Wow. We haven’t done this in a while. I know I promised you all more fiction at some point and trust me, I ‘m working on it, but these bits tend to be fairly popular too and I wanted to come back to genres once before turning back to fiction. So let’s take a look at a genre that I am personally not very invested in, but is still a major part of American literature.
While Westerns immediately conjure up images of the cowboy, the genre’s most common protagonist, there’s actually a lot of other figures that could populate a tale in the Old West. And it’s even possible to create a story with the Western feel without having to actually go to the historic time and place of the Western United States, circa 1870-1890. What you really need are the following:
- The feeling of openness. This, of course, comes mostly from the landscape. The Western plains are flat and featureless, giving the sensation of infinite possibility just across the horizon. Add in the very small number of people living there and that sensation only intensifies. It’s one of the reasons we see “space westerns” crop up from time to time in the form of shows like Firefly and the original form of Star Trek, to say nothing of anime series Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop and Trigun – outer space is the ultimate unlimited space. But this sense of openness extends to characters as well. The cowboy is the cliché of the Western, but many other characters populate these stories without anyone giving them a second glance. Robbers, prostitutes, miners, railway men and private investors all swarmed through the West and people never batted an eye. Watch El Dorado with John Wayne some time to get a feel for the many faces that can appear in a Western with nary a blink of an eye. From tough girl Joey McDonald (Michele Carey) who actually shoots Cole Thorton (John Wayne) to Mississippi (James Caan) who’s to green to even shoot, there’s a wealth of strong characters that avoid or earn most cliches nicely and who never earn a strange look from anyone else.
- The importance of independence. Characters in Westerns are at their most noble when they make their own decisions. Even El Dorado’s Nelson McLeod (Christopher George) is shown as something of a noble character simply because he decides who to work for and does it with all the considerable skill he possesses. The fact that he’s working for something of a villain doesn’t bother Thorton – those are just the kinds of decisions a person has to make. And a few months beforehand, Cole had been thinking about working for the same villain, so he understands the other side of the story. The important factor is that the characters are their own selves, and seek to remain so in spite of circumstances.
- The necessity of consequences. With all this independence running around and all these options to choose from there’s got to be another shoe dropping and it’s called consequences. People think of Westerns as all white hat/black hat in part because it shows people making decisions and then quickly facing the consequences of them. Joey McDonald shot Cole Thorton and, as a result, when the McDonald family needed Cole’s help he wasn’t able to help as much as he’d like because of the lingering consequences of his wound. Nelson McLeod worked for a villain and he wound up getting killed. But it’s important to note that Westerns try not to say whether the consequences came about because a decision was good or evil. Westerns are (typically) stories set right after the Civil War after all. Many people who went West had just fought a terrible war and, while they still felt there were things that were right and things that were wrong, they were much less willing to say for sure what those things were. The war had opened their eyes in many ways. The Western simply sees the facts of life – you make a decision and then the consequences come for you, for better or for worse. Even the vast open plains will only let you run from that for so long.
What are the weaknesses of the Western? Westerns are stories from a comparatively simple time. Frontier living was much more straightforward than life today and this is part of where the Western’s simply accept and deal attitude towards consequences comes from. But it can make these stories harder for a modern audience to accept.
Particularly because consequences in the Old West were doled out by whoever had the most raw power at any given moment, very different from the lives most people today live.
What are the strengths of the Western? Westerns are American myth, and thus have much of the appeal of all the great mythological traditions. Larger than life characters, chances for teachable moments and plenty of memorable moments to use as touchstones.
Westerns aren’t exactly “in favor” at the moment. They speak to a time gone by in imagery that is very steeped in that era. The age of the Old West isn’t far enough gone to be classic but not so near as to seem nostalgic or even relevant. But given time this genre will no doubt come back into some of its own and continue to do good work in the landscape of American storytelling.