Basics of the Western

So, Westerns. What are the basic elements of a Western? There are the two plots: 1) a stranger comes to town and 2) someone leaves town, heading for a new place. A subsidiary plot involves surviving in the wilderness, whether that’s physical (making a go of a farm or ranch) or emotional (surviving in a corrupt town) – both come under the category of Civilization versus Wilderness. And, usually, there’s some kind of moral conflict going on, whether it’s personal (fighting an enemy) or social (fighting outlaws).

There are also, often, a lot of issues relating to representation of Native Americans in many Western romances. I’ve been looking for some critical sources about this issue, so if you know of some, please let me know!

In romance novels, the major conflict must always be the relationship. So in a Western romance, the basic conflicts are usually represented on a personal level. I think that’s why there are so very many Western romances involving an Eastern woman (stranger) traveling to a Western town, where she is often a civilizing influence on a wilderness man, who might be rough-mannered, or an outlaw, or even a civilizing influence on the wilderness himself.

Various elements of the Western genre work really well with the structure of a romance novel. Westerns provide a setting and a framework for stories; romances provide a plot structure. The two mesh easily together, like romances with mystery/thrillers.

One thing I think might be specific to Western romances is that the setting can also be a character. Think of Western movies, and all those gorgeous shots of sunset-lit rock and flowing plains. Very often, the stranger character in a romance, usually the woman, falls in love with the landscape she’s met as much as with the man. Often, the man himself is revealed to have a deep love of the landscape in which he lives.

I also find it interesting that Western romances take a genre that’s heavily gendered as male (think of the Western movies you’ve seen) and bend the civilization aspect of the genre towards making a personal home rather than a law-abiding town; making a home is usually gendered female in our society. When the woman’s goals come up against the man’s in a romance, even if he’s a rough and tough hero, usually she comes out the victor in the end, “taming” him, even if on the surface she remains the “little woman.” Conventional as some western romances can be, they can also be subversive.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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7 Responses to Basics of the Western

  1. Jenna Reynolds says:

    It's interesting that your topic is Westerns. Yesterday I watched "Duel in the Sun." It's a big, bold western directed by King Vidor and produced by David O. Selznick of "Gone with the Wind" fame. It features a very torrid romance between a very young Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones. The stranger arriving was Jones herself. But she wasn't a lady from the East. If anything her exotic and erotic beauty was a definite destabilizing influence on all around her.

    I like Westerns. I've written a couple of short stories set in the Old West and have a couple of more Western set stories I need to work on at some point.

    One of my favorite Western romances is Heart of the West by Penelope Williamson. And it definitely follows the pattern of a woman from the East coming out West to "civilize" it. It's a big book with lots of characters. It also features a very potent triangle that involves the heroine, her husband and his brother.

  2. Victoria Janssen says:

    Ooh, thanks for the rec!

    If anything her exotic and erotic beauty was a definite destabilizing influence on all around her.

    This suddenly gave me the idea for a character. Hmmmm.

  3. Sela Carsen says:

    I love watching Westerns — Rio Bravo and El Dorado are two favorites — but I don't read all that many Western Romances. That said, I enjoyed Jodi Thomas's "The Texan's Wager," which is a sweet, gentle sort of romance in her Wife Lottery series.

    In any case, it's odd now that my Steampunk is set in the Old West, so I'm learning this sub-genre first hand.

  4. Victoria Janssen says:

    Western Steampunk, to me, will always be related to the Wild, Wild, West tv show.

  5. Kate Pearce says:

    I love Westerns-have even written a few contemporary ones. I also love some of Linda Howard's early Western historical romances and my favorite early Kathleen Eagle books, which concern Native Americans

  6. Wendy says:

    Ahhh, westerns. A subject near and dear to me.

    For me the western setting/time period feeds very well into redemption themes. So many characters in historical westerns are looking for a second chance, a fresh start, and redemption. It's a treasure trove for readers who are suckers for flawed characters (uh yeah, that would be me).

  7. Victoria Janssen says:

    I love it when a plan comes together. Wendy's comment about characters looking for a fresh start ties in wonderfully to one of Kate's contemporary Westerns! It's about a rodeo star who has to give up his career because of injury.

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