So You Want To/Write a Cyber Punk Story
So you've decided to write a cyberpunk 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.
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
- 7 Extra Credit
The 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.
- Cyberpunk: Read this first.
- Film Noir: A primary inspiration for the genre.
- Dystopia: Of course.
- Post Cyber Punk: Mandatory reading.
- Anti-Hero: Cyberpunk is heavily inspired by Film Noir, and the rough, dark, brooding hero is no exception.
- Awesome but Practical: See Rule of Cool below.
- Darker and Edgier: Use with moderation and realism in mind.
- 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.
- 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.
These 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. Failed/fragile State: 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? Or, in the case of the Bratva and Mexican organized crime, where police, intelligence services personnel, and commandos moonlight or retire as mafia, both?
- 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?
- Action versus intrigue: do you have Run Rabbit Junk blasting at full volume and have the Hero make a Rousing Speech and have his allies use enormous weapons and expend countless rounds of ammunition, countless kilograms of explosives and dozens of martial arts moves, or do you have a more neo-noir like approach, in which the climax is a music-less Single-Stroke Battle?
- Hard Sci-Fi vs. Cyberspace: Is everything in your world explained through plausible technology, or are you writing this on a typewriter?
- 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 Cyberpunk 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.
- Cyberpunk vs Post Cyber Punk: Is technology a tool of dystopian oppression or something that allows the people to fix problems?
Watch 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.
- Recycled Script: Blade Runner plots have been done millions of times before. 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!
- 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.
- Black and White Morality: Nothing is what it seems like in a cyberpunk world.
- Summer Blockbuster: Consider this: In the entirety of Blade Runner, only about a dozen shots were fired. Action Adventure tales these ain't.
These 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....
- 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?
- 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.
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: This was less of a problem before people had cybernetics . Nowadays, we know that any implants short of rewiring your brains doesn't cause personality damage.
- 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?
- What is consciousness? What is sentience? How does one detect either? What rights does either confer on the being that has it? Should we use artificial neural nets and deep learning?
- 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?
- The individual vs. the corporation vs. the State
- Order Versus Chaos: is order the same thing as peace and law, or is order a want invented for promoting adversaries and corrupt fascists?
- Futility vs. Cautious Optimism
- What is the causes and consequences of the boss', the accounting department's and HR's use of the computer, in particular operations research and process management techniques and project management techniques? Has the cybernetic takeover already happened and turned the boss into a figurehead for his computer? Does technology make work more menial and life more boring?
- Great Man theory of history versus Big History; the individual versus impersonal forces
- Left wing politics versus the Cold War being long gone
- Gaia's Lament, technological and social innovation
- Survivalism vs. the end of the world eg. is a guy on the internet forum that has five boxes of canned mushrooms, fifty cans of peas, a chain-lock and puts a knife on the end of the stick that he found in the park going too far, or not far enough?
- Use of advanced technology by those in abject poverty eg. budget cell phones in Somalia (the telecom industry of which boomed since Barre fell and while there was no longer any functioning State, by the way)
- What relationship does technology have with creativity and expression? Eg, should singers with record deals use pitch correction, also known as auto-tune? Should we use a store-bought, copyrighted, official music CD with an electric violin with lots of other electro-phones, or should we use the Youtube song cover an unknown, but clearly proficient singer made using a cheap webcam, a banjo and the help of her friend on the acoustic violin? Should we rock out to Rage Against the Machine, Krio de Morto, or Othernoises? Should we go to an un-amplified classical violin session in person, or should we stay home and watch X-Factor on cable? If we want to go to an un-amplified classical violin session, should we ask Cortana to suggest one, or should we bicycle to the town square and look for posters, and will the content of the violin session be affected by this choice? What's the relationship between the medium and the message? Does the meaning of the Fox News reporter's outburst during the Katrina disaster change when copied from TV to Youtube? Does Beware the Batman have an evil version of Anarky and the comic books have both "good" and "evil" versions of Anarky because BtB is a television show, the comic books aren't and television inherently values order more that comic books, or because of who the writers are?
- Machine readable language vs. natural language
- COBOL, FORTRAN, and C / C++ / Microsoft Visual C# vs. Haskell, Gallina, Erlang, Eiffel and RavenSPARK
- MS Windows and MacOS versus Linux and GNU Hurd
- What is efficiency? What is efficient? Is conformity, incumbency and institutionalization efficient, or is logic and simplicity efficient?
- Should we avoid buying integrated circuit containing products to delay the dangers of nanotech?
- Does technology imply belligerence?
- 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.
- Something complex and obscure. The Ghost in the Shell universe is based on existentialist philosophy. WarGames is apparently based on 1983-era real time strategy computer games. Neuromancer is based on ancient Sumerian religion and Sanskrit. Neon Genesis Evangelion is based on Christian symbolism, which in Japan is kind of foreign.
- The JSC (read: joint stock corporation) buys new software for the Board. One of the directors doesn't like it, and tries to forbid the other directors from using it. The other directors use the software to communicate with each other about this, to search through information that the software misrepresents using search engine bias to make the director look bad, and to suggest possible courses of action. The software suggests having the director fired, and its calculations say this is the best course of action. The JSC uses its security department to steal data from the director's computer, and the stolen data convinces them to have him fired. He is fired - but he takes a million dollars more than expected in his severance package, and uses most of his severance package to remodel his McMansion. The remodeling turns out to be faulty. The public discovers the data theft, which turns into a PR disaster. The software company goes under for unrelated reasons. Everyone lost - except for the software, which the JSC still uses.
- The JSC was caught lying to cover up defects in its medical prosthetics, such as artificial bones and joints and an experimental BCI implant that restored sight to a blind patient. The JSC learns that ethics is often wisdom, and so the Board take a pay cut, re-brand and more-or-less clean up their act. The public eventually realizes that this particular redemption is more-or-less real.
- Once the JSC realizes its products sometimes end up in the military's weapons, it and its Board are steadily infiltrated by a secret society. The secret society's members are often brilliant computer security experts, former commandos, off-duty or former police, or off-duty or former intelligence services personnel. The society's members often alienate each other, treat each other as criminals, and avoid or do not seek interaction with fellow society members or their own subordinates, except for interactions that are exactly to regulation. The society's "proper", though still secret, channels don't meet their needs, so when they're not avoiding fellow society members, they often resort to that which even inside the society are improper, informal channels. There's a member that's a "conspicuous radical". (what Wikipedia calls some Bonesmen) The society members are forced to admit just how much they have in common with lowly cyberpunk protagonists, which "are often marginalized, alienated loners on the edge of a technological dystopia" and "are criminals, misfits, outcasts, and visionaries".
- The NIS (read: national intelligence service) wants to know how its countrymen think, speak and act and to build HAL. It turns its office into a high-tech panopticon and puts EEG crowns on their personnel's heads and teaches them to control their brainwaves. The NIS uses mass surveillance.
- 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.
- Weapons. How expensive the weapon is depends on how heavily armed the character can realistically be expected to be. At the cheap end of the scale are household goods used as improvised weapons, such as a chair or a pocketknife. A bit more material gain means melee weapons commonly used in gang warfare, such as a chain-lock or a baseball bat. More money can buy firearms used in gang activities, such as a pistol chambered in .22 Long Rifle, a starter pistol modified into a weapon, a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun or even a Claridge Tec-9 modified for automatic fire. A professional army would carry automatic rifles and light weapons, such as the M-16A2 or the AKM. The best equipped in cyberpunk would have fighting vehicles, such as tanks, ships, and drones. The more technologically advanced stories would have characters with reinforced prosthetic bodies, so the props department should be prepared in case any prosthetic were to become visually obvious, such as when Major Kusanagi was being assembled into her new body at the start of Ghost in the Shell, or when she destroyed her body trying to tear open a tank and almost succeeded. These more technologically advanced stories may have various technologies more advanced than what is found in Ghost in the Shell, and perhaps even extremely advanced technologies, such as transapientech, which may have to be rendered just so for audiences with above-average knowledge of math, natural sciences, engineering, and futurology. If you want to get really stylish, there are katanas. If you want eccentricity, there is the broom-handle with a kitchen knife on it. The writers should come up with a realistic balance between cool and practical.
- Surveillance and counter-surveillance equipment.
- Computers and data storage media, such as a CD-R or a flash drive.
- Cell phones. Not recommended for rebels, because cell phones are totally insecure. Those turning the cell phone into a roving bug don't even have to get close to it, they can do it remotely.
- Electronic locks and the means to defeat them.
- A token rudimentary, important item to throw that advanced stuff into sharp relief, such as smuggling data on paper past metal detectors.
- Trenchcoats, sunglasses, leather jackets, and the like. Everything is in black or other dull colors, with small amounts of bright colors for emphasis, especially neon-green, neon-blue, neon-red, fluorescent orange and neon-purple.
- Everyday, present-day clothes, or whatever the character would wear if the story weren't cyberpunk, but reality. It's only about Twenty Minutes Into the Future, after all.
- Hand-to-hand combat, and use of simulations of the weapons specified above, though you can get away without them.
- Explosions that look exactly like what they would look like in reality. If the story explicitly calls for a gasoline explosion, make it look like a gasoline explosion. If the story explicitly calls for a nuclear explosion on the surface or an air-burst, then make it look like whatever it would look like in reality. If the story calls for an explosion contained undersea, it should have the water above the epicenter spray upward in an almost flat cone, followed by the water turning a whiter shade in a rapidly expanding circle the center of which is always the epicenter. Otherwise, conventional explosions need to look like a dull red flash that leaves a grey smoke cloud behind.
- Vehicular misadventures that go over and look like exactly what they would be like in reality. Vehicles rarely explode when they wreck. Like in any neo-noir, there might be a vehicular misadventure, such as a high-speed chase or crashing through barricades.
- Maybe you should have a rock song at the start of the episode and a soothing pop song at the end. Ghost in the Shell did this right, but the guitar in the Metal Drive opening theme was too high-pitched. Cyberpunk is basically high-tech neo-noir, so don't play music over any violence - you're trying to condemn, not glorify. That's what Ghost in the Shell did wrong. Only play music over peaceable scenes that you should glorify.
- 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.
- 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.
- WarGames: Not a single brain-computer interface nor a drug in sight, but still asked, what is reality? A major theme here and in film noir is futility.