This week, my family and I attended our area’s first steampunk event, Sun City Steam Fest, held November 14-15 in El Paso, Texas.
We got suited up for the event (we even created our own steampunk gypsy headpieces), grabbed our modified Nerf gun weaponry, and headed off ready to make a splash among the performers, vendors, and reenactment troupes. When we arrived among the celebration, I came to the embarrassing revelation that my steampunk costuming efforts were incomplete. I had the look, sure enough, but as others introduced themselves and asked who I was, they weren’t looking for my “everyday” title; they wanted to know the story of my steampunk alter ego.
I didn’t have one.
The steampunk culture, as I’ve come to learn over time, is more than just cosplay. It is strongly embedded in history, classic literature, art, science fiction, and fantasy. Steampunk cosplayers don’t just dress to impress; they become completely emerged in their alter egos. While other forms of cosplay draw primarily from pre-established characters, these steampunk personae not only incorporate an original look, they often come with their own monikers and one-of-a-kind back stories.
The festival itself was held in the city’s historic downtown area, which has its own share of Old West history, creating an ideal setting for the event. The first evening’s kick-off tea was at the local paranormal society headquarters, Ghosts 915. It’s housed in a historic saloon and brothel, which is said to still be haunted by its former patrons. Saturday’s events were at a chic nightclub called Tricky Falls, a restored circa-1914 Henry C. Trost-designed theater, which is currently on the National Register of Historic Buildings. These hosting venues were joined by area steampunk and cosplay groups, The Clockwork Rebellion and Coyote’s Fortune, in creating the festival. This provided a lot of material with which the area steampunk community could utilize.
I took advantage of this rich pool of characters to get some advice on finding and developing my own steampunk persona.
Vendor “Dr. Robert Hatter,” purveyor of custom steampunk guns, said to “look into military names or other titles.” Also, try to move yourself up in rank or status. If you’re a Mr. or Ms., go by Doctor or Professor.
Clockwork Rebellion member “Oeil De’Blanc” made use of a second language to give his persona a more exotic edge. His name, French for “white eye,” refers to a prominent facial feature he sports. He said it helps to “read up” on the genre. Dig into some steampunk books and stories and see what’s out there. He said it’s also fine for steampunk cosplayers to work on more than one alter ego, and added his wife has more than one. For the day I attended, she was “Nikki Bolt,” top mechanic for an airship originally built by her father.
I learned that the difference between just a pretty costume and a well-developed character is what you don’t see. Some seasoned characters will give you a story worth hearing.
Another Clockwork Rebellion member, who went by “Bonnie Black Donnie O’Irish,” said he’s a history buff, and that his character is the product of an incredibly-detailed alternate history created for El Paso. Part of this history (if I have it all correct) dealt with the city not taking part in World War I, due to it being invaded by Mexico in 1916. The name “O’Irish,” he said, is a phrase for someone who puts on fake Irish airs or uses a false accent. Donnie’s companion for the day was “The Priestess Lilith,” who said she blended several mystic elements, including voodoo, to bring her character to life.
Members of Coyote’s Fortune, who present workshops on character development and prop-making at cons around the region, explained a good character is like a real-life person; always changing and developing. “Sonya Tyburn the Dragonslayer,” for example, started out as a simple mercenary, while “Captain Arcko Bancroft” is s crypto zoologist who continues to develop bigger and better means of capturing and studying mythical beasts.
Finally, whether or not the steampunk culture is part of a person’s everyday passions, they can still build a simple and believable character by drawing from their real-life experiences. A few I met included:
Viola Penelope O’Donnell. A character whose name was inspired by the family of her real-life alter ego. Both her grandmothers were “Viola” (one’s first name and the other’s middle name), and her cousin was Penelope.
Rev. Henry The Eighth. Henry is an ordained reverend in real life, who runs haunted history tours with Ghost 915. This worked well for his daughter’s persona, Gerll Sutcliff, a ghost hunter.
Baron Günter Von Nethen. The Baron’s character was a German airship captain who, after losing his troops in battle, was “banished” to the badlands of the borderland, where he is currently stationed. This was an easy choice, as the Baron’s real-world counterpart is an actual member of the German Air Force.
I do feel sufficiently armed with enough data to successfully put together a worthy steampunk persona. Alas, for my own alter ego, I’m currently following the path mentioned by the Dragonslayer…it’s a work in progress.