7 Western Tropes We Never Get Tired Of
The western genre is an intense, action-packed, deep work of fiction. While not the most popular, those who are fans are die-hard. But what about this genre inspires loyalty? Here are seven western tropes that we and the fans never get tired of and bring us back for more.
1. The Lone Cowboy
A stranger walks into town. He's just looking to pass through, but trouble finds him whether he wants it or not. Our protagonist doesn't do friendship or love because of his tragic past, but it finds him either way. He kicks butt, saves the damsel in distress, and brings the bad guys to justice, all the while looking cool and mysterious. When all is said and done, he leaves the town and on to the next adventure.
The lone cowboy is practically a staple of Westerns, and it's no wonder! His mystery compels us, his kick-butt skill awes us, and everyone is a sucker for his hard on the outside, soft on the inside personality. Women want to date him; men want to be him.
“The cowboy stands out as a hero in a mystic and unattainable way, usually in the center of the story. This guy carries all personas, dark and mysterious, strong rambling ways, always in the right place at the needed time. He's broad in the shoulders with pistols holstered about narrow hips. From his rugged features shadowed beneath a wide-brimmed Stetson to the tip of his dusty boots and the jingle of spurs, the denim-clad cowboy represents the good against evil. Not always, but most of the time.” — Marje Porter
2. A Trusty Steed
What is a cowboy without his trusty steed? Though he or she may not have a big part in the story, without them, there's a prominent piece left out of the puzzle. The bond between a cowboy and their horse can be beautiful and sometimes more compelling than the romance! All the animal lovers can agree to that.
3. Cowboys and Indians
The struggle between cowboys and Indians is a classic in the western genre. It's fun to see the two cultures clash. Unfortunately, there is a problem of Native Americans being written in a stereotypical and bad light, but when written respectably, your eyes are open to a new world.
One of the best depictions of the conflict between cowboys and Indians is in Johnny Gunn's Ezekiel's Journey Series. After his life falls in shambles, Ezekiel Hawthorne packs up his things and heads to Oregon to start over. Along the way, there are plenty of fights between Indians and white people, but Gunn makes sure not to discriminate while writing it. He writes Native Americans with sympathy and respect which, unfortunately, isn't always the case. For that alone, the series is worth checking out.
4. A Beautiful Woman with a Tragic Past
We all know her. The protagonist lays his eyes on her and immediately notices how beautiful she is. Her long hair, curvy waist, nice smile, and perky…personality. She is a prostitute or schoolteacher or some important person's wife/daughter. She could even be the protagonist herself. Beneath her beauty is a tragic backstory of some kind. Because of it, she has a complexity to her that makes her an interesting character.
For an unusual take on this western trope, read The Woman Who Built a Bridge by C.K. Crigger. When Shay Billings gets ambushed and left for dead, he is saved by mysterious bridge-builder January Schutt. Not only is it unusual for the woman to be a protagonist, but she also has an unusual occupation. Her past is truly tragic, and it makes reading her facing her demons all the more satisfying.
“I generally write from a woman’s viewpoint and frankly, I’m not too interested in the kind of woman who lets [the woman with a beautiful past] description rule her actions. Western women had to be strong and able to make their own stories, especially when unfettered by eastern concepts. Homesteaders, ranchers, business owners, entrepreneurs, they did it all. And sometimes they were even outlaws. That's what makes this my favorite of the western tropes.” — C.K. Crigger
It seems everyone is out for revenge in westerns. Whether someone killed their loved one, stole something, or humiliated them, someone, good or bad, has a cold dish to serve. We sympathize with the bad guys; who wouldn't want to murder the person who had an affair with your wife? We cheer on the good guys; give them what they deserve! In the end, we leave satisfied, even when the characters don't.
6. The Sheriff
Someone has to enforce the law in this lawless land. Enter the sheriff. He is a tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He has to be to keep these yahoos in line. He is the pinnacle of justice and will uphold it, even if it kills him. Which happens a lot in books if he's not the main character.
But that's not the only kind of sheriff around. The other sheriff is corrupt and greedy. Taking bribes and ruling with an iron fist. What he says goes, even if it's technically against the law. But he makes the laws around here, so no one can do anything about it — no one except our protagonist.
The Sheriff Ben Stillman Series by Peter Brandvold has one of my favorite sheriffs of all time. Ben Stillman is a retired marshal who gets dragged back into the law game by the son of a friend. He becomes the sheriff of the town and gets into many adventures. Ben is an honest, loyal man in a corrupted world. He works to bring peace and justice in a lawless land. The way Brandvold writes his stories, you can't help but root for him.
“With my background of 35 years in law enforcement, The Sheriff/Marshal has to be my favorite Western tropes. From Gary Cooper's portrayal of Marshal Will Kane to James Arness as Gunsmoke's Marshal Dillion to Sheriff Walt Longmire, Western marshals and sheriffs are invariably men who will never back down no matter the odds against them. These are my people…” — Paul Bishop
What would a list about western tropes be without mentioning shootouts? A bad one, that's what. This is where the action is. The loud booms of gunfire, the chaos, the fear, watching characters go down left and right, the blood spraying everywhere, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats. And through the gun smoke comes out the victor.
And who could forget the classic Mexican standoff; the most dramatic, popular form of shootout? It's high noon. The opponent's face each other, fingers brushing over their guns. Or the guns are already pointed at each other, suspense hanging thick in the air, waiting for someone to shoot first.
“What would a shoot-'em-up be without a good shoot-out? Or two or three? Myself, I like to include a dozen or so. In fact, it's my own personal writing credo that every other chapter include at least one shoot-out or fist fight. Because, when you really get down to it, don't we all read western novels and go to western movies to hear the startling roar of a .45? I love putting the roar of gunfire in my westerns. I love to have the smoke fill a room and make it hard for the viewpoint character to see through it. I also love to describe the curl of gray smoke from a gun maw. All these tactile sensations of gun violence are part and parcel to the westerns I love to watch, read, and write.
Sometimes just to change things up a little, though, I'll set up a Mexican standoff between our hero and a bad guy. I'll push both hombres up to the point when the reader is tensing his or her fingers on the book, really white-knuckling it, waiting for the gun roars. Then I'll pull back suddenly and have the bad guy stand down out of fear. He realizes at the last second he's going to die, and his knees turn to mud. He cuts and runs like the cowardly devil we all knew he was. Sometimes the humiliation of having a bad guy turn tail and run from a shoot-out is even more powerful than the shootout itself would be. At least, on occasion. It's also a great way of understatedly showing what a heroic bad-ass our hero is. He's so tough that sometimes he doesn't even have to shoot!” — Peter Brandvold
Westerns are all about conflict and adventure. While formulaic, it is reliable. You know what you will get when you read a western, which is what makes these western tropes important. And if adventure, complex characters, and deep themes are guaranteed, it's no wonder why fans are so loyal.
Who doesn't like a mysterious lone cowboy who kicks butt and saves the girl? Who doesn't want to uncover the mystery behind the sad look in a beautiful woman's eyes? Who doesn't lose track of the world while reading an epic, high-stakes, suspenseful shootout? It is these elements that put together truly defines the western genre.
The western is a morality play, a melodrama in print, and the concept of good and bad is usually the defining issue. Men were protectors and providers in the 19th century, and the western elevates that to glorious levels. Whether a lawman or a buckaroo, many were loners, and their closest companions were their animals.
“Yes, I think I've used at least all of these western tropes at least once, many often, in my novels. Terrence Corcoran talks to his horse often. Jack slater believes nothing is more important than protecting his family, and Ezekiel Hawthorne was a defender of Indian ways.” — Johnny Gunn