Elements of War Stories EQ: Why defines war as a genre?

Westerns are characterized by their setting more than anything else. Westerns are set, naturally, in the American West in the period between 1840 and 1920. "The Old West" is defined by environmental challenges, small isolated towns, and a constant struggle to survive. The characters that inhabit this world do whatever they can to survive, often resorting to robbery and violence to secure what few resources can be had.

Different genres exist to purify different emotions (this is called catharsis, a term invented by the ancient Greeks who believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work, that person would become unhealthy). While the Western does not purify a single emotion per se, it appeals to our senses of survival and simplicity. The Old West is a simpler world--commutes, remembering passwords, and bills don't matter. The Old West is the literal antithesis of the modern city, and Westerns become popular in times when social issues and urban decay are prevalent.

But why the Old West? How can a genre narrow into such a specific time and place? Well, it doesn't. All cultures have stories about the frontier lands where people struggle every day to survive and civilization is barely civil. Most twentieth-century fiction set in Africa's Saharan and Kalahari Deserts fit this description. So do the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa (which became the basis of Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven). Even the legend of Robin Hood fits all of the tropes below, albeit being set in 12th century England instead of 19th century America.

So if this genre is as old and widespread as any other, why is it the Western? Genres became defined and tropes codified with the rise of the novel in the 19th century--at the same time the American West was the most notorious and written about frontier. Below are the tropes that define and structure the Western genre.

The Soldier

The most defining characteristic of a town in the Old West is isolation: towns were usually a dozen wooden buildings near a train station--a place where a traveler could stock up on supplies, get a drink, have a little fun, and move on. The buildings in the town are all predictable: the saloon, the brothel, the hotel, the general store, the jail, the train station, and the mission (church). Unless it is a mining town, the entire population survives on travelers, making the main character a stranger in almost every Western.

The Stranger, often a Man With No Name, comes into town alone. He (or sometimes she) is weary from travel and wishes to stay for a few days. This Stranger is sometimes an antagonist but is usually an antihero who, in exchange for the promise of either money or vengeance, will rid the town of its problems before moving on to the next town. The Stranger is a mystery, intentionally not revealing his past and never setting down roots.

Note that The Stranger is not the same as The Other. In literature, The Other is a trope that represents some sort of minority voice entering the world of dominant homogeneous society. Yet the West is not homogeneous; as the West consisted of native lands and Mexico before it was invaded by white settlers, the Old West is a very diverse place with Mexican settlers, native guides, Chinese laborers, free blacks escaping eastern racism, and even Europeans looking to escape their past. The West is a very diverse place, and while prejudice still exists, it is not as socially stratified as other societies.

The General

While Western towns have rule of law in the form of a Sheriff, the town is always controlled by whoever has the biggest posse, the most wealth, and the best skills with a gun. Gun slinging is, with possible exception to knowing how to ride a horse, the essential skill of the West. The ability to use a gun (and, additionally, knives of all kinds) define a survivor from a corpse. Every villain in a Western is a gunslinger, usually with a posse of trained men to aid their misdeeds. Yet the Stranger is also a gunslinger, and either the Stranger or the Sheriff is the only one in town with the shooting skill to stop the villain. This is so common in the Western that all stories eventually build to the showdown or standoff, where the antihero faces the villain from across a deserted street--both frozen in place, about to reach for their gun at any second. In less dramatic (and lethal) confrontations, the duel to the death is substituted for a skill competition, with both parties showing off their target shooting.

Guns aren't the only valued weapon, however. Almost every Western involves a character's use of dynamite. As dynamite was essential in mining and the creation of railroads, it was plentiful in the Old West. Even Westerns not set in the Old West base survival around how handy one is with a weapon, whether it be a bow and arrow (Robin Hood) or a katana sword (Seven Samurai).

The Prisoner

However, not every character in a Western is a mysterious Stranger, a villainous Gunslinger, or a neutral townsperson. Outside of the towns are large ranches and some farms, and here we find another trope character: the cowboy. The Cowboy thinks and acts differently than other characters in a Western. For one, he's more caring and romantically inclined. Since he isn't always traveling and has land of his own, he can pursue love and lasting relationships. He's also more compassionate, as he is the caretaker of animals. Cowboys tend to desire peace and contentment more than townfolk and strangers, and are less likely to kill another person.

This doesn't mean the Cowboy is a sissy: he is strong enough to do all the work required to care for his animals and is willing to fight for his livelihood. While Cowboys all know how to handle a gun (usually a rifle), their primary weapon is the lasso. While the Cowboy uses rope as a non-lethal tool, rope is a common trope in the Old West, often taking the form of a tied-up victim or a hangman's noose.


While a Stranger, Gunslinger, or Cowboy's life depends on their physical skills, physical tests don't win the final battle. Both Western antiheroes and villains are known for their intricate plans and ability to trick their competition. The abilities to move silently, track opponents, and outwit others often trump skill with weapons alone. In the fight for survival, it is not just the strongest man who wins--it is always the smartest man.

Foreign Lands and People

Perhaps the most desired ability a Western character can have is patience. Characters that are quick to anger or act impulsively always wind up dead when against the patient man. This isn't to say the patient man is slow: the patient man sits silent in thought, evaluating every outcome, and then is quick to act. Again, this is representative of the showdown--two gunslingers stand opposite of each other and patiently wait for the other to draw and then react quickly on the draw. Patience is also reflected in the pacing of a Western: not much happens as far as events, and scenes rarely have much dialogue or exposition.

Valor and Self-Sacrifice

Western characters don't tend to live too long, so they fill their time with as much pleasure as possible. Nowhere is this more evident than the saloon: a place where everyone drinks alcohol, play joyous piano, gamble at the roulette wheel or poker table, smoke hand-roller cigarettes or a pipe, and even enjoy the company of a girl in the brothel upstairs. And these vices are enjoyed by everyone--event the "good guys." This is why Westerns have antiheroes and not heroes. Heroes are often pure and wholly good, yet these characters would not survive in the West; the Old West is "kill or be killed," and no pure and perfect knight or superman would survive. These imperfections can make it hard to distinguish the heroes from the villains, as both engage in the same vices, both lie and trick others, and yet both have codes of honor and loyalty. This makes the end of the Western unpredictable, as readers aren't always sure if the right man has won.

The Sword of Damocles

So what does separate the good from the bad (and the ugly)? While the antiheroes do break laws and engage in vice, antiheroes never kill or harm innocents in achieving their goals, while villains kill indiscriminately to get what they want. And what do antiheroes and villains want? Either money or revenge. Every Western story uses at least one of the following stories for its main conflict:

  • Seeking the treasure: The characters are chasing fortune, either in the form of a cache of money hidden somewhere or something worth a large some of money, like a bounty. With bounties, a rich patron or sheriff offers money to either bring in a villain for punishment or to recover something stolen.
  • Breaking into the fortress: Instead of chasing after a treasure, the treasure is in a known location, and the antihero and villains are locked in battle to either protect or extract the treasure. The fortress may be a bank, a jail, or even an actual fortress besieged by a gang of thugs or tribe of Native Americans (though this last example crosses into the next conflict).
  • Defending the homestead: This conflict usually centers around cowboys and sheriffs defending the town, the ranch, or the herd from an outside threat. This threat is a usually a gang or native tribe threatening the populace, although sometimes the threat is wealthy civilization from the city (think the oil barons in There Will Be Blood). Often, the town is overwhelmed, and it is up to antihero stranger to turn the tide and win the day.
  • Vengeance: In a world full of death and murder, there will always be characters that want revenge for a loved one killed or double-cross on a robbery. Revenge often drives character decisions and character growth, and while as selfish as the greedy pursuit of fortune, the drive for vengeance is often what divides the good from the bad.
War is Hell

Finally, all these tropes are nothing without their setting. While antiheroes and villains fight one another, everyone in the West fights the brutality of nature. The West features scorching deserts, towering mountains, scalding winds, and blinding snowstorms. Buzzards, cougars, bears, wolves, and coyotes prowl around the edges of the West, threatening characters and their livelihood. Elemental resources are also scarce, and many Westerns feature the fight over water, oil, coal, or precious metals. Fire is also needed to survive, for both warmth and light (the only electricity in a Western is typically the telegraph at the train station), yet fire is also a destructor. Buildings are mostly adobe mud or wooden planks and are very susceptible to fire, or even more so, dynamite. The one trope that all others hinge upon is the elemental world that sets in motion the struggle to survive.

War Subgenres
  • Western Romance: This subgenre features cowboys falling in love and winning the heart of a damsel, often kidnapped and ransomed by a villainous gunslinger. This subgenre is a mix of plots from the Romance genre with the setting tropes of the Western.
  • Spaghetti Western: This subgenre is mostly concerned with film, although does cover some literature. When Western films became popular in 1950s Hollywood, European directors were inspired by both these films and Japanese samurai films to make their own Western films. These films more harshly examined the diversity and ramifications of lawlessness in the Old West than American fare, and relied more on the tropes of loyalty and survival.
  • Neo-Western: These are Westerns that take place in contemporary or future times. These texts either 1) take modern city dwellers and thrust them in some of the few places where the environment of the Old West still endures, or 2) they set the tropes of the Old West (Stranger, Gunslinger, Seeking Greed and Vengeance, Patience and Ingenuity, etc) in the modern West. These stories question how "civilized" the modern world really is by challenging modern men and women to the tough, morally dubious choices of the Old West.
Created By
Brandon Coon


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