Writers Unite! Workshop
The western genre is unique. The popularity of the western novel spawned many television shows and movies watched by legions of fans around the globe. That familiarity created a quandary for writers. With a set period, just after the civil war to the early 1900s, locations, transportation, and the people that populated the west are well-known to the reader and the viewers. Unlike a science fiction story, where you can create any world you like, you can’t recreate the old west.
The Western Character
Westerns can appear two-dimensional as the concept of good vs. evil is a popular central theme. The protagonist is often a loner, a knight-errant if you will. A wanderer, perhaps a gunslinger who reluctantly stays to help the townsfolk or the sheriff or the widowed rancher face the bad guys. The good guy could be the sheriff facing a threat from a gang or an evil cattle baron. A strong moral center is a common characteristic of the western hero, and a sense of right and wrong prevails over the reluctance to enter the fight.
The fallacy of the western is that, as stated above, they often appear two-dimensional. If you write your characters that way, reduce them to good or evil, your story will be flat. As with all characters, western-genre characters should be multi-dimensional.
- Make your protagonist human. Give the hero a personality, a sense of humor, a fear of heights, a love of poker. Maybe they drink too much, are scarred emotionally or physically by past trauma. Give your reader a reason to become attached to them and cheer for them to prevail.
- Create a backstory that makes their actions plausible. Bring that detail out as the story unfolds to add credibility to your hero’s behavior.
- Give them a quest. Stories need conflict, and your hero needs a goal, a quest—set the stakes high. They and the reader need a goal to attain.
- Give them supportive surrounding characters, even if they don’t want help. A writer should never think that only the protagonist or antagonist is worthy of development. The supporting characters need development as well.
- Make that quest difficult. Give them setbacks along the way, obstacles to overcome to reach that final goal.
- Allow them to fail and gain the resolve to push harder to attain their goal.
Whether you are writing a western or fantasy or any other genre, create a character that your reader will identify with and want to see win.
The evil rancher preying on the widow’s land, the ruthless killer, the bank robber—all wonderfully delicious bad guys. Always give your hero a worthy opponent, even a stronger one, with more resources or power. Making your hero struggle is the role the antagonist takes, so let it happen. The more ruthless the antagonist is, the more your hero suffers. Here as well, you should make your villain human, a one-dimensional villain does not enhance your story.
For a strong antagonist:
- Give your antagonist unpleasant goals.
- Remember, your antagonist believes their goals are righteous. Give them the conviction of their beliefs.
- Provide a credible backstory providing reasons for the evildoing.
- Make your antagonist strong, seemingly invincible, throwing obstacles in the protagonist’s way.
Unique supporting characters flavor the western. A secondary character serves as a sidekick, a mentor, a friend. Additional characters can be associates of the protagonist who join in the quest, or integral players appearing in a single scene that moves the plot forward.
The main secondary character can be a friend, lover, partner, or mentor, and plays a pivotal role in displaying the protagonist as human. This character serves to reveal the main character’s heroic attributes, kindness, compassion, humor, and flaws.
In any story, additional characters that come in contact with the protagonist should move the plot forward or demonstrate other facets of the main character. For example, the protagonist and sidekick enter a saloon. Barmaid approaches and says to the protagonist, “Hey, handsome, you’re the best-looking stranger that’s come in here in a long time.’ That statement replaces the need to describe the character in the narrative as handsome. The barmaid did that for you.
While the story and quest revolve around the protagonist, the action toward resolution of the quest moves forward through the supporting characters. One of the best examples of an ensemble cast in a western is the TV program “High Chaparral.” From the main character and his family to the hired hands, the cast exemplifies how the characters interact to create the story.
The Western World
Every writer does worldbuilding. Whether you are setting a modern-day story in a real location or a created location, you build a world. It is essential to create a setting that frames your story correctly. On his writing blog, terribleminds.com, Chuck Wendig offers this definition: “[worldbuilding] covers everything and anything inside that world.”
In contemporary settings, creating a world is not as difficult. We have a frame of reference in everyday items such as currency, transportation, shopping, housing, and all the other facets of our lives. We do have national and cultural differences to take into consideration, but if you set a story in a small town or a city, creating or referencing that world is not difficult.
Historical settings require more attention and research. Period pieces set in varied centuries or during wars need thorough and meticulous research. The western genre spans the period from after the American Civil War to the 1930s and is unique. Due to the popularity of western television shows and movies and the western novel, the public is quite familiar with the period. You may not have read a Zane Grey book, but you have likely seen “Gunsmoke” or “Bonanza.”
For the overall location, watching old movies or TV shows portray a somewhat accurate image of a western town or ranch. However, when writing, the nuances of the western world are imperative, and for avid readers of westerns, they will know if a single detail is wrong. Here are some critical areas to address when writing a western set in the Old West of the late 19th century:
- Composition of the town. Most small western towns have a dry goods/general store, a smithy/stable, a jail, and a saloon (some with rooms to rent), and perhaps a post office or telegraph. Larger communities may have a train station, a stagecoach station, a hotel, a doctor, and a claims office.
- Transportation. The horse is the primary mode of transportation. You should learn about horse sizes, how much can they carry, what breeds of horses are common, and the tack they use. They used several types of wagons to transport supplies and people as well as stagecoaches and trains.
- Native Americans. If you include Native American characters, be aware of the tribes in the location of your story and their culture. Tribal cultures differ, and it is respectful to be accurate.*
- Language. Research common language and slang for the era but be aware of slang words or words that do not fit the times. A reliable source for determining the first use of a word is the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
- Food. If you are going to feed cowhands or eat in a hotel dining room in Virginia City, know what foods were common then.
- Need a doctor? Modern medicine, as we know it, was just coming into being during this time. Look for how the doctors of the day treated gunshot wounds or fever, among other maladies.
The more accuracy you bring to your stories, the more credible your storytelling, and you will do justice to the Western.
There is one path a writer can take to vary the setting, and that is the neo-western subgenre, where the story is set in the contemporary west but maintains the characteristics of the old-west stories. A look at modern western towns, cities, and ranches will provide the accuracy needed.
And…don’t forget the cowboy hat!
Western World Building:National Cowboy Museum Legendary Towns of the Old West Then and Now Hoofs-Wheels-Transportation West Horse Tack Western Wear History of the Cowboy Hat Medicine in the Wild West Food Timeline 19th Century Foods Merriam-Webster
Article:25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding
Accuracy is essential and telling the story from the viewpoint as it occurred is vital. While we have modern sensibilities when it comes to the treatment of Native Americans and other ethnic groups, historical accuracy is critical. When writing about events and how they occurred in the late 1800s, be truthful but respectful. Always avoid stereotyping, as it is never accurate.
Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.
Announcing Writers Unite!’s sixth anthology volume. We invite all writers of westerns or any writers interested in the western genre to submit a story to our Dimensions of The Wild West anthology.
If you are interested in submission, you must be a member of Writers Unite! on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/groups/145324212487752/
If you have questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Link to Guidelines for the Dimensions of the Wild West: https://bit.ly/3fh7zgr