Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’re constantly updating our articles to bring you the best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing your book. This article was originally published on June 22nd, 2016.
Western fiction is something special. Where sci-fi stretches into the future and fantasy sprawls across multiple worlds, the traditional Western concerns itself with events in one specific part of the world over a handful of decades. By any sensible measure, fiction about the Old West should be almost as niche as it gets, and yet it’s managed to become a full-fledged genre of fiction, so established that most book stores give it dedicated shelf space – an honor that seemingly comparable subgenres like Renaissance stories and naval fiction can’t begin to claim.
Clearly, then, the Western has something special to offer – something beyond the seemingly narrow confines of its time and place. Writing a great Western isn’t just about its particularly evocative setting, but rather understanding the ideas and choices at the heart of this genre. That’s why, in this article, we’ll be looking at four ‘rules’ for writing a great Western.
Rule #1 – A cowboy is more than his Stetson
When we think of the Western genre, the first thing we picture is its unique aesthetic. Dusty Old West towns, sheriffs wearing tin stars, and cowboys with wide-brimmed hats, spurs, and trusty six-shooters.
It’s a striking look, and many Western fans argue that it’s inextricable from what the genre is all about, but as authors, we need to look deeper. While cowboys did (and still do) exist, the iconic cowboy ‘look’ is a mix of real cultural artifacts and invented cultural archetypes. The horse is accurate to the period, but it also symbolizes a working, ‘salt of the earth’ connection with nature. Likewise, the revolver is a simple, ‘honest’ weapon. The reader always knows how many bullets the hero has left, and the gun has to be loaded manually. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, weapons tend to have a character of their own, and Western stories that pit the six-shooter cowboy against a villain with a Gatling gun are also pitting a straightforward way of living against its lazier, more automated alternative.
In constructing the fictional cowboy from his real-life counterpart, culture has stripped away what it considers insignificant and codified all those aspects of Western life that matter on a symbolic, thematic level. Because of this, it’s not the Western aesthetic that makes a story a true Western, but rather Western themes.
The first part of this statement is easy to embrace. A comedy that adopts the Western ‘look’ but engages with none of its themes is unlikely to feel like a Western. The difference is instinctual, and even readers unable to define the parameters of a ‘true’ Western sense when they’re not getting the real thing. A movie like Wild Wild West, for example – despite being an adventure story set in the Old West and playing the cowboy look to the hilt – is likely to disappoint anyone who’s in the mood for a real Western.
What’s harder to accept is that, if the cowboy ‘look’ isn’t what makes a Western, then most of what matters about the genre can be exported out of the time period and, yes, even the geographical setting of the American West.
It’s no secret to Western buffs that popular samurai and cowboy narratives have borrowed from each other again and again. 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, but even Kurosawa’s work was informed by the Westerns that came before.
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 ’80s and the latter a modern-day crime story following an Indigenous American protagonist.
That’s not to say that the Western ‘look’ doesn’t have value, but it’s not nearly as important as the themes that define the Western as a genre. And, while it may boil the blood of cowboy purists, understanding the ideas behind a Western is a lot more useful to authors than enforcing strict rules about the time, place, and aesthetic a Western has to have.
Rule # 2 – Anachronism is key
So, Westerns are about certain themes and ideas more than the cowboy ‘look,’ but exactly which themes and ideas are we dealing with? Well, the traditional Western deals with ideas of masculinity, self-sufficiency, and frontier living. It’s hard to imagine anything you’d call a Western that doesn’t deal with people out on the fringes of society, making it alone.
There are definitely movies out there that are Westerns that don’t have cowboys, and horses, and ghost towns. … It really is more about the scope, and the characters, and the story lines of being on the frontier where there are rough men and rougher women and, you know, that kind of stuff. When we talk about Westerns, we talk about movies that take place in the American West from 1820 to 1860, and that is going to fade with time.– Josh Dickey, ‘Genres That Need to Make a Comeback,’ CineFix
But how many of these ideas, and the ways in which they’re expressed, are essential for Western writing? Well, masculinity isn’t a must – you could easily write a true Western about a woman surviving on the frontier without having her embrace masculine ideals. Similarly, the very idea of living on the frontier is malleable. The 2016 Western Hell or High Water is set in a modern world with modern amenities, but unjust systems and personal desperation still manage to strand the characters on the lawless frontier of their own culture, while stories like Joss Whedon’s Serenity make the logical leap to the ‘final frontier,’ telling Western tales in an intergalactic setting.
If these ideas are, at the very least, flexible, then what’s at the heart of Western writing? The argument can be made that Western narratives are one cultural expression of ‘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 roots of the relationship between cowboys and samurai; 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 the core of both Western narratives and anachronism fiction as a whole – conflict between the insistent new and the persistent old. It’s 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
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
While the Western aesthetic is valuable, and Westerns are still a unique form of storytelling even if they do fall under a wider umbrella, it’s useful for authors to understand that the heart of a Western comes from its ideas and attitudes, not just its ‘look.’ Many authors make the decision to set what is, by any other name, still a Western story somewhere other than the Old West, and knowing they’re writing a Western can help them in that process. Similarly, plenty of writers set out to write a story in the Old West and then don’t quite understand why their ‘Western’ isn’t coming together. They too can benefit from understanding that Western fiction means more than just the Western aesthetic.
Rule #3 – Explore the conflict of change
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 the titular gunslinger 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 a Western narrative. 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.
As an example, take Michael McDonagh’s movie Calvary. Set in modern-day Ireland and addressing the role of the Catholic Church, it may sound like an unlikely kind of ‘Western,’ but all the structural hallmarks are there. A bastion of the traditional idea that priests should bind and nurture their community, Father James is viewed with new suspicion and hostility in the wake of the sexual abuse revelations surrounding the church. In fact, one of his parishioners has threatened to kill him – a fate he can easily escape, but only by abandoning the principles he’s trying to keep alive. At the end of the movie, James saddles up for a final ‘shoot-out’ – just like Shane, he’s not expecting to change the world, but the point he proves may just keep the best of the old ways alive.
Westerns offer a perfect canvas on which to interrogate and explore the place of old values in a new world, but they also offer the temptation to get lost in your own ego. There’s a big difference between making a compelling case for your personal morality and acting as if your opinion is a basic truth of nature, as old and unquestionable as the hills. More than perhaps any other genre, Westerns facilitate a ‘this is how it should be’ attitude that can lead to less complex, less compelling stories.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use your work to express your world view or make a point, but if you’re going to explore some form of ‘old vs. new,’ be sure to actually explore it.
Rule #4 – Do your research
The Old West is a peculiar time period for fiction because it is defined by its own deliberate mythology. Dime novels and touring ‘Wild West’ shows established a simplified (and in many cases fictional) version of life on the frontier that shaped how it was understood at the time and how we ‘remember’ it now.
As with any narrative a culture has of itself, the Wild West began with plenty of cultural baggage and picked up even more on its way to the modern day, creating a morass of truth, fiction, and ideology that’s impossible to unpick.
This is neither a wholly good nor wholly bad thing. Few periods of history are remembered with exacting accuracy by the layperson, and society needs both fictional and ideological stories to function. Where things get tricky for authors is when common fictions or persistent tropes are assumed to be historically accurate.
There’s nothing wrong with drawing on pre-existing concepts, but this should be a conscious choice. An author who believes that the Old West was just as it’s presented in old movies is reproducing a lot of other people’s ideas and assumptions without understanding what they really mean. Many authors will include details in their Western stories that they assume are true to history but which are just someone else’s fiction, or even recreate Western ‘truths’ in new settings. An obvious example is the simplification of the relationship between Indigenous American tribes and frontier settlers, with the former group often depicted as mindless savages.
The solution is to do your research, even if you think you already know everything you need to about the Old West. Not only will you be able to make your own choices about which ideas to perpetuate in your work, but you’ll also learn the kinds of facts that help with realistic world building and characterization.
For example, in the ‘Adam Ruins the Wild West’ episode of educational program Adam Ruins Everything, author and historian Jan Mackell Collins explains how sex workers were instrumental in turning basic work camps into functioning towns, even beginning the spread of women’s suffrage throughout America.
What does this mean for a traditional Western? Well, it might influence how you understand the economy and history of your Western town, as well as how you think about certain characters. And if you’re writing a less traditional Western set somewhere like the Martian frontier, you now understand more about the society that has inspired your unique take, leaving you free to apply that knowledge in whatever way you find useful (or even to ignore it – but, crucially, as a conscious choice, not an automatic assumption.)
I started by saying that it can seem strange that Westerns are a fully formed genre rather than just a niche topic. Hopefully, it’s now apparent why that’s the case. Not only do Westerns offer a gripping way to interrogate ideas, but they’re some of the most enjoyable stories to write, with a huge cache of symbolism and cool visuals that authors can play with to their hearts’ content.
For more writing advice relevant to Westerns, check out Everything A Fantasy Author Needs To Know About Horses And Mounts and Here’s How To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene. Do Westerns spur you to action or do you think they’re old (ten-gallon) hat? Either way, let me know in the comments.