Genre Lessons: Westerns

Cowboy.

Image by Flickr user Satria Nugraha

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading westerns. I chose two books for this month’s meeting, one that I loved, and one that just wasn’t for me. The latter was by a famous award-winning author, which just goes to show you how subjective this business is. The story takes place in a small Texas town, and was contemporary at the time it was written. And it shows — social attitudes, language, and hazing rituals that were perfectly normal fifty years ago had me cringing today. That said, the language was gorgeous on a sentence level, and this kept me from abandoning the book when the characters’ prejudices and behavior (and the lack of consequences associated with these) bothered me, and when the plot seemed to meander.

The other book I read was a YA historical fiction that came out this year, but takes place in the mid-1800s. Because of the time period, there were some less-than-tasteful descriptions of minorities, but the minority characters were portrayed as individuals, and prejudices were handled with far more sensitivity.

The main lessons I learned from these books:

1. Don’t be afraid to be gritty, if that’s how your characters would describe things. One of these books took readers deep into the minds of horny teenaged boys, which worked well for the story. However, it felt a bit strange coming through the filter of a third person omniscient narrator. I would have preferred such intimate thoughts to be in first person; the distance of third made me feel like I was walking in on something I shouldn’t, something the characters wouldn’t have wanted me to see.

2. If your story is set in a time or place where racial slurs are used, it’s okay to have your characters use that language, as long as you do it with sensitivity, and understand that some readers will be offended. I recommend limiting offensive terms to dialog, and if there’s a way to show that the character(s) described by those terms are unique, accomplished individuals, even better. First and foremost, though, you have to stay true to your story and your characters. Don’t shy away from language, but don’t use it extensively, and never use it for shock value. If you can find another way to convey social attitudes without using those slurs, do it. And no matter what, write with sensitivity. I recommend you also ask a few readers who belong to the minority group(s) you may offend to look at your work during the revision process.

3. People — and characters — are complex, and can have contradicting beliefs. One of the books I read featured a Chinese-American character whose beliefs were influenced by both her Chinese father’s culture and the Christian culture that surrounded her. Your characters should never be stereotypical tropes. They’ve all had unique upbringings, unique experiences, unique trials and triumphs. Make sure that shows in their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

So, those are my main takeaways from reading westerns. What would you add to this list? And what western would you recommend I read to get a better feel for the genre?

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