Understanding the Western Authors Through Their Stories

Western authors have no shortage of sources for inspiration when it comes to writing tales of the wild west. The “Old West” or “Wild West” period is generally considered to be the late 1600s up to the late 1800s in the region west of the Mississippi – a broad canvas by any measure. The rugged wild landscapes, interesting characters and dramatic conflict make for a setting which western writers mine for material to this day.

Protagonists and Antagonists

Western writers have always had a wide variety of characters to draw from in creating their own protagonists and antagonists, although the same characters may wear a white or black hat, so to speak, depending on which best serves the author’s narrative. For instance, Native Americans may be the heroes in stories told from their perspective, or antagonists in tales which are seen from the point of view of white colonists and explorers.

Western Authors Tend To Feature . . .

Western authors feature many of the same characters that you’ll see in Western movies: cowboys, gunslingers, cattle rustlers, bounty hunters and bank robbers, to name a few. These characters wear the familiar Stetson hats, chaps and spurs and in many cases, live a life largely spent on the plains driving cattle from town to town accompanied by their faithful horses and their six guns. Western writers have the same freedom as any other author in developing their characters – they may be honest and reliable, shady fortune hunters or more complex and nuanced characters with human faults.

The Antagonists

The Old WestThe antagonists in Western stories may be white criminals or outlaws or in much of the earlier Westerns, Native Americans. These characters often fit the “noble savage” archetype at best, but Native Americans are often given even worse treatment by many of the older Western authors. Even in the best case scenario, there was a mindset that white men had to colonize native lands for the good of everyone – even the current occupants.

One frequent criticism of older Western novels is that the characters are never really brought to life and remain one dimensional, with little to no sense of a real inner life. The reading public of the time didn’t mind, however and were thrilled by the stories of adventure in the Wild West.

Thankfully, things are looking up for the Western genre and Western writers are far more committed to creating characters who are fully realized, whether they’re heroes or villains.

Plots and Scenarios

The plots of older Western novels tend to fall into a small number of themes which readers of the genre will have seen time and again. These common plots include:

The building of the Union Pacific line, including the transcontinental railroad and telegraph lines.

Stories of life on the ranch, where the protagonists live their lives while coping with potentially hostile Native Americans as well as extreme weather.

Revenge – this is hardly unique to Western authors, but revenge stories are very common in Western novels.

Outlaw life – these narratives give a romanticized view of the exploits of outlaws, whether created by the author or famed outlaws such as Billy the Kid.

Indians vs. the Cavalry – these stories follow the conflict between white settlers and Native Americans as people moved from the east to seek their fortune out west.

The Marshall – the stories of lawmen and deputies struggling to represent the rule of law in a largely untamed (and largely lawless) land.

These plots seem simple enough on the surface, but remember that it doesn’t take a complex theme to create an engaging story. The best Western authors have written classics using exactly these plots. In the end, it all comes down to the same thing as it does in any genre of literature – the skill of the author in creating believable, fully realized characters and a narrative which keeps the reader turning the pages.

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