How to Write Steampunk – A Guide for Writers

Posted on Sep 15, 2023

Avatar Of Christopher Ortiz
Home > Blog > Writing > How to Write Steampunk – A Guide for Writers

When writing a fiction book, writers normally start from one of two places. They either have a specific idea for a story or they wish to write a specific genre of story.

The former means that the genre takes care of itself and the writer can focus on plot. But the latter is slightly more complex, as the writer must first immerse themselves in the genre they wish to write, in order to allow them to understand how to write a story well.

Steampunk is a genre that combines elements of Victorian era aesthetics with imaginative technology and has its own set of traits and characteristics that have developed over time.

If you have ever been fascinated by the thought of airships navigating the skies or steam powered contraptions dominating the streets, then you have likely already taken the first step into the world of steampunk. 

But how do you start the process when wanting to write your own steampunk tales? 

In this article we will provide a guide to doing just that, as well as taking a closer look at what exactly constitutes steampunk, the tropes of steampunk writing, some common mistakes to avoid and finally, some of the best examples of steampunk writing to help clarify the above and provide inspiration for aspiring writers.

This guide on how to write steampunk contains:

  1. What is the definition of steampunk?
  2. How to write steampunk
  3. Tropes of steampunk writing
  4. Mistakes to avoid when writing steampunk
  5. Famous examples of steampunk
  6. How to write steampunk – final thoughts

What is the definition of steampunk?

Steampunk is a speculative fiction subgenre that envisions a retro futuristic world typically set in the 19th century or an alternate Victorian era.

It marries the aesthetics, technology and fashion of that historical period with imaginative and often anachronistic elements, such as advanced steam powered machinery, airships, clockwork contraptions and sometimes supernatural or fantastical elements. 

Steampunk stories often explore themes of industrialization, societal change and the consequences of unchecked innovation.

This genre, celebrated for its intricate world building and creativity, offers a unique blend of historical nostalgia, science fiction and fantasy, inviting readers to explore a past that never was and a future that might have been.

How to write steampunk

Now we understand exactly what steampunk is, let’s dive into how to go about writing it.

Understanding Historical Context

Writing effective steampunk fiction requires a deep understanding of the historical context, primarily the Victorian era. Beyond the aesthetic elements, authors must learn about the societal intricacies, class divisions, political dynamics and the impact of the Industrial Revolution.

This knowledge ensures that the steampunk world feels authentic, and characters’ behaviors and motivations align with the time period.

Incorporating Ethical Dilemmas

Steampunk narratives often involve advanced technology and scientific experimentation. Writers should explore the ethical dilemmas stemming from these innovations.

This includes addressing questions of exploitation, the consequences of unchecked industrialization and the moral implications of tampering with nature through inventions and experiments.

Balancing Technology and Humanity

While technology is a hallmark of steampunk, it should not overshadow the human element. Authors should consider how these advancements affect characters on a personal level.

This involves exploring the emotional and psychological impact of living in a world of intricate machinery, from the strain on relationships to questions of identity and personal ethics.

Creating Original World Building

To stand out in the steampunk genre, writers should avoid overusing common tropes and instead focus on crafting original and imaginative worlds.

This includes inventing unique technologies, cultures and political systems that are integral to the story. Developing a world that feels both immersive and yet still fresh is essential for engaging readers.

Crafting Multidimensional Characters

Steampunk characters should transcend mere archetypes or costume designs. Authors should invest time in character development, giving their protagonists and antagonists distinct personalities, motivations and growth arcs.

This depth allows readers to connect with the characters on a human level, making the fantastical elements of the story more relatable and compelling.

Tropes of steampunk writing

Alongside the above guide on how to write steampunk, it is important to be aware of some of the tropes of steampunk writing, some of which can be found below.

Clockwork Contraptions

Steampunk often features intricate clockwork gadgets and machines. These marvels of engineering, powered by steam or gears, serve as central elements in the narrative.

From steam powered prosthetic limbs to intricate automatons, these creations add a sense of wonder and curiosity to the story.

Victorian Aesthetics

Steampunk embraces the fashion, manners and architecture of the Victorian era.

This trope infuses stories with corsets, top hats, gas lamps and ornate Victorian buildings, creating a rich historical backdrop that contrasts with advanced technology.

Airships and Travel

Airships are iconic in steampunk literature, serving as both transportation and symbols of adventure. They evoke a sense of exploration and freedom as characters embark on epic journeys through the clouds.

Alternate History

Steampunk often reimagines historical events or settings.

It explores how the world might have evolved differently if steam powered technology had advanced at an earlier stage, leading to alternate histories where empires rise and fall under the influence of advanced machinery.

Mystery and Intrigue

Steampunk frequently incorporates elements of mystery, espionage or detective work. Characters might unravel conspiracies involving hidden societies, secretive inventors or enigmatic artifacts.

This trope adds depth to the narrative, combining adventure with intellectual challenge as characters decipher clues and solve puzzles.

Mistakes to avoid when writing steampunk

It is not always about what to do when writing steampunk, but also what to avoid. Below is a handy list of mistakes to avoid making when writing steampunk.

Overly Complex World Building

One common mistake is excessive world building detail.

Authors may become engrossed in describing intricate machinery or alternate histories, overwhelming readers with information that distracts from the story. Striking a balance between detail and plot is crucial.

Neglecting Character Development

Focusing solely on gadgets and aesthetics can lead to underdeveloped characters.

Steampunk stories often suffer when characters become overshadowed by the setting. It is essential to create relatable and multidimensional protagonists.

Forced Anachronisms

Some writers force modern values and language into Victorian settings, disrupting the historical immersion.

Authenticity is key in steampunk; out of place elements can break the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Over Reliance on Clichés

Relying too heavily on airships, corsets, and goggles can make a story formulaic.

Steampunk should encourage creativity, not repetition. Authors should strive for originality and unique twists on familiar tropes.

Lack of Thematic Depth

Steampunk offers an opportunity to explore complex themes like industrialization, societal change, and ethics.

Neglecting these thematic elements in favor of surface level aesthetics can result in a shallow story lacking substance. Authors should use the genre to delve deeper into thought provoking concepts.

Famous examples of steampunk writing

Sometimes the best way to understand a genre of writing, is simply to read the best examples of it. Below are 5 of the best examples of steampunk writing.

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

Miéville’s dark and gritty masterpiece introduces readers to New Crobuzon, a city teeming with steampunk wonders and grotesque creatures.

This novel is celebrated for its intricate world building and thought provoking exploration of societal issues within a fantastical setting.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

This collaborative work is a cornerstone of steampunk literature.

It envisions an alternate Victorian era where Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine revolutionized technology, reshaping history in a world of clockwork wonders and political turmoil.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest’s novel blends steampunk with elements of the Wild West in a post apocalyptic Seattle filled with zombies and airships. “Boneshaker” is celebrated for its action packed narrative and unique fusion of genres.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson’s work offers a glimpse into a world where nanotechnology intersects with a Victorian inspired society.

The story explores the impact of advanced technology on education and culture, making it a thought provoking steampunk classic.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Westerfeld’s “Leviathan” takes readers to an alternate World War I era where biotechnology and massive walking machines are central to the conflict.

The novel combines historical events with imaginative steampunk elements, making it a classic steampunk adventure.

How to write steampunk – final thoughts

As we can see from the above, steampunk is a particularly detailed genre of fiction in so much as that it has a very specific set of traits and characteristics that define its work.

But for writers wishing to work within this area, finding that balance point between following its conventions and respecting the genre, whilst still offering fresh and innovative writing, will be the key to being successful.

By reading some of the great works of steampunk fiction and learning how and why they are regarded as classics within the genre, writers will be well placed to make their mark and create a great steampunk tale.

Disclosure: Some of the links above may contain affiliate partnerships, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Self-Publishing School may earn a commission if you click through to make a purchase.
Liked this post? Share it with friends!

Interested in working with us?

Book a free strategy call with our expert team!