Being a Better Writer: Westerns

Just in case you missed it, there was a quick news post that went up just before this post. Be sure to check it out! It’s got all the news you need to know!

Welcome back readers! Again, apologies for the lateness of this post. I had an all-day shift yesterday (my job is back in the trend of loving all-day Monday shifts) and have been struggling to fight off a throat and chest cold that’s been disrupting my sleep schedule something awful. Anyway, that’s why this post is a little late.

Moving past that however, let’s talk about Westerns. This is almost a bit of a topic shift, if I’m honest, as BaBW hasn’t usually talked about specific genres before. I’ve talked about bits and pieces of genres, sure, but a full genre itself? The only time I’ve actually sat down and talked about a genre, it was mystery. Not a mystery, but the genre of mysteries.

Granted, I didn’t talk about everything to do with a mystery. Nor, likewise, will I talk about everything to do with Westerns. For a start, that would fill books. Also, you could just as easily type “Westerns” into wikipedia and skim over a good summary of just about everything the genre has … which, since I’ve looked at the page myself, is a pretty long list.

So I’m not going to talk about everything. For example, you won’t see me discussing staple tropes like lariats and cowboy boots. And in fact, I’m going to expand on things a little. See, the wikipedia page for “Western” defines a Western as films (or in this case, stories) that are “set in the American West that [embody] the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier.”

Right away, there’s one bit of that I don’t see quite perfectly eye-to-eye with. In fact, I’ll state outright that I don’t agree with it. That bit is the “set in the American West” bit.

I don’t disagree with it 100%. That the genre grew out of those roots, I don’t disagree. The “American West” was a setting that certainly gave rise to the genre, but if I were to describe the genre now, I certainly wouldn’t limit it to the American West. Films like The Good, The Bad, and The Weird (which is fantastic and also on Netflix) certainly prove that you can have a Western story and setting without having the American West, since its story takes place in lawless Manchuria. Sands, Shadow of an Empire is my own direct challenge to that part of the equation. Not only is it a fantasy, but the story certainly doesn’t take place in America. Nor, for that matter, in the west! Instead it’s set on a fictional world in the central southern reaches of an empire, on the edges of their “more civilized” society.

Rather, it’s the second part of that definition that I find more important: “… the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier.” That, to me, is core to what makes a Western a “Western.” Westerns are stories set on the physical and cultural edges of society, balanced between the lawlessness of the unexplored and uncivilized with the encroaching march of civilization, with characters that see that edge, acknowledge it, and strive for a life on one side of it or another.

Which is why modern Western approaches have been able to take place in locations that would, under the first half of that definition, not even be considered for a Western. Take, for example the aforementioned The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, which takes place in Manchuria. Manchuria is part of China, and certainly not in any way connected physically to the American West. But at the same time, the film is still a Western.

Why? Because of the time the film takes place. TGTBTW takes place during the lead-in years to World War II, during the Japanese Imperial expansion. Manchuria, during that time, was a fairly lawless zone fought over by the Imperial Japanese forces and China. Which effectively made it a border territory that had once been otherwise.

The result is even though Manchuria doesn’t seem like a place that, offhand, would fit the “edge of civilization” ideal, it actually does because there are two nations fighting over who owns it, and the people living there are simply caught between the back-and-forth. With the place changing hands, there’s not much of an organized government or rule of law. Simple a wild land where people are capable and free to take the law into their own hands as they work to survive with few connections to the “civilized” world and the constant “threat” of law and order arriving in a power they may not be grateful toward.

Cool, huh? Shadow of an Empire shows many of the same traits, despite being a very different setting. Shadow is set in a location known as the Outlands, a desert region that divides the southern halves of a mighty empire. Trade, commerce, people … all of them pass through these Outlands on their way to or from the western and eastern sides of the empire, but few live in those wild lands themselves. There are no “sprawling cities,” but instead miles of hot, dry, rocky terrain with sparse population. It’s a world that’s on the “edge” of being civilized, but still fairly disconnected from the culture that spawned it. Men and women squeeze out a living out in this “frontier” because they want to be there, or want to be away from the more “civilized” regions of the empire.

In other words, one of the key pieces of writing a Western is this setting that is on the rugged edge of civilization. It doesn’t have to be the American West, or even a west … but it does need to be a place that’s removed from the core of society. A frontier. A place that’s somewhat wild and lawless. Distant from most of the comforts and familiar trappings of civilization.

Note that I said most of in that last paragraph. This is something else that’s key to establishing something as a Western, something that was even mentioned in the definition on wikipedia. You have a lawless place, yes, a rugged one, even beautiful in its own way, in how something wild and untamed can be beautiful.

But another aspect of the Western is that in addition to this rugged setting on the edge of civilization is the theme that civilization is coming, like it or not, and things will change.

That is why I said “most of the comforts of civilization” above. Because there will be some of them. And more will be coming. Part of the appeal of the Western genre is, in truth, a sense that the rugged beauty, that this world and place, with all its ups and downs, is a fleeting moment in time. In a way, you could almost call it a larger “arc” that mimics the rugged ecology settings of the stories themselves.

Okay, that might have confused a few of you, so let me back up. So a Western story is set in a rugged, edge of civilization locale, right? Often a lawless zone where the strong prevail, either in fauna (wild animals) or in the characters themselves? Well, that aspect of the setting is also mirrored on the larger scale with this small “territory” often facing the marching arrival of a much “larger” one.

Let’s look at another famous Western, Once Upon a Time in the West (totally watch this). The setting is the classic American West setting, the story revolving around a small farming community that is shaken up by the inevitable arrival of the railroad, and at it’s lead a luxury engine car with all the modern trappings of civilization. This arrival kicks off the plot and sets the entire story in motion.

But there’s something to make clear about this story: Never once is the question of the arrival of the train in question. It’s a fact of the story that one way or another, it’s going to arrive. The crux of the plot (and this is a bit of a spoiler, mind), is entirely driven by the question of who will own access to the land the station will be built on when it does arrive.

But there is never any question in any of the character’s minds at any point about whether or not this train line is coming. It is, and they can’t stop it. Civilization, for good or ill, will not be stopped, and the world the characters live in is going to change.

Now, while that change may or may not take place in each specific Western story, the threat of the impending change is a constant core of what makes a Western. This theme that you have a setting that is on the rugged edge, but that the larger, less rugged world is always present, just next door … and it’s coming. Even if it doesn’t in a specific story, the specter of its arrival is always present, one way or another.

This also ties into what I mentioned above about this rugged setting being detached from most of the luxuries of civilization. Ever seen a Western with an opulent, wealthy character that owns the sprawling mansion, complete with “modern” trappings of civilization? Or even just an opening where a protagonist sees some new marvel from the “civilized” world? It’s a reminder of that impending arrival, of what’s coming. In Once Upon a Time in the West it’s the train, in TGTBTW it’s the Imperial Army of Japan, and in Shadow of an Empire it’s—

Just kidding. You think I’d give that away now?

Okay, I’ve talked a bit about our setting. Rugged, on the edge, with the specter of civilization coming, for good or ill. Got it? Good. Now that we’ve established that, let’s talk about some other aspects of Westerns aside from the setting.

Now, a bit of a caveat: This is where we’re moving into my personal take on things. I won’t claim to be an expert on Westerns. But I did do quite a bit of research before sitting down and starting work on my own, taking notes and filing away bits of useful information on the genre as I studied some of its greatest. And I noted a few things that stood out to me as some of the core ‘elements’ that made up some of the best.

For example, in many great classic Westerns, the payoff is very “private.”

What do I mean by that? If you watch a classic action film, with a protagonist against an antagonist, a rivalry, when the protagonist finally wins, what happens? Celebration, that’s what. Characters will cheer, the day will grow brighter, parties are held. The protagonist is recognized and lauded for defeating the antagonist.

This doesn’t often happen in most Westerns. Even if the protagonist defeats the antagonist, it’s often a victory that goes relatively unnoticed or quietly remarked upon. Rather than a parade in the main character’s honor, there is silence, or howling wind. Rather than a huge party from those they’ve saved, they simply offer what they can, words of thanks, before the protagonist leaves again.

Crud, some stories take this even further. Once Upon a Time in the West, for example, sees one of its two protagonists defeat the primary antagonist in a shootout back behind the town while the townspeople celebrate a completely different victory. Only the principle characters even notice that the victory has been won.

Crud, sometimes the protagonist doesn’t even “defeat” the antagonist, simply bringing them to a draw rather than defeating them outright. Sometimes it may even be a case where the antagonist is shielded by the law of civilization and escapes punishment outside of a figurative black-eye.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t Westerns where the protagonist is showered with accolades at the conclusion of their journey—there are, especially among more westernized and Hollywood “happy ending” productions. And it also isn’t to say that the protagonist doesn’t succeed: they do!

However, success in Westerns is often a personal, private affair rather than a massively publicized one. For example, the ending of For a Few Dollars More sees both protagonists having reached success, the one by killing his sister’s rapist, the other by having wiped out the antagonist’s gang. And what happens?

They nod at one another, the one asking the other if he needs a hand gathering up the bodies to collect the bounty on, and he shrugs and thanks him but says he’s good. One rides off, and the other stacks the gang in a wagon to go collect the bounty.

Is this a bad ending? No, it’s a personal ending. There’s no grand parade … but instead, a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from the pair of protagonists. We know, as an audience, that the world is a better place for the gang being gone, and that the protagonists each got what they wanted … and that’s enough.

Private victories, in other words, rather than public ones. And sometimes not even full victories … but still victories.

There are two other themes that stuck out to me as I watched the greats as well. One is the feeling of isolation. This ties in with that feel of private, personal affairs I just spoke of, but even when set in a town or city on the outskirts of society, a good Western always capitalizes on capturing the feeling of the distances between characters, places, and the world itself. Characters tend to be wanderers without a past or a name. They’re isolated in some way or another from that “civilized” world that the audience comes from, or even that specter of civilization.

Note that this doesn’t just apply to the protagonist, nor does it mean that your protagonist needs be a loner of some kind. They can be part of a posse but still be isolated in some way. Again, this is part of that “rugged edge” aspect, though this applies to the characters in your story rather than the setting. There’s an element of isolation to their makeup in some way, be it location, attitude, experience … anything.

In that same vein, there’s always an element of survival to things as well. Now, in this case I don’t mean Robinson Crusoe style survival, but rather again coming back to this idea of “rugged frontier where people squeeze out a living.” That should be present in your story as a facet of the setting.

Let me give you an example, as I feel as though some might still be confused by what I tried to explain there. In Shadow of an Empire, we regularly are given small details about the protagonists’ interaction with the elements. One character uses a salve to ease the burning of her skin from the sun. Both make certain they have a hay before they ride out into the desert. A constant action they make while talking or discussing things during a ride is taking a drink from their water supplies.

In essence, it’s a world that is rough and bereft of luxuries, and your characters need to feel as though they’re aware of that fact, and your readers that you are aware of that fact. They need to pay attention to the scarcities around them and react to them. Again, not to Crusoe levels of survival, but it should be clear to your audience that the characters are living rough lives. Characters in good Westerns deal with the elements around them as a day-to-day fact. Let that be a part of your story.

Got it? Good. Because now I want to touch on a very important element of the Western, at least as I’ve seen from my prep for Shadow. Something I noticed separated every good Western from every poor or mediocre one.

Ready? Okay, here we go.

Allow your characters to get dirty.

No, I don’t mean fight dirty (they can do that, though) or act like a pervert. I mean get roughed up. Covered in trail dust. Bloodied. Not just in “this happened” but having it effect them.

I noticed this immediately when jumping from some of the most famous Spaghetti Westerns to the Hollywood attempts to cash in on that (even with the same actors, like Clint Eastwood). In Spaghetti Westerns, characters got covered in dirt and mud. They rode hard and looked like it. Fights left them battered and bruised, and that battering stayed with them. They were muddy, dusty, sweaty, greasy, battered, and worn by the end of their films.

In Hollywood? Always clean. Never taking a real injury. Spotless clothes at all times. Oh sure, they might get muddy … but in the next scene it’ll be a neat and tidy muddiness that doesn’t distract from the protagonist’s chiseled jaw or whatever.

You want to write a good Western that holds to the best of the genre? Let them get dirty. Even for a book, this is an element you can’t skip. Let injuries linger, bloodstains stain, and bruises hurt. Have the characters feel the layer of dust on their skin, the grit of hours of hard riding through dusty gullies clad their teeth. Let their lips crack, their clothes stain with sweat.

This is the rugged edge. Not a journey that starts each morning with a shower. Think saloons … not salons. Let the setting you have be shown through how it affects your characters.

Outside of that? Well … there are all the classic trappings of a Western … but I already said I’m not going into those. What I wanted to talk about today were some of the core pieces that made a Western, and then some of the key elements that brought that Western to life that I’ve found in my own observation of the genre.

So, recap time. Westerns are stories set in locations that are at the rugged edge of society, where people struggle to survive, often a frontier, and with the specter of civilization always marching toward them.

They’re also private, personal stories, often without grand fanfare of monumental victories but rather smaller, more personal victories. They’re also isolated, in mood, theme, setting, character … or all four. This isolation in turn makes things tough and rough, an element which should leave its mark on your characters.

Again, there are classic tropes too … but those are interchangeable, not required though often representative, and you can find those (as well as decide whether or not to use them) well enough on your own.

That’s it for Westerns. Good luck!

Now get writing.

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