Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction, but like any genre with the word ‘punk’ in it, it focuses on the underworld society, the lowlife perspective in a dystopian future. Writing this genre requires a captivating story that highlights the issues in man’s desire for power at any cost and the slow decline of morality in society. It’s tense most of the time, shocking the rest, but captivating all the way through!
Here are some insights on cyberpunk stories and advice for writing your story!
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1. Nailing that Dystopian Society
First, let us discuss the world space.
The world of cyberpunk is a mixed bag of beautiful tech that inspires and grungy tech scavenged by the desperate. The same rules apply to people, buildings, cars, and every other aspect of society. There is always a higher ground where things are better than you can imagine and then there is the lower ground where things are worse than your nightmares.
Everyone is doing their best to work their way up the food chain; it doesn’t matter if their methods are morally sound. In most cases, they should abandon their morality if power and prestige are what they are after!
To nail this dystopian society you need to emphasize the fact that anyone might stab you in the back to achieve the freedoms that we take for granted today. The ruling powers have almost absolute power over their people, with police forces armed to the teeth with tech that makes them fast and scary. Common things become status symbols, underlining the decline of resources and freedom. (For example, animals are rare, thus kept as status symbols - “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”)
There are many ways that one can show a dystopia, but it all comes down to people lacking their current freedoms and having a dependency on the government or corporate products. By that description, most of the world is a dystopia, which is a conversation in itself. Yet, in a novel, this is to a shocking degree relative to today.
If you want to nail that dystopian society, talk about the bad priorities everyone has, how common things today are rare in the story, and how the people in charge or running major corporations restrict and control the population. Depending on your story, there might be small groups forming ready to rebel against the ruling power, or the masses have accepted this dystopia and are more concerned with looks, money, and power.
2. Talking about Technology
Now, science fiction doesn’t necessarily focus on advanced technology, but cyberpunk does. ‘Cyber’ comes from cybernetics. Human augmentations are commonplace, be they military-grade technology that makes a person a more effective killing machine or more consumer-oriented cybernetics that monitor one's health, work with other technology, and otherwise make their day-to-day chores easier.
Talking about this technology is never easy.
First, let’s discuss ideas. You have to think about innovation and the theme itself. How can you take what we have, make it better, and fit it into the story in an interesting way? Well, first look at the obvious cyberpunk tech. We have cell phones, we read their screens, but what if the cell phones were implanted in our heads and the messages were projected on the surface of our eyes from inside our heads?
You can make computers smaller, you can make characters open doors or turn on their coffee maker with thoughts read by implants, you can make cars fly and soldiers shoot bullets from their fingers!
The style of the technology also depends on the person who made it. A corporation might create something powerful and sleek, but a machine manufactured in some underground tech lab might be cheap and clunky looking with exposed wires, but it still performs the same amazing functions.
The device and its design all depend on your imagination and the characters who make it. When in doubt, look at popular science fiction movies and books for inspiration!
As for describing your technology to the reader, try to compare it to something today. Is the machine the size of a refrigerator or the size of a green pea? Does it have flashing lights, and make a noise similar to a car or a microwave? You are not building such technology to explain it to the reader, you are just describing what it does, what it looks like, and how it behaves when it's working.
Just because the world is advanced and filled with technology doesn’t mean your descriptions need to be deep, detailed, and filled with techno-babble.
3. Gangs, Politics and Gang Politics
A cyberpunk world always needs to have the criminal and political elements that often form the foundation of the story.
You will have different gangs interacting with each other, pulling off daring heists in the face of the technologically terrifying repercussions that cyber-enhanced law enforcement brings their way. You will have corporations and oppressive governments doing their best to gain even more control over the people, seeking greater power or securing the power they already have.
It wouldn’t be so hard to believe that the cyberpunk world has these competing powers of ingenious criminal minds, desperate citizens, private army-wielding corporations, or greedy governments cracking down on possible uprisings!
Politically speaking, a cyberpunk world is full of underhanded plots and violent power shifts.
Depending on your story, you might have a character that leans towards the rebels working to overthrow the government and free the people, or leaning more towards the government stopping terrorists and protecting the people. You might have a story that fits perfectly in the middle, where these events happen outside the story and the focus is on a character just getting by!
Either way, a cyberpunk world needs this happening in the background. It’s what makes the world so captivating, as you see people strive to find some semblance of justice in a morally bankrupt society. It's sad and inspiring at the same time. Like in dark fantasy stories, you always keep a glimmer of hope flickering in the darkest times. It’s not bright enough to warm your heart, but bright enough to keep you going.
Cyberpunk typically uses the same methods.
4. Neon Flavored Drinks
Addressing a smaller detail in your cyberpunk world space, let’s talk about day-to-day life!
What are your characters saying, wearing, and eating?
Cyberpunk is known for having all sorts of slang thrown around to show that these are different times, but more than that, the clothing becomes more outrageous. Be it the styling or the colors, the average outfit looks ahead of our time, or like an 80s nightmare. Of course, the characters will have hairstyles to match!
If the characters' looks aren’t so important, then consider the music, the food, the drinks, the furniture, and all the mundane aspects of life that can be turned into weird features in your cyberpunk world. Whether the drinks have become a chemical sludge, or if insect meat is the primary diet or drug consumption is not only a pastime for the lowlifes, but a necessary part of everyone's life in a messed up world!
When working with any world different from our own you cannot forget the simple aspects that make up an average day. If you were to only discuss the large differences, the reader will be left with the idea that life is not too different from today. By addressing the smaller aspects of life, the reader will have an easier time placing themselves within the shoes of the characters. The reader can imagine their actions better, the in-between moments, and the sensations that combine to help steer the characters in certain directions.
Small details can make a big difference in a story and they are crucial for immersion.
5. Dread and Sad Endings
Cyberpunk novels aren’t all silly clothes and incredible technology.
As I said earlier, cyberpunk stories are often set in a morally-bankrupt world, where almost everyone is greedy and ready to betray their friends for a better life. It’s all about preserving their reputation, which often isn’t a good reputation. When morals and values are lacking, the world seems hopeless and there isn’t an ideal protagonist.
Murphy’s law is in full effect, the reader dreads the tense situations which arise because they are afraid of what the next shock will be. Often the result is disappointing or depressing, so it is not surprising that cyberpunk endings are sad or unsatisfying.
As the writer, your story is your own. You can easily create a cyberpunk story where the world is saved in the end, but if realism is what you are aiming for, then the best ending one can hope for is where the good guys are alive and there is a chance for them to have a better life, no matter what level of the class system they end up in.
The sad endings are a lot more common because in such worlds it is difficult not to address the psychology of man, how the world became numb to so many awful things, and how easily they let themselves be swayed by powerful and corrupt figures. It’s up to you to decide whether want your novel to look like a cyberpunk story or read like one.
If I was to give my own opinion, I would write a story that looked like cyberpunk rather than read like one. When writing, I prefer to keep things as upbeat as possible, either with colorful character personalities or exciting scenes that add to that energy.
I admire the cyberpunk genre for what it is and I understand what it is all about, but on a personal level, it doesn’t fit the kind of writer I am. As a reader, I enjoy them!
Cyberpunk stories often have a down-to-earth charm despite being set in such an extraordinary world space. The fact that people are doing their best to get by, that humanity still finds a way to shine through in some characters, makes it feel like cyberpunk stories better capture the hearts of average people today than novels set in the present.
But that’s just me, I could have just read a bunch of poorly written books set in the present!
If you are a cyberpunk story writer, let me know your thoughts and advice for beginners in the comments. If you are interested in writing the genre, be sure to leave your questions in the comments too.
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!