On Writing Modern Noir Fantasy
My first novel Drake has been described as a mix of Urban Fantasy and Noir, and I suppose it is, in a way. So what does that mean to me?
Well I think we all have an idea of what Urban Fantasy is – the king of the genre is obviously The Dresden Files, with the magical detective in a big modern city helping the cops solve the unsolvable, inexplicable paranormal crimes.
Drake’s not that.
Don Drake isn’t a detective, he’s a hitman. He doesn’t help the cops – hell, he doesn’t have anything to do with the cops if he can help it. Drake works for gangsters, and demons, and demon gangsters. He’s not Harry Dresden, not by a long way.
But he’s not Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer either, for all that he’d like to be. The world Drake lives in is hard-boiled but he really isn’t. He’s a cynical, somewhat cowardly opportunist who does the best he can to make his way in a world he barely even understands.
A Noir world.
So what’s that? Noir needs to be dark, by definition, but I don’t think it has to be tied to any particular time period. The classic Hollywood Noir is set in LA or New York in the 1940s but it can work equally well in the backstreets of ancient Rome or the mean cantinas of Mos Eisley, or even in modern South London for that matter.
Noir implies bitter, cynical black-and-white men in hats and beautiful, dangerous women with secrets to hide, but it doesn’t have to be that either. You could have a hard-bitten battle-scarred female veteran of an alien war as your main character and still be writing Noir.
It’s about the feel and the vibe rather than the place or even the people who occupy that place. Noir is about dark thoughts and dark motives, deep introspection followed by double-crosses in back alleys and brief moments of sudden, brutal violence.
But there is a certain aesthetic as well, and I think that’s important. To understand the visual motif you only have to look at how the old movies play with light and shadow, the half-seen faces and the way sunbeams stream through the slats of a blind into the air of a smoky room.
I’ll give you an example – this clip is from the late 1960s and it’s really nothing but a lightbulb swinging back and forth. But look at the lighting, and then add that music… there it is, that’s Noir right there:
This is something I tried to capture when I was writing Drake – not the standard tropes of Film Noir exactly but the feel of it, that sense of downtrodden cynical weariness but with perhaps a spark of hope in the distance, however far away it may be.
That’s Noir. That’s where Drake is set.
Peter McLean was born near London in 1972, the son of a bank manager and an English teacher. He went to school in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral where he spent most of his time making up stories. By the time he left school this was probably the thing he was best at, alongside the Taoist kung fu he had begun studying since the age of 13.
He grew up in the Norwich alternative scene, alternating dingy nightclubs with studying martial arts and practical magic.
He has since grown up a bit, if not a lot, and now works in corporate datacentre outsourcing for a major American multinational company. He is married to Diane and is still making up stories.
You can find Peter online at his website, on Twitter @petemc666 and on Facebook.
I like the look and feel of Noir, and I try to introduce it into my RPG sessions, when possible. I think that it is the fictional equivalent of Existentialism, the philosophy that the Universe does not care one whit for us, but we can still care and take action based on that caring, with no thought of reward. A bit more altruistic than those who fight for Good based on belief in a rewarded afterlife, if you ask me.