Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Westerns are a strange genre of fiction. They’re generally set in one place, deal with one kind of character and utilize a specific but limited aesthetic language. At first glance, it seems like such a specific setup that this fully fledged genre should actually be just a niche interest. Cowboys on their horses always seem to belong to the generation before, yet the Western never really leaves, with constant new films, novels and video games published in the genre year after year.
Clearly Western fiction has something special to offer. By understanding what that is, authors can prepare themselves to write great Western stories. To that end, this article will cover the three golden rules of the Western, along with some advice on how to apply them to your own writing.
Rule #1 – It’s not about the cowboy hat
As I mentioned above, Westerns have an easily identifiable aesthetic (or ‘look’). The cowboy hat, horse, revolver and spurs are shorthand for a familiar, trustworthy character. In the Pixar children’s movie Toy Story, the writers use Woody the cowboy doll to support and introduce an outlandish world in which toys come to life. Dropped into this strange setting, children are greeted by the familiar and orientating presence of the dependable, recognizable cowboy.
But what makes a cowboy such a reassuring presence? For a start, they are highly masculine figures, something which is compounded by their cultural significance. The cowboy is an icon of the West (this time in terms of world culture, not literary genre) and especially of America. In contrast to other iconic figures such as the alien, the vampire or the pirate, the cowboy is firmly rooted in a single place and time – cowboys exist pretty much exclusively in the American West.
Understanding this, it can be confusing that the Western remains so popular. Why are so many people so excited by stories set in a single time period of one country? The answer is that the Western is actually the most visible aspect of a wider literary genre – one which is often obscured by lines of culture.
The samurai who came before
It’s no secret to film buffs that old Western movies take a huge amount from samurai narratives. From borrowed plot points to stolen shots, films like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai informed cowboy movies such as John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven to degrees that can, in hindsight, feel closer to plagiarism than inspiration.
This was possible because these very different figures are used to tell the same sort of story – the aesthetic varies, but the themes explored are constant. It’s for this reason that novels like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men or Jason Aaron’s Scalped can be accurately called Westerns, despite the first one being a police drama set in the 80’s and the latter a modern-day crime story following a Native American protagonist.
The hat, horse and gun are an easy visual shorthand for these themes, but they should never be considered the same thing. Unsupported by Western themes, the cowboy ‘look’ can pop up in any genre. If you’re in doubt, check out Marin Thomas’ Mills and Boon story, Her Secret Cowboy, or even the aforementioned Toy Story.
The serious side to this idea is that fans of Western themes often find themselves disappointed by narratives that are more interested in the Western look. A movie like Wild Wild West, for example, plays the cowboy look to the hilt, but would be paired with a thematically Western movie like A Fistful of Dollars to disastrous effect. Writers should be careful to appreciate the difference, or risk upsetting readers hoping for something they’re not ready to provide.A Stetson and a six-shooter don't make a Western - don't get sidetracked by appearances.Click To Tweet
That’s not to say that the cowboy look is useless – it’s a unique aesthetic, and suits Western themes perfectly – just that writing a Western is far more about the themes being discussed.
Rule # 2 – Anachronism is key
Western narratives are just one part of what could be termed ‘anachronism fiction’. That is, fiction which focuses on characters or ideas that are in conflict with their apparent successors. The American West is a perfect setting for these themes since it presents a situation in which modernity, as we understand it now, was beginning to overtake a more traditional and less complicated kind of life.
Here we can see the true value of the cowboy’s iconic tools – the horse is a living thing in a position we’ve delegated to machines, and the simple six-shooter is presented as a basic and honest weapon (we always know how many shots the cowboy has). Trains and small towns are recurring visuals, examples of urbanity encroaching on the natural world and often coming under attack for its hubris.
This is the core conflict of both Western narratives and anachronism fiction as a whole – conflict between the insistent new and the persistent old. This is a central theme of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, as an aging police officer pursues a younger hitman he cannot quite understand as human. McCarthy asks hard questions, leaving it unclear whether society has changed for the worst, or if it has just left his characters behind.
I got set next to this woman… She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well ma’am I don’t think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin’ I don’t have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin’ to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.
– Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
Samurai fit this theme just as well as cowboys – in fact samurai fiction often features ronin, samurai who have lost their masters or position. In both cases, the iconic figure is an individual suited perfectly to an older version of the world. The cowboy is a hero of the desert, the samurai a brave knight, but the cities overtake the wilderness, the feudal system withers, and the protagonist is marooned in a new age, becoming a bastion of tradition just by staying the same.
This is why the term ‘anachronism fiction’ is so apt. It is fiction which deals with anachronisms – ideas or characters who feel somehow apart from the time they inhabit – or even with the very idea of anachronism itself.Westerns are about confrontations between systems of belief.Click To Tweet
At the end of Charles Portis’ Western novel True Grit, the story skips far ahead in time. The protagonist, a young girl at the start of the story, is now a grown woman and has sought out gunslinger Rooster Cogburn to thank him for his help during the events of the story. She arrives too late – Rooster died a little while ago – but it would have been impossible for the story to work in any other way. Western heroes work as a counterpoint to the new way – for them to live on comfortably is to suggest that society might someday stop changing. Their real triumph is to make the point that the old ways still have value, and should not be forgotten completely.
Rooster Cogburn can’t be thanked by the young woman he helped because it would undercut the idea that his world has been eroded by the new. Instead, the reader is shown that her life has been influenced by him – the past has shaped the future, but it is still irrevocably gone. Portis underscores this by pointing out that another character, younger than Cogburn, is himself now an old man:
I heard nothing more of the Texas officer, LaBoeuf. If he is yet alive and should happen to read these pages, I will be pleased to hear from him. I judge he is in his seventies now, and nearer eighty than seventy. I expect some of the starch has gone out of that “cowlick.” Time just gets away from us.
– Charles Portis, True Grit
Understanding this key theme brings the realization that Westerns can be set anywhere. In fact, once you identify the ideas that define the Western hero, you’ll notice that they are everywhere. Fiction loves mavericks who dance to their own tune, especially when they’re put in opposition to a ‘newer’ and more bureaucratic system. From Han Solo to Batman, ‘Western’ themes are embedded throughout our culture.
While cowboys don’t make a Western, understanding the themes that do can help you appreciate why certain visuals work so well. This combination of thematic appreciation and symbolic relevance can lead to great Western fiction, but for those who wish to write something truly original there’s one more step.
Rule #3 – Use old ideas to explore new ideas
Knowing that Westerns are ‘about’ anachronism is all well and good, but it’s putting this knowledge into practice that will create something amazing. Because Westerns engage with ideas that are changing or dying out, they’re also commonly bound up in ideas of masculinity. That’s not to say that masculinity is a dead concept, but that it is one which has been subject to constant change.
Works like Jack Schaefer’s Shane feature masculine characters whose way of doing things no longer fits comfortably with the world around them. Shane follows a gunslinger of the same name as he gets bound up in a conflict between honest homesteaders and a gang of criminals. Shane is uncomplicated, the definitive man’s man, and yet his necessary violence unsettles the lives of the family who are boarding him. First, through the potential revenge of the criminals he confronts, and then later through the more complex idea that his perfect masculinity is tempting the married Marian.
Interestingly, Marian, her husband Joe and Shane all understand why this is, and work calmly to negate its expected outcome. Shane selflessly leaves the family, his old-fashioned masculinity having been the perfect tool to get them out of trouble but also something which has no place in their everyday lives. The couple’s son, Joey, rounds out the critique – he sees something in Shane he desperately admires, but he lacks the maturity to differentiate between the gunslinger’s valuable legacy and the danger of his continued presence.
He was a man like father in whom a boy could believe in the simple knowing that what was beyond comprehension was still clean and solid and right.
– Jack Schaefer, Shane
Shane is a great case study of how Western themes suit a discussion of masculinity, but that doesn’t mean masculinity is the be-all and end-all of Western fiction. The truth is that any changing way of life maps brilliantly onto the themes and structure of Western narratives. All you need is a lone protagonist, emblematic of a changing system of belief, who can be used to explore both the benefits and problems of a set of ideas.Want to write a great Western? Drop your cowboy somewhere he's never been before.Click To Tweet
Westerns have, so far, been predominantly about masculinity’s role in the world, but the Western blueprint fits other ideas just as well – sexuality, age and technology are all fields begging for their own definitive Western. Anyone wishing to see how this can be done should check out John Michael McDonagh’s movie Calvary, an excellent ‘Western’ that takes religion (specifically Catholicism) as its subject for questioning.
McDonagh asserts the conflicting ideas that the Catholic Church has been too rocked by scandal to continue as it is, but that its current form can still offer a unique and genuine form of salvation to those in need.
Father Lavelle: I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.
Fiona: What would be your number one?
Father Lavelle: I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.
– John Michael McDonagh, Calvary
Update: Since publication, this topic has been discussed succinctly but well by Cinefix, in their feature ‘Genres That Need to Make a Comeback’. The video is included below.
Bonus rule – Don’t be grumpy
Westerns offer a perfect canvas on which to interrogate and explore the place of old values in a new world. As my earlier examples show, this is most compelling when writers consider both sides of the argument, but there is the risk of sinking into nostalgia.It's fine to make the reader feel nostalgic, but don't fall into the trap yourself.Click To Tweet
Many readers will be thrilled to read a story where old values triumph over newfangled ideas, but these narratives have a very specific shelf-life as the newfangled ideas are accepted as self-evident. The idea that the world is always changing is timeless, and the search to find wisdom universal, so be careful to understand that it is these wider themes that make so many Western narratives classics, not just the idea that you should be able to shoot people who annoy you.
I started by saying that it can seem strange that Westerns are a fully formed genre rather than just a niche. Hopefully it’s now apparent why that’s the case, and that Westerns offer a vast canvas on which generations have, and will, create their own stories. Not only do they offer a gripping way to interrogate ideas, but they’re some of the most enjoyable stories to write and have a huge cache of symbolism and cool visuals that authors can play with to their hearts’ content.
For more tips on writing a particular genre, check out The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Young Adult Novel and The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Science Fiction Book. Do Westerns spur you on to action or do you think they’re old (ten-gallon) hat? Either way, let me know in the comments.