebellion, to become more than human through the use of technology and magic.
An interesting feature of the game is the presence of swarms of flesh stripping rats that appear more often as the player hacks their way through the game. This is an interesting metaphor for the disease and death that seems ingrained in the system, with those wonderful people over at Arkane Studios taking it that one stop further as a living breathing entity like a mythological monster made manifest.
Fable 2-3, Reaver, Aristocrat
Now, here’s a fellow you can depend upon. Perhaps not the best person to put in charge of the treasury, but it must be said, in all the years I’ve known him the man hasn’t aged a day. I must find out where he buys his skin care.
Voiced by the magnanimous and all-round softy Stephen Fry, it’s harder to picture a more dastardly (and dashing) Steampunk villain? Anti-hero? Whatever, then the youth-stealing industrialist known as Reaver.
Reaver is a character you want to hate, and with two games full of his schemes and tricks, you’ve got ample reason to. Personally, I can’t bring myself to hate him all the way, he’s the Freudian Superego made manifest and he’s been drinking gin all morning. The bad thing is he makes sense, especially when considering how much the industrial age brought the World forward, and how much it cost to do so.
Professor Elemental, Professor
Time travelling rapper. Professor elemental raps in the steampunk form known amongst all time travelling universities as “Chap-Hop”. The man’s the perfect example of a steampunk professor, the clue is in fact in his name. Lemon entry, Watson
The man’s known to be polite to his fans. It’s said that whenever he graces London, with its streets choked in an eternal grey fog, the people cheer for him. The people cheer his name and toss buttered crumpets at his feet.
A great sport, through and through. I couldn’t recommend him higher. Watching an elderly man prance about like an arthritic Prince is kind of like watching your Grandmother summon the rain. Not at all something you’d expect, but something which you’ll speak of for many years to come.
Fallout 4, Codsworth, Butler
Fallout is bleak, which is to be expected in a highly irradiated World full of Super Mutants and Deathclaws, but there’s humour, weird moments, and robotic dogs. Whether Fallout is a game with Steampunk elements, or a World driven by core Steampunk values is up for debate, but whatever you think you’re going to have a hard time keeping the Brotherhood of Steel out of your next Meta-Victorian get together.
There’s a real mad scientist feel to Fallout’s technological elite, and this is largely because there isn’t any red tape holding their genius back, nor anyone intelligent enough to say, “Are you sure we need a sentient egg whisk, Harold?”
For me, Codsworth is a clear addition to any robotic butler collection. He’s gentrified, with an accent so middle-class it leaves all who hear it only able to reply in words that have at least four syllables.
Lady Eboshi of Iron Town, Princess Monoke Governess
She’s the primary antagonist of Ghibli’s Mononoke. But, in true Miyazaki spirit, she’s no one-dimensional villain to help show how nice and wholesome the heroes are. No, Lady Eboshi is working hard to provide women with jobs and the means to defend themselves.
It’s unfortunate that this comes at the expense of life for the forest, made all the worse by her use of black powder weapons. But this is the nature of stories, and conflicts of the old vs the new way fit into Steampunk fiction time and time again.
Thaddeus Valentine, Mortal Engines Archaeologist
It takes a certain kind of man to work his way up the chain of Social Darwinism. The name alone is something to be marvelled at. It is the name of a conqueror, or at least a most fussy gerbil. What better man to play him than the master of speech craft himself, Mr Hugo Weaving.
Thaddeus is a villain, yes, but tell me, how would you expect to remain humble when your car is London itself? He’s the drive-by shooter of the Steampunk universe, and while I’m sure he sounds silly for saying so out loud, the man truly is “Gangsta.”
Perhaps he could have done a few things differently, but remember, it’s don’t hate the play but hate the game. In this case, it’s don’t hate the man who gets to drive London like a Monster Truck, hate the plot for not giving him anything better to do.
The Maker Musician
Cute, eerie, with big wonky teeth. What could possibly speak Steampunk more than that? The Maker is a short stop-motion video that deals with the power of music. It’s literally a battle between life and death. It’s all things strange, and yet the soul at the heart of this archetype is one that beats like clockwork.
A truly beautiful short story. It certainly carries a lot of depth which will no doubt pay to watch over and over. Even now, somewhere on my seventieth watch, I still find myself smiling at some misse detail.
There is further information on the history and story of the beings found in the story, but I think the heart of this story is found in its questions and not the answers. Whatever you have to do today, I’d recommend sparing a moment for this video.
Captain Nemo, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Captain
20,000 Leagues introduced us to one of history’s first steampunk characters, Nemo. Turning magic into technology, this allowed us to turn the trope of space travel on its head. Like most steampunk, its themes are often conveyed as personal over the grander social context. It also helps that Nemo is a rather snazzy dresser, what-what.
The man’s found across literature, popping up in all manner of guises. Perhaps the most iconic is his role in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It should be noted that the movie and the comic are two different beasts entirely, but both have their charm, even if one is considerably more superficial than the other.
It’s hard to ignore the prospect of submarines in the Victorian Era. The power of genius in a world which isn’t quite ready to understand the scope and significance of what it might mean. Hmm, this rather reminds me of someone else I know.
Wild Wild West Arliss Loveless Inventor
Hard to ignore the mad man with the giant robotic spider. Fashionable, suave, with the mindset to turn his physical handicap into something he can proudly show off. Loveless may not be well loved, but damn, the man sure knows how to make an entrance. Now comes the difficulty of trying to get him to leave.
Perhaps not a popular choice given his attitudes. Still, I can imagine him and Kroenen having a fun time, drunk, racing on the back of a couple of space hoppers. Whatever may be said about the man, he knows how to accessorise. It’s a wonderful expression of character when a man’s disability is overlooked due to the sheer magnitude of his character. To this I am most humbled.
Not any man’s victim, Loveless is the antagonist of this story. A man who wishes to use the advances of technology to prevent the development of its people and ideas. The man would be considered a vile being if it weren’t for his attitude. The phrase Carpe Diem comes to mind when I think of the man. It’s there, screaming out at me, like a man with a knife.
Captain Shakespeare, Stardust, Transporter
Is there anything more Steampunk than a man who sells lightning from his air balloon ship? Add to that the fact the man isn’t afraid to get in touch with his sensitive side, and you, dear gentlefolk, have my vote for the next President of the World.
Shakespeare is a stern figure. Head of a crew of bloodthirsty souls, and yet isn’t afraid of a little deception in the name of love and duty. Furthermore, the man never loses an opportunity to wear a nice frock,which I’m sure we can all agree on, it’s the little things that count.
- Tick Tock, Return To Oz, Bodyguard
A great way to give your child a few sleepless nights is to introduce them to Return to Oz. Not only is the Kansas side of the story one of utter horror, the world of Oz itself has found itself in the fantasy version of post Hussein’s Iraq. The souls we’ve come to love now lay trapped in stone, leaving Alice to find her way along a new path.
But it’s not all bad. There’s Tick Tock, the windup bodyguard. This fine brassian fellow has all the charms of a general from the Zulu era only he isn’t going to be bringing up Rudyard Kipling after he’s had a few shots of motor oil. Keep him well wound and you’re bound to have lots of fun.
No matter how tense, scary, or odd the story gets, Tick Tock is there to help. The fact he must be wound is a great lesson for life’s friendships. People must be approached, sometimes in a most obvious way, only then will they be able to help you with your problem.
Grandpa Bungie Potts, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Military
A steampunk if ever there was one. His name may not be on the lips of monocled children across the globe, but his name still carries weight in our hearts, and the coggy halls of Pluto’s restroom. He is the inspiration for the story’s hero Caractacus (great name for a cactus) pushing his son to not only create a car capable of winning the European Grand Prix (better known as the superior Prix) but also heading over to Germany to beat up Hitler’s Grandad.
His cries of, “Caracta-carse!” will never fail to bring a smile to my face. Yes, he’s bumbling. Yes, he’s technically more of a nuisance than an asset. Yes, the plot could get on fine without him. But let’s be honest. Without him all we’d have is Dick Van Dyke’s terrible English accent, and that, dear reader, simply will not do.
The story itself is filled with Steampunk. An inventor down on his luck and fortune. A car which is also a boat, and then a plane. The fight against oppression. The singing of English class sensibilities. Not to mention one or two serious mustaches. When dealing with your problems, this film is all one needs when faced with the blank page of life’s solutions.
The Monster, Van Helsing, Mechanic
Slightly more operatic, shakespearean even than most of his counterparts. Van Helsing turns this monster into the key to life after death. It’s best not to think of how Dracula’s brides went about laying all of those three foot egg sacks, perhaps Transylvania is at the forefront of gynecological science?
The Monster wants to live, with his cute little limp, and the steam which goes tapuckata-tapuckata. I’m not sure how he generates steam, but the simple fact that he does is more than enough reason to induct him here.
A being with a sweetheart and a gentle nature. Unlike some of the other interpretations of Mary Shelly’s work, this, at least, has a happier ending for this noble monster. A creature given life, only to have it ignored in favour of someone else’s. A beautiful sentiment for a rather goofy character.
The world of steampunk is filled with archetypes. Some reflect people we’d wish to become. Others leave us with a bad taste at the back of our throats. What is known is that it takes all types to make a world, especially one as wild and complex as that of the Steampunk.
From saviour to savage. Noble to nuisance. Steampunk may be considered a sub-genre, relegated to the corners in favour of literary fiction and real art. But the truth is, what is genre but a set of rules to help guide through worlds of steam ships, hot air balloons, and mechanical spiders?
People may consider genre a lesser art, but they can never say it’s boring. Here, mentioned today, are some of the examples that make up a universe full of rich history, innovation, and mad cap ideas.
It may not always be highbrow. I doubt it will predict much of the future’s technology. But there’s something in Steampunk, a reflection on the funhouse mirror. Yes, it’s not real, not entirely. But what of the light? The science behind making the mirror? And the face that’s been warped out of shape?
I doubt that Steampunk is going anywhere soon. At most, it’s simply off for a walk, to stretch its legs, perhaps feed the mechanical swans. To you all, fans of a past which didn’t quite happen, I salute you.