Mysteries About People, Not Puzzles: Introspective Noir

Joel D CanfieldThat’s my genre: mysteries about people, not puzzles. The short and shareable marketing-friendly version: introspective noir.

I love writing about people. I love looking inside our heads, yours and mine, trying to understand why we are the way we are.

Humans are irrational

Sometimes we’re mean to those we love or kind to those we don’t. We know exactly what we want, and then when we get it we discover how wrong we were.

We live in moments, barely able to conceive of the future, let alone plan for our being there. We invest far more effort in changing our perspective of the past than in ensuring that we don’t make it a prologue to our future.

Humans are ambiverts

There is much talk about introverts and extroverts but the truth is we’re all ambiverts: we derive some level of energy from being around other people, and some level of energy from solitude. When being around others is our usual and preferred method of recharging, we’re mostly extrovert.

When being alone is what fills us, we’re mostly introverted. (Writers tend to lean strongly toward introversion, in case that’s not obvious to you.)

Here’s a place where we might seem irrational: many introverts love being around people. I know I do. My favorite place in the world is onstage under a spotlight, performing music for the biggest crowd I can find. And then sitting with them and chatting the night away.

I love being with people

And yet, just as a runner may get a massive endorphin high from running but then needs to refuel, I need solitude. Time with a crowd must be followed by time alone or I’ll crash emotionally, debilitated by my own philanthropy (using it literally: “love of mankind”).

I love studying people

When I was young I didn’t understand the people around me.

I still don’t know if the complete confusion I felt much of the time as a child is normal or unusual. I could tell when people were happy or sad, angry or calm. But not always why, and not how I could foster the emotions I wanted to see and avoid the ones that hurt.

Yes, I know that anger and sadness have a place in life. Being with someone who is angry for reasons I don’t understand, or unchangeably sad about things we can’t control, makes one yearn for understanding.

Characters as test subjects

A common plot trick in movies and books is to put a character in a morally challenging position to see what they’re made of. Will they follow their moral compass even when it costs them? Or will they take the easy way out?

It’s a rare person who will choose hurt for themselves if they believe it brings benefit to a greater number of people, or who sacrifices now so that someone (even themselves) can benefit later.

When they do it to lose weight or save for their retirement, we ignore them.

When they do it out loud and in public, we call them heroes.

And that’s who we love to read about —


When we see a character overcome human nature and do the unthinkable because it’s morally right, despite costs no one should ever bear, we are affected, both mentally and emotionally. We instinctively put ourselves in the situation, hoping we’d do the same, but wondering whether we’d have the brass.

But when a character we’ve come to love gives in to temptation, knuckles under pressure, or gives up an innocent to save themselves, do we hate them?

Not if we see our flawed selves in them.

We take the hit so you don’t have to

That’s a writer’s job: to give you, the reader, my readers, a way to live vicariously through my characters, to have their experiences and learn their lessons without experiencing the pain of choosing, or the pain of having chosen badly.

Vicarious experience. It’s why my style of noir is introspective. It’s an invitation to sit down for a couple hours and, in the context of a fictional mystery, take a look at ourselves to see who we are.

Because that’s why I write: to find out who I am.

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