Tips for Writing an Epic Western 2
“It’s high noon in some nameless border town. The unknown gunman stands directly before you, facing the sun, with his hand hovering just above the pearl handled pistol in his holster…” Wait a minute. Some nameless border town? An unknown gunslinger? If you’re trying to build tension here, this is not the way to do it. In every single Western, location and character identity are seminal for successfully creating a masterful tale. For example, in the Clint Eastwood “spaghetti western” films of the late 60’s- early 70’s, most of the stories revolve around Eastwood’s character’s infamy. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is one such tale. Wales has built- whether accidentally, or intentionally- a near mythical reputation as a “cold blooded killer” and a “lightening quick gun”.
Let’s mosey up to the bar, share a shot of rotgut, and talk about your characters. Of course, you know you’ll need your protagonist, but keep in mind that your protagonist won’t necessarily be a hero or heroine. In fact, some of the best protagonists are often conflicted, and have fatal flaws which lead them to early retirement. Your main character should have good, strong values- to a point. Maybe the character likes to drink a little too much, or gambles. There are very few times when we can get away with creating a morally perfect character, and your protagonist is not the right choice for perfection. Why? Because his or her character flaws are what drives the plot, builds tension and conflict, and ultimately, provides the foundation for his or her conflict resolution or redemption.
There are however, many more characters you need to create and utilize. If your hero is a villain, you’ll need an antagonist, who usually appears as a “lawman” type. The opposite is also true, but not necessarily the hard and fast rule. You might choose to create a story where no one is the clear villain- for example, maybe your tale is about two ranchers whose children fall in love, and the ranchers develop a friendship. It’s just as plausible a plot, but not nearly as exciting for the average western aficionado.
Let’s take a look at your “supporting cast”. You might find that you need some other “players” to give your story realism and depth. You may want to do some research about Native American tribes who lived in the areas where your story takes place. Then, there are cowhands, bartenders, pioneer families, blacksmiths, stable hands, deputies/sheriffs, judges, drifters, grifters, gamblers, town drunks, pastors, prostitutes, madams, hotel clerks, train robbers, train conductors, train engineers, Mexican soldiers, dandies, French soldiers, tenderfeet, carpet baggers, buffalo soldiers, wagon train drivers, telegraph operators, wheelwrights, Comancheros, bank tellers, farmers (sod busters), prospectors, claim jumpers, freed slaves, desperados, priests/nuns, revivalists, “Easterners”, bushwhackers, stagecoach drivers, Pinkerton men, hired hands, any number of Indian tribes, and immigrants. Don’t be afraid to mix and match some of these characters to keep your supporting cast from becoming flat and one dimensional!
Breathe some life into your story. Make your characters multi-dimensional- and a healthy mix of “good” and “bad” at the same time. Next time, we’ll take a look at the locations where your tale takes place. Until then, happy trails, amigos!
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