Have you ever seen a movie or read a book with a setting like these?
Each of these settings has a name: Steampunk (for the steam/brass) and Cyberpunk (for the chrome/cybernetics). These fascinating groups are coming into their own now, growing in popularity every year.
For the longest time, it was hard to find steampunk or cyberpunk as their respective genres, but now they’re becoming more and more popular. They can be attached to any other genre (from sci-fi to dystopian to fantasy to alternate history) and can be used to make your world diverse.
Maybe you’ve been interested in using such a genre for some time, but aren’t sure how to get started. I hope to address such a thing today.
Bringing Steam to Story
I’ve written a steampunk-dystopian story (Asher’s Song) in which our world has been forced backward, technology-wise, while maintaining the same basic cultures. This, I think, brings up the most important aspect of steampunk: why steam?
If you want to use steampunk, you need a good reason for technology to have veered off in that direction. Consider our world: why aren’t we surrounded by steam-puffing pistons and coal miners?
Because we advanced in a different direction. We went the route of electricity. If our world continues, we might even end up in a world of cyberpunk. It’ll be great.
Meanwhile, what made your world choose differently? Is electricity even discovered? Why don’t they use it instead? What about petroleum? Do they use gasoline?
You need answers to those questions, and you need to subtly indicate those answers. DON’T, however, spit the answer right out. Give us the reason slowly. Let us accept your world as we grow to know your plot and characters and setting. The reader will give you the benefit of the doubt for a little while.
Now. Steampunk is more than just steam and pistons and trains and pressure gauges. Each genre has its special twist on fashion. With steampunk, you really have two standard options. Of course, you can deviate (as I sort of did), but there are usually two ways of doing it: Victorian or Old West.
Many steampunk novels are told in an alternate reality where Victorian England has exploded with steam-powered gadgets or in the Wild West where carriages are pulled by wooden horses on wheels and six-shooters are as common as socks.
Now you can deviate, especially when telling a steampunk mixed with a secondary genre. For instance, I use a combination of post-modern fashion and Victorian. Because I mostly dealt with poor people (rather than rich), this meant a lot of drab colors (browns and whites) with a scattering of t-shirts and jeans. I got to use color as a comparison between people. It’s pretty great.
Cyber-plots and Cyber-characters
I’ve not yet had the pleasure of writing in this genre, but I know a bit about it and have a few story ideas which involve such a genre.
Cyberpunk usually takes today’s technology and blows it up into a largescale operation. One of the most popular ways to do this is through cyborgs – part human, part machine.
Computers, 3-D holograms, high-speed vehicles, flashing lights, punk-fashion.
It’s all about the hardware here. Your characters might have bionic eyes, mechanical limbs, extra memory storage inserted into their skull, x-ray vision, lasers, and so forth. Most of the time, big corporations are the villains, or perhaps artificial intelligence, or perhaps virtual reality.
Cyberpunk is what could happen to our world, thirty years or so in the future. Maybe less.
It’s kinda exciting.
Meanwhile, the fashion is much more modern and subjective. Whereas steampunk can give you the guidelines of “Victorian or Old West”, cyberpunk doesn’t.
The best it can do is this: chrome and metallic colors with black.
Really, it’s up to you. Your world can go the leather route, the metallic route, the “dye-your-hair-a-million-colors” route, or any other direction you want. Casual is more common than formal.
Bringing “–punk” Genres to Life
There’s this thing about worldbuilding in these genres: it often becomes the focus. That’s not always a bad thing, but it can be. If your story only focuses on the tech and the fashion – both good things – then you can lose sight of things even more important: the plot (conflict) and characters (emotion). As cool as your world is, the story is more important.
So. Develop your cyberpunk and steampunk worlds. They deserve to be vibrant and well-developed. At the same time, however, introduce them carefully. Do it quickly – otherwise it can be jarring – but do it subtly. Don’t spend two pages describing some piece of tech. Instead, show us the people wearing their peculiar clothing, going about their daily lives. Assume that the reader knows how some technology works and show us what it does, rather than describing it.
Show, don’t tell.
This is another instance where that phrase is best followed.
Both of these genres are great examples of diverse writing: they can keep your fantasy novel from becoming stagnant, they can keep your alternate history from sounding exactly like our world, and they can add a fresh twist to your dystopian.
Go forth and multiply your worlds.
Finding and Keeping Your Creative Voice (Sarah Elizabeth)
*note: all photos in this post belong to their respective owners and were found using the following google searches: "steampunk" and "cyberpunk", respectively. No copyright infringement intended. The "world blip" one is mine, of course. Duh.