The Importance of History to the Western Genre

I’m still trying to sort this out. I am wondering if certain genres rely more heavily on history and historical interpretations than others. I mean, I guess that’s true to a degree for any genre, right? I’ve read lots of science fiction stories that either A.) took their ideas from history, or B.) were set in historical eras and told their stories from that viewpoint and in that context.

So history, and our view of history, and more importantly our perception of history, has always played a big role in story telling. Even when our perception is skewed and our facts are wrong they still play an important (and sometimes a debilitating) role in a story.  But I wonder if the western genre doesn’t tend to lean a little more heavily upon history as background and context, and if, ultimately, this might not be a mistake?

Now I understand when you’re writing about events that took place in the past you can’t help but have a historical framework there working for you, even if it’s window dressing. If you’re setting your story in the Old West then you are probably going to have the trappings present for the reader to recognize. This does make some sense. It gives the reader a touchstone, something familiar she can draw from. I think all good writers do this in all genres, to be honest. It isn’t specific to westerns. But one of the problems with a western is we are so inundated by its tropes, and they have become such an indelible part of our culture, that I can’t help but wonder if it has become too easy to use them as background. Until we reach the point and just throw them about like disposable stage furniture?

Like I said, I’m not sure any of this makes sense, and I’m still trying to work it all out.

You mention “Old West” and a hundred people will conjure up a hundred different images, thoughts, and ideas as to what the culture was like and the social mores people had to endure. Some of these individual ideas will be right, but almost all of them will have some mental elements that are similar. Whether it’s a feeling we have about the west, or verifiable historical knowledge, there are some tropes and images that have become so universal when you mention them, or allude to them, everyone knows what you are immediately talking about. They see it, and they feel it.

Case in point: a person on a horse. But the west was peopled by hundreds of thousands, and ultimately tens of millions of people. They didn’t all ride horses. But that image endures throughout our culture today. Just that one image. You can extrapolate what you like from that image, expand it however you wish and ultimately tell the story you want that will move people on an emotional level.

But the fact remains most people didn’t ride horses. They walked. Or they rode a horse-drawn buggy. Or,  they just walked some more. But the scene of a man or woman sitting a horse continues to hold power in our collective consciousness. And I’m not so certain that’s always a good thing because it makes it kind of easy. People, old and new, come to the genre thinking they know it pretty well. And, by certain standards, that might be a valid judgment.

I am reminded of Gene Roddenberry and the trouble he had with NBC in trying to create a believable spaceship for Star Trek. Executives kept telling him “put some rocket fins on it and let’s go, baby.”  But Roddenberry knew if you didn’t believe in the starship, the entire premise of the show would unravel.

So here’s my point. (And I confess I am probably making it rather badly.) When we write westerns, or any story, I think we should always be aware of all the other facets that come into play with a particular image we are using. Rather than go for the cliche, we should try and use the western to elevate what we think we know about ourselves today. And yesterday, too, for that matter. Again, I believe all good stories do that on some fundamental level. All good stories let the writer and the reader grow together in some sense and find common ground.

Look, I’m not arguing every short story should be some literary lodestone that elevates the consciousness of humanity. I’m just saying be aware of the world of the genre you are working in, and let your characters move and interact with that world the way they would have done in real life.They way real human beings move around and interact with the world today.

Anyway, those are the kinds of stories I like to read, and those are the kinds of stories I try to write. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes I am not. But it’s always something I try to keep in my head when I write.

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  1. Genre log | Catchdabigfish

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