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Mention the word “western,” and images of cowboys and sheriffs, shootouts and posses, and a saloon, cattle drive, or stagecoach come to mind—nothing like the wild, wild west.
The western genre appeared during the late 19th Century when the exploits of citizens moving west into the American frontier became the subject of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ and dime novels that fictionalize tales of real people such as Billy the Kidd, Wyatt Earp, and Jessie James. Interest in western tales inspired by James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels and his best-known novel in the series, The Last of the Mohicans, grew to enormous popularity.
The success of the novel, The Virginian by Owen Wister, published in 1902, led to the rise of well-known authors Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Larry McMurtry. Present-day western authors such as Ace Atkins, Craig Johnson, and the late Tony Hillerman, whose daughter Anne continues the sagas of Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, and Sergeant Jim Cree are best-selling authors.
Definition of Western Genre:
Westerns are stories usually set in western North America, most often west of the Mississippi River and during the latter half of the 19th century. Common themes include honor, justice, survival, revenge, and redemption. The main characters are cowboys, scouts, Indians, traders, pioneers, and lawmen, among others.
Classic Characteristics of a Western:
- Wide-open spaces of the western United States
- Lawmen: sheriffs, US. Marshals
- Bad guys such as evil land barons, robbers, gunslingers
- Native Americans
- Wagon trains, stagecoaches, trains
- Cattle ranches and cattle drives
- Saloons, barkeeps, saloon girls
- Shootouts, train and bank robberies
- Period set between the American Civil War and early 1900s
- Morality — Good vs. Evil
- Coming of age
Traditional Western Subgenres:
- Australian – This sub-genre is a rare exception to the ‘time and place’ bounds of the genre and instead settles in Australia’s vast outback.
- Black Cowboy (buffalo soldier) – These westerns feature a protagonist of color. Historians say the actual frontier was relatively colorblind.
- Bounty Hunter – This sub-genre centers upon these morally ambiguous characters.
- Civil War – Some battles during the war were fought as far west as New Mexico. After the war, the Blue/Gray bitterness throughout the frontier.
- Cowpunk – A subgenre that derives its name (and irreverent tone) from science fiction’s ‘cyberpunk.’ (Wild, Wild West, anyone???)
- Doctor and Preacher – Two types of protagonists in this subgenre. These lead characters are committed to peace and healing in an often violent environment.
- Gunfighter – The iconic western subgenre. Often a ‘white hat’ protagonist reluctantly agrees to go up against a cruel ‘black hat’ villain (whether an outright criminal or a corrupt VIP) on behalf of oppressed settlers.
- Indian wars – This is a dominant subgenre. They are usually accurate, in a historical sense, and will also reflect the worldview of the author.
- Land Rush – Usually focused on Oklahoma or a few similar events in which vast tracts of land opened to homesteading – whether the resident Indians liked it or not.
- Lawmen (Texas Rangers) – This subgenre centers around the honest lawmen who brought order and justice to the wild frontier. Often the protagonist is or is based upon an actual person.
- Outlaw – Westerns that focus on the black hats, the colorful villains of that era.
- Railroad – Stories center upon a titanic project: the bridging of the east and west coasts by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines.
- Revenge – These westerns are a relatively dark subgenre. A determined protagonist, often a young survivor of some cruel massacre, goes after the perpetrators.
- Romance – An overlapping subgenre, which features such a relationship, but in the format of a ‘western’ novel.
- Sheep – Range wars between cattle and sheep ranchers.
- Town Tamer – A lone gunman, or sometimes a group of friends, take on the corrupt leadership of an isolated town, and risk their lives to bring freedom.
- Wagon Train – These westerns are an archetypal subgenre. The Oregon Trail was the interstate highway of its era, with lumbering Conestoga wagons and hardships that were often extreme.
- Women – Female protagonists lead this subgenre. Some tales idealize their courage and triumphs, as with the real-life Annie Oakley. Opposite this, Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel The Wind is a harsh depiction of a young woman’s life in frontier west Texas. (So harsh that Texan leaders protested.)
Non-traditional Western Subgenres:
- Fantasy – Combining magic and magical creatures in a western is not as prevalent in westerns but do exist. The level of magic may range from everyday use by citizens to strangers with magical powers.
- Science-Fiction – While an unlikely combination, science fiction can combine with western themes. The film “Cowboys and Aliens” from 2011 merged the two genres well, with aliens in the Old West. The movie “Outland” from 1981 has been described as a space western which is a subgenre of the science fiction genre and uses the themes and tropes of the western genre.
- Paranormal – Ghosts, angels and demons, vampires, werewolves, and the occasional Sasquatch appear in these stories.
- Horror – The element of fear is what sets this genre aside and often combine the paranormal genre with horror in a western setting.
- Mystery – Think Pinkerton,stagecoach, and bank robberies, stealing mine claims, along with good old-fashioned murder. Central characters are sheriffs, deputies, US. Marshals, government investigators, and detectives from Pinkerton, including a female detective.
Revisionist Western Subgenre:
During the 1960s, westerns took on a different tone. They became dark and sinister, with more violence than a traditional western where morals such as good and evil were clear cut. A revisionist western often portrayed the hero as more of an anti-hero, and the division of good and evil blurred. Many movies, so-called “spaghetti westerns,” dealt with deeper issues and different values.
The neo-western is set in present day and carries the themes of a traditional western—a high moral code, good and evil are clear. Characters and settings are often the same, but modern sensibilities are applied to the story. Often, the hero feels out of place as some consider the code they live by as old-fashioned. The Longmire series by Craig Johnson is an excellent example of the genre.
Characters, Setting, and The Importance of Research
Agnew, Jeremy. December 2, 2014. The Creation of the Cowboy Hero: Fiction, Film and Fact, p. 88, McFarland. ISBN 978-0786478392
Masterclass: Western Genre https://bit.ly/3hIwMSA http://www.cuebon.com/ewriters/Wsubgenres.htmlhttp://bestfantasybooks.com/weird-west-fantasy.html
Brophy, Philip (1987). “Rewritten Westerns: Rewired Westerns”. Stuffing. No. 1. Melbourne. Retrieved 2014-09-01.
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 email@example.com
Link to Guidelines for the Dimensions of the Wild West: https://bit.ly/3fh7zgr