People often mistake noir fiction for hard-boiled fiction, and it’s an easy mistake to make for the uninitiated – as they both travel similar territory. The difference, as always, is how they travel it. The ten commandments below will help you avoid making that mistake in future. Let’s just say that Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis and James Ellroy are noir whilst Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and Richard Stark are hard-boiled. All will be explained below:
1) Your main characters do not have to be likeable: In fact, if you want to be ultra-purist about it your main characters should not be likeable. David Goodis’ characters rarely broach anything even approaching likeability: wretched and whiny and too full of self-doubt and self-pity to ever rise above the gutter they are lying in. One of the best reviews (not actually written, sadly) of my book describes Kandinsky (ostensibly the main character of The Gamblers) as ‘the lesser of many cunts’. You have no idea how pleased that made me. You can empathise with the main characters, or even understand, but you don’t have to like them. This rule can be broken, obviously, and works well to ironic effect.
2) They are doomed: Any noir worth its salt knows that the main characters are doomed from the very beginning. They may survive at the end but they should still be doomed – damned by the very flaws that got them into their mess in the first place. No matter how clever a character thinks he is (and the main characters in noir are nearly always men) he will always be tripped up by his own greed, pride, self-pity and venality. If your main character survives at the end, or has a glimmer of hope, it ain’t noir, it’s hard-boiled. If it has to be summed up in a sentence then this encapsulates it perfectly: Life’s shit and then you die.
3) It doesn’t have to be a thriller: Noir fiction doesn’t have to be a thriller. The fact that more than 90% of noir are thrillers is neither here nor there, they don’t have to be. David Goodis’ The Blonde on the Street Corner is pure noir (the lead character is a truly pathetic self-pitying loser, who might have something approaching a life if he wasn’t so willing to give up when things get tough); his moment with the titular blonde at the end might have been a defining moment in any other novel but in this one it’s just simply another moment on the slide to damnation.
4) It should be a one-off (at the very most two): If you’re writing a series of novels then it ain’t noir it’s hard-boiled. See Commandment 2 for the reason why.
5) It should trawl the gutter: Noir isn’t about sparkly fucking vampires or boy wizards and it sure as hell isn’t a Cozy mystery. Noir protagonists are often ordinary, though deeply flawed, people, but the situations they are in are usually extraordinary and usually stretch them to breaking point, or break them completely. The only way to do that is to send them trawling around the gutter. Indebted to loan sharks; addicted to substances or gambling; in love with the wrong woman; or loving the right woman, but being too weak to leave the wrong woman (or alternatively, to change his ways). In many cases noir is just the stuff of real life but with a better plotline.
6) Irony: Noir endings don’t have to be ironic, but it helps. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and The Getaway are classic examples of the ironic ending. The main characters get what they wanted only to find that this is what will destroy them. Leading nicely on to…
7) Sometimes what you want is not what you need: Often, a good noir will have the main protagonists chasing a dream (be it money, woman, power, or some other vain hope) only to find that once they have it it brings them little comfort, or leads to their damnation. If they’re still alive at the end, and if they’re halfway smart, they may realise this.
8 Nothing is ever what it seems: The sweet-natured girl with pretty smile; the best friend you’ve known for years; the decent dim-witted sheriff/police officer; the scarlet harlot; all will probably have a skeleton in the closet – watch out for ’em!
9) It won’t be pretty: Noir isn’t for the faint of heart. Often, a decent character (they do exist in noir) will do a bad thing for a good reason and it will lead to more bad things and inevitably to their destruction/damnation. Watching this unfold won’t be pretty and may lead to frustration for readers. It’s the main reason why noir doesn’t sell as well as hard-boiled fiction. The hard-boiled hero/heroine can ride off into the sunset with their beloved – the noir protagonist never will. Get used to it!
10) A good enough writer can bend or break most (but not all) of these commandments! If you’re a reader of these rule breakers then I congratulate you, as you’re probably reading a stone-cold classic!
Suggested reading for those unfamiliar with noir (you lucky things, you have it all to look forward to): The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, Shoot The Piano Player and The LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz).