Writing a Western - two cowboys stare each other down, the baking sun overheard

The 4 Golden Rules Of Writing A Western (UPDATED AND IMPROVED)

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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.)

Saddle up

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.

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45 thoughts on “The 4 Golden Rules Of Writing A Western (UPDATED AND IMPROVED)”

  1. ‘No Country For Old Men is not now nor will it ever be considered a western. History lesson 101: America is the only country in the world that had, key word ‘had’ a western history; period of time.
    Hence, a western is cowboys with stetson hats, six guns, horses, cattle drives, rustling, stage coach hold ups, etc. This is what envelopes an American western. Modern day sci-fri crap, boogie man crap, aces -n- eights and other piles of horse manure are not westerns, just simply put “crap”. You need to know the difference and please don’t try to justify the stupidity of saying No Country For Old Men is a western. It was a joke and a pile of crap; a ‘b’ rated flick at best for the weird TV channel. Learn your history. The American “cowboy” era was unique to this county. Gunfighters, marshals, bad guy, ranchers, townsfolk . . . Not four wheel trucks and sniper rifles, and drugs, and just ‘modern day crap. Wow, your advice is bdly tainted. You need to get educated!

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for commenting – I hope you won’t mind, but I took your message out of all-caps for the sake of readability. I’m not sure I understood your message – I believe No Country is set in Texas, and has no fantasy or sci-fi elements. It’s certainly set in the modern day, though.

      I understand what you mean about the unique nature of the ‘Western’ period, though obviously other countries, like Mexico, underwent very similar events and traditions. Also, much of what we understand about the American West comes from fiction – it’s been a while since I studied the subject, but I remember being particularly disappointed at the lack of quick-draw shootouts. Nathan Champion did stick with me as a fascinating character, though, so that’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of real ‘action’. As I said in the article, I think it makes more sense to focus on the ideas behind the genre than a strict time period and aesthetic style – having partially created the idea of the Western setting, it seems odd to then declare it hallowed ground. As ever, though, it’s just an opinion; if you don’t want sci-fi or fantasy aspects to your Western fiction, I doubt anyone will complain if you leave them out.

      If you get the chance to read it, I’d be interested in what you think of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. At face value, it fits your definition of a Western, but there are enough odd elements that it might get itself disqualified. An interesting read, if nothing else.

      Best,
      Rob

    2. Rachel Ostrander

      No Country for Old Men is certainly a western. It doesn’t have to be set in old American to be a western. As Wood elaborated on, a big part of the western genera is the imagery, but it is also the themes. NCFOM uses less of the imagery (whilst there still certainly is some), and more of themes. NCFOM is meant to be a somewhat subversive take on the western genera. I mean. it’s even in the title. Sherriff Ed is the most obvious example of this in the movie itself. He has dreams recalling ‘the old west’ and the simplicity of it all at the time. The idea that good and bad are easy to identify, and that it’s even easier to punish the bad. Anton Chigurh’s and Llewelyn Moss’ back and forth is not as black and white. Obviously Chigurh is the antagonist, but Moss is not a perfect or idyllic hero (Which is purposefully ironic, since he is given outfits that most often mirror ‘the cowboy’).

      I think your staunch dislike of this film is entirely misinformed and misguided. The fact that you don’t even think it’s a western makes me think you never saw this movie, or only half-paid attention when you did. And why is it a “joke and a pile of crap”? Obviously you don’t have to a like a film, and I’d never keep that from you, however this film is technically good, acted well, and even if you don’t like it as a western, it’s still got merit in other generas. It severely undermines your points when you take such a staunch stance on something without being able to acknowledge the good points about a film.

    3. You are exactly right this guy knows nothing about westerns except to bring in homosexuality and modern feelings. He misses the heart and soul of the western man. The western man is heroic and doesn’t give a rip about what people think, Shane is simply a tired gunfighter with morals and wants to help a family out..he may admire the wife but would never act on his impulse.

  2. I have ventured a YA book which I deliberately designed to be read which calls the classic western to mind; a reboot of the Lone Ranger, but with all the identifying serial numbers carefully scoured off – and revamped as an adventure set in Texas when it was an independent republic.

    I think most people when then think of a classic western are also being pretty specific as to time and place; post Civil War, and set somewhere west of the Mississippi. There is the cowboy, the horse, the six-shooter, the town with a railway station – it’s all pretty much a generic blur in a lot of cases.

    My own books aside from Lone Star Sons are sometimes classed as Westerns, which is some ways is a bit limiting. I prefer to think of them as historical novels set in the 19th century American west; a wagon train on the California trail, with nary a six-shooter in sight, the life of a woman during the Texas war for independence and running a boarding house in Austin – no cowboys there (although there is a company of early Texas Rangers). The settling of the Texas Hill Country — with immigrant German settlers; eventually some cattle drives, with cowboy hats and six-shooters, plus a conflict with a vicious horse-thief and all-around baddie. A Harvey girl from Boston, working in a railroad restaurant in New Mexico. Two Englishwomen settling in Texas in the 1870s – some classical elements of the Western there, but with a twist. So – yes, there’s a huge array of elements to play with – but do you wind up with a Western in the classical sense?

    1. Hi Celia,

      A fantastic question, and certainly one which seems to arouse strong views. Personally, I try to adopt the mindset that genre – like language itself – is just a tool we use to better understand and explore important ideas. What the classical western offers readers, and where it’s better for a specific story to stray from the beaten path, are questions that I’m sure will be asked by generation after generation of authors.

      Best,
      Rob

  3. Hi Rob, this is interesting. I’m book marking it.
    I write westerns and love the wide range of stories I can tell, but all with a Stetson and a six-shooter. 🙂
    I’ve dealt with a lot of problems that the modern age didn’t invent but the olden days didn’t have exact terms for, like PTSD and spousal abuse and alcoholism, just lots of stuff, lots of troubles. (mainly the villains!) LOL
    I love the genre.

    1. Hi Mary,

      Thanks for the kind words and for commenting. I’ve just read Thomas Savage’s ‘The Power of the Dog’, which deals with sexual repression in this kind of context. It’s a fascinating way to interrogate history, and find new stories in a familiar setting.

      Best,
      Rob

  4. I’ve been a historical western romance author for almost 20 years and the western is much more than a hat, guns, boots and shoot-outs. Much, much more. It was a definite time in history when the American West was being settled and it dealt more with the struggles in trying to tame the wild land and about the dreams of those men and women to carve out a place where they could set down lasting roots than it ever was about an idea. The western is not an idea. It was a way of life–trying to make something from nothing. History is full of the men and women who sacrificed everything in order to reach their goals. These are kind of people who are in my stories. They have depth and heart and goals to achieve. Those of us who write this genre aren’t looking for nostalgia or trying to evoke it in our readers. From your picture, you appear really young. Have a good day.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thanks for commenting – I’m glad we’re in agreement on the aesthetic trappings of the western and the dangers of slipping into nostalgia. I’m not clear on your point about people through history sacrificing to achieve their goals; were you agreeing that the western needn’t be shackled to one time period, or arguing that it’s the context of time that makes the western unique from other such stories (for example those set in WWI or in other nations)?

      As we’ve talked about elsewhere, one of the most fascinating things about the ‘western’ time period is how interwoven fact and fiction have become. While there’s a real time period involved, it’s a time period that’s become entwined with a set of ideas and ideals – as you say, people struggling to claim a land of their own. It’s those ideas that can imbue stories set elsewhere with the western spirit, and which means there are stories set in the old west which don’t fit into the traditional western genre.

      Best,
      Rob

      1. Robert, I live in cowboy country. I wouldn’t dare take these real dedicated men who crawl out of bed before dawn to ride out in the snow and rain to take care of their cattle and plunk them down in Japan or New York City or on some alien planet. They wouldn’t fit there. So no, we’re not in agreement. I know two things–cowboys and ranching. I know how they think and how they feel. And how dedicated they are as caretakers of this Texas land. It’s in their blood, in their hearts and souls. And this is what I try to portray in my stories–not how many bullets are in their guns. They wear their cowboy hats and boots and they do it with pride. They’re not pretend cowboys and they can saddle up and ride out while you’re still thinking about it.

        1. Hi Linda,

          Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I can tell you have a real passion for real-life cowboys and ranching, and it would of course be inappropriate to misrepresent real individuals in any kind of creative non-fiction.

          In fiction, of course, the rules are slightly different, and there’s a spectrum of artistic liberty that begins with inventing characters or plotlines and ends with transplanting ideas and even individuals to bold new settings. Each author has to settle on what they’re comfortable with – as a proud Texan, you clearly have strict rules about how it’s acceptable to portray fictional characters in the mold of those you know and admire personally. I’d imagine a military veteran might have similar feelings about a war story, or really any group about how their fictional dopplegangers interpret their lives. I can’t, for instance, imagine what the Kennedy family think of all the ways JFK has been assassinated in the history of fiction.

          Such strict rules are great personal guidelines, but have less utility when applied to the art others create. A definition of the American West as it exists and existed would have no room for books like ‘The Sisters Brothers’, ‘The Power of the Dog’ or ‘No Country for Old Men’, even before branching out into more varied settings. I’m not sure a strict adherence to realism would allow for much of Cormac McCarthy’s work, which would be a crying shame.

          As you say, though, you’ve been writing stories according to your own rules for quite some time, so there are certainly readers who are looking for exactly your vision. A loyal, personal representation will always have a place, even among more varied portrayals of western ideals.

          Best,
          Rob

  5. The mystique of the western will always be “out there”; not because of the alleged connection to Japanese samurais, or Mongol hordes, the invading Huns or the vast armies of Alexander the Great. It is, instead, a uniquely American experience, covering a relatively brief period in our history.

    “John Wayne’s” comments are reflective of what — as kids — we saw on the screens at the Saturday afternoon matinee. The “oaters”; mass produced and churned out for an audience of cap pistol toting preteens, fed on the good vs. evil, with good always prevailing and the hero either riding off into the sunset, or (ugh) marrying the damsel in distress.

    Fortunately for all of us, the “western” grew up. Complex stories with flawed heroes and heroines, the ends not always justifying the means. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were the squeaky clean cowboys with the white hats and the flashy guns and horses; John Wayne and Eastwood (and others) broadened the genre, and in the end made it better.

    Westerns will always have their niche. The old standards will be revised and the stories rewritten. But they will never go away.

    1. Hi Kit,

      Thanks for your thoughts, which were beautifully put. As I said in the article, the western can be understood as an American outcropping of anachronism fiction, which is the relationship such stories share with the samurai stories mentioned.

      Many of the trappings of the western are indeed unique to America, but the deeper ideals speak to the human condition in a way that transcends nationality. After all, westerns are popular all over the world, as are stories set in the fantasy version of medieval Europe. Clearly, there’s a lot of American identity caught up in the frontier, but at a deep enough level, very few experiences are the preserve of only one nation.

      Best,
      Rob

  6. Wow, found all of this fascinating! Trying to apply everyone’s points is a challenge for sure, but every comment and reply relates to possibly the main points involved in building you character and where you take him/her? The time period certainly extends after the 1800`s, the point being that the western morals, beliefs, are longed for by people today. Modern life is fast and complicated, lets look back and try and bring into modern life with the same values and make life simple? These are very active points, still lived by in the mid west, and brought to life in not only films but series such as Longmire. The old ways and beliefs struggle with modern day attitudes but succeed in the end? That`s what we want to read, whatever the struggle, the good guy wins riding into the sunset?

    I have just finished my first novel, indeed a western. Its period is 1872 in AZ. I have tried to put old values into it, but with a few modern touches to make it read easily, without too much emphasis on bloody details, although the six gun features as the law. This is also through self publishing. All is a learning curve, which is why I am here.

    Thank you all for the posts. It is all important and to try and apply.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment – some important points and great insights. As you say, so much is bound up in how the reader wants to feel/how the author wants them to feel.

      Congratulations on your book – please do feel free to link to it for interested readers.

      Best,
      Rob

  7. Hi Rob,

    Would like to preface that I think this article is excellent on its discussions of themes, but there is one detail present that irks me within it, and only a piddling one. You describe the American westerns as borrowing heavily from and even stealing shots and plot points from Japanese Samurai films. Now, this isn’t quite fair, and your mention of Akira Kurosawa is interesting as Akira Kurosawa’s idol, one of his biggest inspirations, was John Ford. It was the spaghetti, revisionist and European westerns of the 1960’s and 70’s that took inspiration and (in the case of The Magnificent Seven and Fistful of Dollars) whole plots from Samurai films. Kurosawa was influenced by the classic American westerns, and he in turn influenced the European directors who took up the mantle after Hollywood had moved on. I don’t put too much stake in “credit where credit’s due” or viewing one person or nation as the progenitor of resonant concepts, I simply find the timeline of cultural exchange between countries around the nearly universal lone wanderer/gunslinger/ronin/knight errant story to be fascinating. I don’t know if this complaint is enough to warrant a revision but one would have to research further than Kurosawa to find a Japanese influence in the classic era of westerns.

    Thanks so much for the article, I do love that Shane quote you included.

    1. Hi Trevor,

      Thanks very much for commenting, and for your thoughts. I agree that the multi-directional nature of inspiration is fascinating, and that the value in understanding it is in discovering what authors can use in their own writing, rather than apportioning credit.

      To this end, I think the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven example is a good way of showing how a genre that’s often thought of as inextricable from one place and time actually has a wider reach, and more varied influences. That said, this, like pretty much every literary topic, is one that increases in interest and complexity the deeper you go, and I’d certainly join you in encouraging anyone interested by this article to engage in some further reading.

      Best,
      Rob

  8. Hi Robert

    I’ve always loved westerns. I loved the writing and dialogue in True Grit. Do you have any other suggestions for westerns I could read with that same style of rich dialogue?

    Much thanks

    Jim

    1. Hi Jim,

      Well, I can cheat a little and recommend ‘The Border Trilogy’, also by Cormac McCarthy. Other than that, I’d suggest looking into Elmore Leonard, whose Western stories are now collected in a single volume.

      Best,
      Rob

  9. Epiphany! My “Young Adult Historical Action Adventure Series,” about Goth barbarians on the frontier of the Late Roman Empire, is a western in every way except place and time. The setting may mean it’s not a “western,” but for the purposes of structure and theme, this insight is enormously valuable.

    Following up on this thought, I bought an Elmore Leonard western–his early writing style is strikingly similar to mine (who knew?)–then stumbled across this article. Others apparently disagree with your point, but I found it perceptive and validating. Thank you.

    1. Hi P.K.

      My pleasure! I’m really glad this article was useful for you, and in exactly the way it was meant to be.

      Best,
      Rob

  10. I thank you for your helpfulness I was thinking about writing a western and your website helped so much I will use a lot of your advice you are a great person

  11. Why do you skip over the entire filmography of John Ford and say that westerns were borrowed from Samurai films? The western didn’t start in Japan, it started right here in America.

    Kurosawa borrowed from Ford and has said so repeatedly.

  12. Really appreciate the break down of ideas that go into the creation of a Western Story. Recently watched an episode of Wisecrack on YouTube that explored the psychology behind Westerns while discussing the video game Red Dead Redemption. I am also currently working on a setting for a table-top RPG set in an alternate-history American West (specifically a still existent Republic of Texas).

    Your article got me thinking of stories that feel like Western Fiction/non-fiction but are not set in the Historical American West. Ned Kelly, set in Australia is an incredible (true) story that feels very much like a western. The Good The Bad and The Weird is set in Japanese occupied Korea, and if the name didn’t give it away it is very much a loving homage to the western.

    For my project, the setting (Tabletop RPG, Brass & Steel) includes elements of fantasy and a heavy dose of Steampunk aesthetic. Can you recommend any good approaches to world building that can be applied to Westerns? The world already created in the game has left me a wonderfully blank canvas to work on and it is important to me that the game will feel like a western.

    1. Hi Nikolas,

      Thanks for your thoughts and for those great examples of non-cowboy Westerns. In terms of world building, I’d suggest the article below, which is about making fictional worlds feel real by adding flaws. The exciting thing about creating a Western-style world is that you can take those flaws and expand them out to explain why the world is changing – flaw, solution, and then the new flaw within the solution.

      You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It

      Best,
      Rob

  13. Robert, you make some interesting assertions, and I find the discussion enlightening. For me, westerns were, in the beginning, about cowboys and horses and bad guys. When I got older, Eastwood’s revisionist takes left me feeling differently, but I still consider those works as westerns. So to, Sally Fields’ ‘Places in the Heart’, James Dean’s Giant. There is more there than hats and guns. Individuals struggling against what they are, who they are and their place in the world.

    Perhaps it is too broad?
    But in that way, even Midnight Cowboy is a western, instead of the modern, is it possible to still say modern for a fifty year old film? Instead of the modern take on the New York (modern world?) scene of art and sex and exploitation?

    But even if we disagree with the ‘versions’ new authors bring us, don’t all those additions and changes make the western something more applicable to our own time? We re-invent it, in all the guises we add, but it re-invents us, in the sensibilities our society accepts as our own?

    Just some thoughts. Thanks very much for the article very interesting.
    Sincerely,
    Chris

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Chris; some great insights. I think the re-invention you describe is an essential part of the genre’s long life, but also a result of its surprising malleability. If it really was just about a specific time period in a single country, I don’t think it would have the ability to take so many different, relevant forms. Something like ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, for example, contains multiple worthwhile extensions of different aspects of the Western.

      – Rob

    1. Hi Jim,

      My pleasure, thanks for the kind words. It’s on my list of things to look into when I have time, but I do have the impression that the book and the film reach somewhat different conclusions in regards to their core messages. Maybe that’s partly to blame, or maybe there are certain things it’s easier to pull off in print.

      Best,
      Rob

  14. For me, the most enduring foundation of the Western is what links it to, for example, science fiction stories involving exploration: it’s about what happens on the edge of civilization, when men and women can no longer count on the structures of organized government, social norms, and other restraints. It’s about how people perform under pressure–whether it’s an Indian attack, a stampede, or a solar flare during a space launch. How do people react when they can rely only on themselves? What kind of person do you become — or discover that you have become — when it’s down to you and your own resources? Do you settle things with a gun, or sweet reason, or a clever card game, or shoving someone out of an airlock? This narrative structure is almost generic–obviously it applies to the American Western frontier, but it can also inform a science fiction story, even a romance or an historical novel. It’s universal because as a species we are always interested in what happens when we are really, truly challenged, when we explore strange new worlds, to boldly go where no (white) man has gone before. That’s why the genre will never really die.

  15. My story is set in the current time period. The hero is from Texas. He s cowboy to the core. Transports horses, worked in the oil patch, built a business likes it spend time in the outdoors. He had a little bit of the gold bug so he is a recreational prospector.

    The story is that nothing has changed in the gold fields . People still go nuts with gold fever. People will do evil things. Not just for gold. The cowboy struggles to save the day. Out the evil.

    I want to do the idea justice. I’ve already gotten him in and out of a small speck of trouble in 2100 words. The cowboy way is already working.

    I have always been a Louis La More fan. Though he was a formula writer, it was a good formula, told in various ways. This story lacks the long term conflict of The Comstock Lode but the conflict develops quickly and with intensity.

    I enjoyed reading this post. The points are well taken.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Samuel. It sounds like you’ve already got a handle on your project, so good luck seeing it through.

      1. I am really inspired by No Country for Old Men and one of the best Tv shows I have seen, Breaking Bad. I want it set up somewhere north, preferably Canada but I’m not exactly sure where it will be placed. I want the story to mainly revolve arounds drugs and drug money. I don’t want my hero to be hero. I like and prefer anti-heroes more anyways. I really also enjoy worldbuilding and I will make sure to put lot of effort into it. I also want it to be a neo-western. What you wrote I have heard elsewhere, not to hate. JOHN WAYNE’s reply on what you have wrote I wholeheartedly disagree with. I really enjoy westerns. I like modern westerns. I like old westerns. I really enjoyed Red Dead Redemption 2 also. I thank you for what you wrote

  16. i am 109 pages into my first book or anything as I read this I am glad this is the first of any thing I have set eyes on about western books. I love western books but i have feel the real chance of that being part of the day. An I like to change up the tradition with an idea that would of made better use of the time. But was for that one time use. I new a girl at 16 left Buffalo NY a team and wagon one horse was blind and two years later was in Idaho. I would come her hair when she was old and she read her diary and high lite points. Another lady she died at 103 also spent hours with her on her ranch is the oldest house in Idaho that has always been lived in. I have mining claims near a town of 36 that has the salon built in 1876 the sheriffs office and jail. Im lucky to have a back ground in ranching mining and have ran wild horses in from the desert and rode them a week later, I spent time on the res with men and woman that only spoke american. Girl and boys men and women in that time were as tough as any gunfighter.My dad was ran over by a hay slip when driving a team he was 5 years old 16 you were grown man.The woman and child maybe not as exiting but should be they were the ones that were lost in history and paid the biggest price.

  17. Hello Rob.
    I fully understand what you mean – the term “western” does conjure up images of cowboys, six-shooters and horses, but it doesn’t have to. I’m on to my second novella, and, once again, when I wrote my notes on the plot and characters, I noticed a distinct “western” edge to it – even though they are both set firmly in a post apocalyptic world (not Earth), and have more “modern” guns than six-shooters. Also, my protagonists are largely female, as opposed to the stereotypical “man’s man”. For my sins, I do like to mash-up an old western film with it’s original samurai roots and maybe add bits of a second western or even a old pirate film (which are almost “British westerns”). Beginning one is always tricky; you want to pull the reader in, without revealing too much, and , at the same time, you don’t want to be too vague, and risk the reader abandoning your work before the get past the first chapter.
    Any ideas on how to begin? Think “Pale Rider” meets “High Plains Drifter” with a sense of Yojimbo thrown in for good measure.
    Thanks.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Kenneth. Good note on the pirate movies – I’ll have to look into that some more. Personally, with a post-apocalyptic Western, I don’t think you can beat a first chapter where the antagonist shows up and does something dastardly, before the narrative shifts to the hero in the next chapter. You start with action, you grab the reader, and you begin building tension for when the antagonist re-enters the story. Potentially a little cliche, of course, but embracing the cooler cliches is, I think, one of the charms of Westerns.

  18. Glad I found this article. I’ve been wanting to write my own series of western novels for some time now and have been struggling with what time period I should set mine in. I have an outline set in an alternate history of our west but now there’s magic and monsters. However this just felt hollow to me for some reason after I got it completed. So I went back to the drawing board and have decided to set my story in the apocalyptic future. That’s one I’ve not seen used all that often for westerns.

  19. Hi Rob,

    I ran across your article because a friend wrote a book that has somewhat eluded classification – while looking for an agent he had originally classified it as a thriller but realized that it’s truly a western (set in 2012), so I was reading up on contemporary western themes. I like how you say that Samurai fit this theme just as well as cowboys – with the common ground being that “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.” In his book there are a few masculine cowboy types, but the protagonist is a strong American Indian female who is trying to keep the best of the old ways alive. It’s quite an entertaining story:
    https://www.amazon.com/Rare-Earth-Reid-Ridgway-2015-06-04/dp/B01K90CYS6

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