So the other day when I was at Barnes and Noble I finally picked up a copy of The Osiris Ritual, since it's come out in paperback (I know, I know, what kind of e-author am I that I don't own an e-reader? A poor one.). I'm not done with it yet, but between it and having re-read Dune last month, it got me thinking on the topic of villains.
I've seen other authors talking about how fun it is to write really over-the-top villains. Guys that you love to hate. And it seems to me that they're quite common in steampunk as a genre. No steampunk story seems to be truly complete without some megalomaniacal monstrosity pulling the strings to send their Legions of Doom (tm) at Our Heroes (also tm). I've seen it in both of George Mann's lovely books, in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, in Boneshaker, and in pretty much all steampunk made for TV or the movies. Not that I mind. There's a certain pulp-fiction aspect to steampunk that can be quite appealing, depending on what kind of story you're looking for. Somebody once described steampunk to me as "A cross between Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard," as good a definition as any I've heard, and which you must admit calls for something pretty special in the villain department.
The thing I'm wondering (and slightly worrying) about is, is this necessary? Can you write a good steampunk novel where the villain is just a normal person who happens to be acting in a way that brings them into conflict with your protagonist? Where conflict is driven by something other than the stuff in the last three chapters of a college Psych textbook? For example, I have to admit that I really didn't like Dreadnought as much as I did Boneshaker, despite their being by the same author and set in the same world. Is it because there's no central villain in Dreadnought, no force that Mercy has to fight against except social pressures and environmental conditions, happenstance? I feel like Mercy is a much flatter character than Briar is; is that because the conflict just isn't arranged in a way to show her to her best advantage? I have to admit I'm not entirely sure.
I'm concerned about it because I'm still in the planning stages for my own first steampunk novel. I intend for the antagonists to be Union and Confederate generals, along with (possibly) a rich businessman trying to protect his vested interests. I suppose there's room there for making one or more of them into a slightly insane mechanical monstrosity for the sake of making the story more 'steampunky', but I kind of quail at doing that just because I think it's what the audience expects rather than because I'm convinced it would improve the story. I suppose that's the problem with writing in historical periods as someone with historical training; I dislike changing things just for the sake of change. Maybe it's something I had better get used to. Goodness knows I'm not above changing political history - not in a world that contains the Union, the CSA, the Republic of Texas, the Mountaineer Free State, and the Cherokee Confederacy, among others.
It's something I'll be putting a lot of thought into over the next few weeks, as I get my outline pulled together. Does steampunk require a supervillain-type antagonist? Will it help the world attain that feeling of adventure and uncertainty that I'm aiming for? Would they even train cyborgs at West Point? Or should I go with my gut and feature a world that has slightly less extraneous tech, people on a more human scale, but still plenty of steampunky gadgety goodness?
We'll see. And I'll keep y'all posted.