It is an interesting question. I believe there are certain essential elements that comprise a good western. They must all come together in a smooth and seamless blend to create an effective and entertaining western story.
We Americans are particular about our westerns. It is a genre of entertainment we invented and we own. It is part of our national consciousness. We guard it carefully. We are protective of it. We hold it to high standards, for it is a reflection of us, our society and our very nature as a people.
These essential elements I point out are applicable to other genres of fiction. They just seem more important in a western.
A good western must contain the following elements, listed in order of importance.
· Good Characters – The characters are the most important element in a good western. They drive the story. They must be strong, likable and believable. Since a western usually cannot dazzle the audience with special effects it relies on its characters to grab and hold the audience. This imposes a burden on film westerns that does not exist for those in the written format. The reader forms a picture in his or her mind of a character and sees that character a certain way. In a film western casting is crucial, particularly for the hero’s role. To illustrate the point, can you imagine going back in time and filming “The Magnificent Seven” with Woody Allen in the Yul Brynner role or having Pee Wee Herman replace John Wayne in any of his westerns? I can’t either. It is vitally important for the audience to like the characters and identify with them. That is what keeps the audience interested in the story. The reader or viewer should be made to care what happens to the people in the story so he or she will continue to read on or watch on. One other factor makes good characters more important. All westerns of substance are essentially morality plays. They almost universally depict the struggle between good and evil in a visceral, personal and violent way. That’s what makes them exciting and makes us want to read and watch them. It’s probably why in the heyday of westerns on television we never had one showing a family living in total tranquility on the frontier, raising their crops and tending their animals without incident, sharing Sunday suppers with the local friendly Indians and greeting the always kind and benevolent strangers that passed their way. It sounds nice but aside from not being realistic it would be boring as heck. A show like that wouldn’t have lasted a month. The closest show to that premise I can recall was “Little House On The Prairie”. It was light on gunplay but I also recall there was always one crisis or another the Ingalls family had to deal with. That’s the point. We want to see good and evil fight it out in our westerns and while good does not always triumph, we enjoy rooting for it anyway. Strong characters make this easy.
· Action – A good western needs plenty of action. It doesn’t have to be a gunfight or a saloon brawl every other minute. That would be ridiculous and almost as bad as no action at all. Random and pointless action just for the sake of having action is a cheap trick and a quick way to lose your audience. Think about some recent films that try to overwhelm the audience with pyrotechnics. These films usually have bad acting and no discernible plot. I believe most people find this style of film making offensive and insulting. I know I do. The action in a good western must flow and fit seamlessly into the plot of the story. It must be integral to the story and never gratuitous. Let’s face it violence is almost always inherent in a western. This is with good reason, of course, since these are stories of a very violent era in our history. The violence in a western must fit the events of the story and never be overdone. If the story is well crafted the audience will be caught up in it and embrace the action as it occurs instead of wondering where it is or, worse, wishing for it to appear.
· A Clearly Defined Villain – The western is all about the struggle to tame a wild land. It pays homage to the brave men and women that ventured forth and contributed their blood, sweat and lives to settling the American frontier. In a good western the villain the good folks are struggling against must be clearly defined. It need not be a rogue sheriff or a band of outlaws. The villain need not even be human. Nature has made a very effective villain in more than a few good westerns. It doesn’t matter who or what the villain is as long as it is made clear to the reader or viewer. This is best done in the early part of the story for the sake of clarity. Few things are more frustrating than sinking your teeth into a western then trying to figure out who or what the main characters are struggling against. This should never happen.
Well, there you have my essentials for a good western. I hope I’ve made my case.