Sunday, March 9, 2014
What makes it a western?
From lesser to better known writers, I grew up reading their westerns. I loved the heroes, the action, and sometimes the romance. Americans have been much influenced by this genre known as the Western. What makes a book or movie western? That question can be debated as well as-- did the western ethos make Americans better people or find us too often turning to a gun as a solution?
Already by the 1850s American readers were eager for books, called dime novels, to tell them about fictional and real western characters. The real ones often got a literary dressing up to make their lives bigger than life-- even if they were already pretty interesting. There was enough reality to Indian wars, outlaws, gunmen, gunflights, dance hall girls, gambling, pioneers, log cabins, and town marshals to not need much help in making it more exciting.
So the stories and later movies grew in popularity until around the 1960s, when it is claimed they begin to lose their draw. Except, did they? or did they just change their genre to science fiction, fantasy, adventure and yes romance. Many of the romance authors from my generation were much impacted by traditional western writing.
The basics of what made a book a western can be debated-- and is. I believe westerns are still out there, in films and books, whatever they might be called. I think some of the western mythology has been good for us as a people and some... not so much-- especially that part that never was-- like individualism conquering the west but in reality it was a lot more complicated both politically and socially.
When I grew up, the mythology of the West was a very important part of our culture. What message did it put out? Well, I'd say it had several key parts. A man/woman who stood up for what is right. Nature as healer and teacher. Sometimes the need to conquer nature, subduing it. It put forth the ideal that hard work, even risk taking, was rewarded, and that right will eventually triumph though it often has a cost.
The western can be one man against many-- as with the film High Noon, which had a strong political theme laid into the story in a time where the hunt for communists had driven some writers to only work under assumed names or leave this country finding it impossible to work thanks to blacklists. This happened to Carl Foreman, the writer behind High Noon and was ongoing when the film was being made. It's a conflict that is just as real today-- when one person stands against perceived evil but has no one willing to stand with them.
Western writer, Frank Gruber took the view there are only 7 types of westerns: (1. The Union Pacific story but could be railroad, wagon train west, something about building and furthering civilization; (2. The ranch story-- threat to ranch from bad guys and ranch owner or hands fighting back and winning; (3. The empire story-- building up any empire, rags to riches; (4. The revenge story-- wrong has been done and must be made right; (5. The cavalry and Indian story-- taming wilderness; (6. The outlaw story-- gang dominates action or classic anti-hero; (7. The marshal story-- lawman conquers bad guys.
I don't think it's hard as a writer to see how those stories are classic plots which work in any genre based on conflict, danger or striving for change when the road isn't easy. Hence a western can be about a zombie killer and not set in the American West-- even though a purist will see it needs a cowboy.
I've published 14 romances (another on the way in probably late April), and of those half might be considered westerns by those who think a western needs to be historical or have a cowboy as the hero. I personally think all my books are westerns and not just because they are all set in the American West. It's because of the ethics they portray, the need to stand for what is right, a conflict where sometimes you do stand alone. They are romances first because they tell the story of a relationship based on sexual love; but right alongside that is the western at their core. It's what I want to write. What I want to live-- minus the danger, of course ;)