By Christa Faust
“Seriously, are we still so terrified of pussy?”
— see Rule #3
Before I start, let me make one thing clear. I love noir. I read it. I watch it. But I don’t really write it. The majority of my crime fiction is more hardboiled than noir.
I may not be a noir writer, but I am a bossy bitch who loves telling people what to do. So when Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies (see below) contacted me about this deal, I figured why the hell not. To that end, here’s my ten rules. Not ten rules to write the kind of book I write. Ten rules to write the kind of book I’d want to read.
- Be a good writer. Learn your craft. Build up your chops. Because you can run the classic noirlaundry list and hit all the genre sweet spots but if you suck, the book will suck. Period. Conversely, you can break every other rule on this list and then some and if you’re good, your readers won’t give a damn.
- Character matters. The best noir fiction isn’t about the heist, or the murder, or the dope deal. It’s about the way people come undone. If your characters are cardboard, then their unraveling will be meaningless.
- Thinking of including a sexy, scheming femme fatale? Don’t. Seriously, are we still so terrified of pussy? Why can’t we shake that mid 20th century cliché of the attractive villainess who uses her sexuality to control and manipulate men? I’m not saying don’t write about sexy women. I’m not saying don’t write about manipulative women. I’m just saying that the classic femme fatale archetype’s been done to death a thousand times by far better writers than you, me, or practically anyone else bothering to read this list. If you want to keep me interested as a reader, you need to write about real women. Women who are as flawed and complex and believable as their male counterparts. Also remember that every sexy woman in noir is not automatically a femme fatale.
- Thinking of including a super-strong, super-sexy ass-kicking sharpshooter hit babe? Don’t do that either. That’s not to say that you can’t write about a tough woman. But, once again, make her believable. Make her real. Great example of a realistic, tough, and genuinely scary female assassin; Snoop from The Wire. Angelina Jolie, she ain’t.
- Come to think of it, don’t include a super-strong, super-sexy ass-kicking sharpshooter hit man either. Or any character who is too damn perfect. Fledgling noir writers are just as susceptible to the creation of “Mary Sue” type wish-fulfillment characters as authors of trekkie fan fiction.
- In fact, noir characters don’t have to be tough at all. They can just as easily be ordinary working stiffs. Guys (or gals) who let one bad decision, one moment of weakness, tear their whole orderly, comfortable world wide open. Walter Huff in Cain’s Double Indemnity is a perfect example. He’s no pistol-packing bad-ass, he’s an insurance salesman. Some of the most memorable noir fiction is about the ugliness and depravity of ordinary people.
- Noir doesn’t have to be urban. I’ve read some terrific rural noir (Frank Bill, for example) and what could be more bleak and terrifying than the mind-numbing sameness of the suburbs? Or how about setting your action on a remote Antarctic research station? Or a game preserve in Botswana? There’s a whole wide world out there, all full of desperate people consumed by greed, fear and sexual obsession. So why limit yourself to the same old rainy back-lot streets of an idealized Noir City?
- If you’re gonna set your story in the past, don’t have your protag think and act like a liberated, feminist time traveler. In other words, don’t impose your own modern values on vintage people. Megan Abbott does a bang up job at creating authentic, believable characters from another era, particularly in Bury Me Deep.
- Don’t let your research hang out. I realize that you’re very excited because you got that cool ballistics expert to take you out to the gun range or that you were able to watch an autopsy or do a ride-along, but you don’t need to include EVERY SINGLE THING you learned. This is true for all genres. When a character makes a phone call, you wouldn’t say “She took out her Mac iPhone, a hand-held mobile communication device featuring a 3.5-inch (diagonal) widescreen with Multi-Touch display, 480-by-320-pixel resolution at 163 ppi and support for display of multiple languages and characters simultaneously.” You’d say, “She called him.” Likewise, you can also say, “She shot him” without describing every single technical detail about the gun.
- No happy endings. Everyone goes down and winds up either dead or wishing they were dead. If your cool, witty, handsome, fedora-clad, jazz-enthusiast Detective Mary Sue walks away unchanged and unscathed at the end of the book, then it ain’t Noir. That’s Hardboiled. Bad, clichéd, silly Hardboiled, but Hardboiled nonetheless.Repeat after me:
Chandler = Hardboiled.
Cain = Noir.
Don’t make me explain this again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christa Faust, the first woman author to be signed to HardCaseCrime, grew up in New York City, and spent most of her teen years on endless subway rides, cutting school and scribbling stories. After high school, she worked in the Times Square peep booths and later as a fetish model and professional Dominatrix. She sold her first short story when she moved to Los Angeles in the early 90s. After nearly the years in her beloved adopted city, she still considers herself an ex-pat rather than a native. An avid reader and collector of vintage paperbacks, a film noir enthusiast and a tattooed lady, Christa writes primarily hard-boiled crime fiction , but also lets her pulp flag fly, pounding out work-for-hire media tie-in novels. Among her many works (ie: my favourites) are the hard-boiled classic Money Shot (2008) and Choke Hold (2011), both novels featuring ex-porn star Angel Dare, the standalone Double-D Double Cross (2012), featuring dyke dick Butch Fatale, and the comics Peepland (2017), co-written with with Gary Phillips, and Hit Me (2022).
Respectfully submitted by Christa Faust. This post originally appeared on the Dead End Follies blog in May 2011. Reprinted with permission, and with much gratitude to both Christa and Ben.
2 thoughts on “Mistress Christa’s Ten Rules to Write Noir”
Excellent, Christa. Useful info delivered as only you can. Thanks for this one.
This may be my favorite article on this site. I wish more Noir writers (and “critics”) understood these points.