So You Want To: Write a Cyberpunk Story
So you've decided to write a Cyber Punk story. You love to read about man's fight against injustice, invasive technology and corruption, so you've decided to give your interpretation of it. First, be sure to check out Write A Story for basic advice that holds across all genres. Then, come back here for some extra advice. All examples here are, well, examples. Do not try to wrap your head around a story using all of the examples.
Necessary TropesThe very nature of the genre dictates that your material will fall under any of these tropes. Learn to use them well. See also Cyberpunk Tropes for additional tropes.
- Anti-Hero: Inspired by Film Noir, the rough, dark, and brooding hero is usually chosen for this setting.
- Bittersweet Ending: Usually, a cyberpunk story, with its dark and depressing themes, rarely has an ending where the hero wins. Or maybe he does but something is left awry. In Blade Runner, Deckard gets the girl and defeats the "villain" but has to run for his life.
- Darker and Edgier: Use with moderation and realism in mind. Oversaturating this can make a story look cheesy or filled with more drama than the audience can handle.
- Dystopia: A cyberpunk setting is usually a gritty, depressing world with crime and despair running rampant. It's not a nice place to live.
- Film Noir: A primary inspiration for the genre. Lots of its visuals and sounds come from noir.
- Rule of Cool: Style is everything. If the hero can't do it with panache, it's not worth doing (Unless it is). Use in extreme moderation.
- Science Is Bad: To a certain degree. The negative effects of technology feature heavily in cyberpunk fiction, but it is often not technology itself that is explored, but rather the possibilities for abuse.
- Sliding Scale of Cynicism Versus Idealism: Cynical, or at least Earn Your Happy Ending. The world is dark and horrible, filled with injustice and crime. Bullets are the best way to solve problems, and people, good and bad, if those terms are applicable, die. Painfully.
Choices, ChoicesThese tropes cover a wide spectrum of choices regarding a certain element of your story, and you're going to have to pick a spot somewhere on that spectrum. Unless we've forgotten to include something, and you can spot it, because in that case you might actually surprise us after all.
- Police State vs. Anarchy: Is the government an all-powerful organization that enforces the law through SWAT teams, Secret Police and Sinister Surveillance, or is the lack of government and control that leads to the state of the world?
- The Gunslinger vs. Playful Hacker: Your protagonist is going to have to solve their problems one way or another, it's not going to be easy. Does he or she solve her problems through the careful (or not so careful) application of projectiles, or are they solved through the use of viruses, trojans, denial-of-service attacks and forced intrusion?
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: How do people who have cybernetic implants act? Do they run around and kill everyone because their implants makes them go crazy, or are they perfectly well adjusted beings?
- Do Androids Dream?: If your story centers around the existence of Artificial Humans, how are they treated? Are they on par with humans, or are they treated as slaves? What makes it possible to discern an android or an AI from a human? Do android have emotions, desires, feelings?
- The Singularity: Want a big finale and/or an over-arching theme to tie together the actions of the characters? It's also a natural extension of the Cyber Punk theme of disorienting rapid cultural and technological change. A technological singularity has featured in the works of the greats. Of course this last point might be a reason to avoid it, too.
- Cyber Punk vs Post Cyber Punk: Is technology a tool of dystopian oppression or something that allows the people to fix problems?
PitfallsWatch out for these tropes! They're bad news - or, well, at least they're tropes you generally want to avoid - and they're particularly common in your chosen genre.
- Black and White Morality: Nothing is what it seems like in a cyberpunk world.
- Cluster F-Bomb: People swear, it happens. However, having a character constantly swear will not make them look cool or gritty.
- Recycled Script: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?-type plots have been done millions of times before (Bubblegum Crisis, Armitage III, Blade Runner...). This is not to say it can't be done again, but you should make sure you story is not a cliché Blade Runner knockoff. If your trenchcoat-clad hero fights runaway robots and doubts his own humanity... you'd better be a damn fine writer, son!
- Summer Blockbuster: Consider this: In the entirety of Blade Runner, only about a dozen shots were fired. Action Adventure tales these ain't.
- Tomato in the Mirror: People who are interested in cyberpunk are usually not the least Genre Savvy in the world, and will usually spot this from miles away. That is not to say it can be done, but you readers will expect your main character to be an Artificial Human, or at least a clone even before they've read the first paragraph. Surprise them.
Potential SubversionsThese tropes are in common use throughout the genre, so we'll forgive you if you use them - but if you can think of a good way to subvert, invert, or just plain avert them, then you just might be able to start a new trend....
- Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Remember that not all cyberpunk stories has authority as the enemy. Sometimes the police, or even the Secret Police, are the heroes tasked with cleaning up the mess of the anarchists and hackers and criminals make. Blade Runner, Snatcher and Ghost in the Shell were all about government-employed heroes fighting off the Designated Villain.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: These are usually Big Bads, because of their access to money, secret research labs and the like, but do they have to be? Maybe they're perfectly ordinary people, or even heroes?
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: This was less of a problem before people had cybernetics note . Nowadays, we know that any implants short of rewiring your brains doesn't cause personality damage.
BlogWhat is Cyberpunk by the author of the The United Federation of Charles is a good explanation as to what the "mood" and major tropes of the genre are.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- What makes us human? Feeling, understanding, comprehension, self-awareness, etc.
- How do people treat non-Homo Sapiens Sapiens? Fantastic Racism, treatment of robots, androids, clones, etc.
- What is reality?
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Is human individuality superior to advanced tech, or is it the opposite?
- Individualism vs. Collectivism: Should the rights of the individual be compromised for the better of the group?
- Authoritarianism vs. Liberalism: Should people be seen by CCTV cameras at all times, have their phone lines tapped and their daily lives monitored for safety, or should they have privacy, even if that interferes with police work?
- Transhumanism vs. Human Conservatism: Should people be allowed to augment themselves, or will that bring about social downfall?
- Bread and Circuses: The potential for human apathy and hedonism as key to the success of evil.
- Anything goes, but especially ancient literature and art. The Birth of Venus goes extremely well together with People Jars, and images of gods and the divine fit extremely well with the creation of artificial lifeforms.
- Your High School Sitcom could include such plots as Two-Timer Date, In with the In Crowd, Feud Episode, and even Horrible Camping Trip.
- A fantasy/horror piece that's heavy on Telepathy and Mind Manipulation? Try Fake Memories, Grand Theft Me, Amnesia Danger, Journey to the Center of the Mind, and Out-of-Character Alert.
Set Designer / Location Scout
- Cities. Big, dark cities. Loads of neon lights and dull surfaces. Glass, urbanism, downtrodden undergrounds and shady pubs. Small apartments. Everywhere looks like central Tokyo. Maybe a space station or an abandoned genetic factory.
- Trenchcoats, sunglasses, leather jackets, and the alike. Everything is in black or other dull colours, with small amounts of bright colours for emphasis, especially neon-green, neon-blue, neon-red, fluorescent orange and neon-purple.
- Fight scenes, though you can get away without them.
Big Hits or Classics
- Blade Runner (Also check out its progenitor: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.) Ironically lacks most of the features, but the Trope Codifier in terms of scenery and atmosphere.
- Neuromancer: The other trope codifier.
- Ghost in the Shell
- Deus Ex
- Snow Crash
- A Clockwork Orange for a Pre-Cyberpunk movie/book.
- The Matrix: While straying from its cyberpunk roots, it brings up numerous interesting cyberpunk themes if you can spot them.
- Isaac Asimov's robot series, for additional reading on robot behavior.
- A Scanner Darkly, a very dark book/movie on people and the negative effects of drug use and ubiquitous surveillance.
- Inception, a much more subtle take on cyberpunk. Compare to Neuromancer, contrast with The Matrix.
- Videodrome and E Xisten Z: Combining the Cyber Punk with heavy doses of Bio Punk, these films question the Science Is Bad assumptions common to the genre, the fear of mass culture, and the very nature of ideology.