At my writer’s group there’s a guy who’s trying to write “a steampunk western.” The story he has is a really interesting battle book set in the desert – but IMHO, it’s not really a western, and it’s not really a steampunk. I addressed the second point here, but the other question on the table has yet to be addressed. What makes a Western?
In the Western genre (so much as I understand it, not being an expert), two movements struggle for ascendency: lawlessness and law. There are good guys and bad guys – the white hats and black hats, and very occasionally, the gray hats where modern writers blur the line on purpose. Life is hard, and a Colt revolver or other period gun goes a long way to making your word the final say on the matter. There’s this ongoing feeling of justice and a civilization that might be over the horizon but that we all feel should impact our lives even in this lawless place. The sheriff ought to be able to catch the bad guys. The girl ought to be able to avenge her father. And the choices that we, the townsfolk of the frontier, make – well, those will determine everything. Whether the law falls apart and we become brigands and saloon girls or the law wins and the “decent” womenfolk are welcomed as mailorder brides. It’s the tension that makes the West, the West.
The West is also defined by the hardness of the land. Unlike the easy frontiers in the midwest and south, this part of the land is hard. It’s hungry. Water – and food – is often in short supply, and the locals aren’t the type to roll over and let us steal the land from them without a fight. The Army, the cruelty of the people, the government, the natives – it’s a hard life, with hard men and quick, cheap death. What you can carve out is by the sweat of your brow and the skill of your gunhand, and many, many will die along the way.
But just because it’s a Western, doesn’t mean it can’t be something else too. Countless romances are set in the Old West, as are revenge stories, heists, Victorean-feeling Steampunks, magic stories, and tales of immigrants finding their way through impossible odds. If anything, the Western mixes with other genres like cumin and red pepper flakes, a little extra heat, a little extra pepper that goes with almost anything.
Consider the American Civil War, which can be integrated into a Western at times – the drama and the tragedy is that brothers fight brothers, and that every casualty is an American casualty. There were literally best friends, soldiers who had fought side by side against Mexico, who heeded the call to fight for their homelands – on different sides. They fought face to face and killed each other for Right – and right wore two colors. Put this fight up against the stark, unforgiving desperation of the Western landscape and add in cruelty, natives, land, and lawlessness, and you have a Western civil war drama. You add in a young girl avenging her father’s murder, you have True Grit.
But without that feeling of law vs. lawlessness, without the desperation, cheap death (as a way of life, not a war), and extremely strong setting (with lots of description, obstacles and possibly natives), it’s not a western. At least IMHO.
What makes a Western to you? What is and isn’t allowed? Does any element (like a romance, for example), ruin the “Western-ness” of it?