Western Fiction: Definition and Its Subgenres

Western fiction is a subgenre of literature set in the American Old West during the late 18th and early-19th centuries. Western fiction authors such as Zane Grey from the early twentieth century and Louis L’Amour from the mid-twentieth century are well-known. The genre reached its zenith in the early 1960s, owing mainly to the success of television Westerns such as Bonanza. Readership started to dwindle in the mid-to-late-1970s and peaked in the early 2000s. Except in a few western American states, most bookshops offer only a limited selection of Western literature.

Subgenres of Western Fiction

Bounty Hunters

It is a subgenre in which the protagonist is naturally dubious and pursues criminals to collect a reward. The building of railroad or telegraph line on the untamed frontier subjects, as are ranchers defending their family ranches from rustlers or big landowners or establishing a ranching empire, vengeance tales, and outlaw gang schemes.

Cattle Drive

In this subgenre, the protagonist must undertake a lengthy trip to relocate a herd of cattle. There are often life lessons gained and friendships made along the road, and the possibility of romance.

Children’s Story

It incorporates a Western theme, the usual target for these tales are children between the ages of 7 and 12. Although western tropes are present, they are presented in a way that younger children understand. The frequent themes are autonomy, adventure, friendships, connection with animals and the environment.

Comedy

It is a type of western narrative in which conventional western clich├ęs are mocked, satirized, and parodied. Cowboys or sharpshooters who cannot shoot or ride a horse are frequent subjects, as are intoxicated cowboys whose antics amuse their countrymen.

Gold Rush

The protagonist in this subgenre is on the prowl for wealth, most often in the form of discovered gold. Bret Harte and Mark Twain popularized these heroes and plotlines in the 1860s, at the height of the California gold rush.

Gunfighters

A western fiction subgenre in which the protagonists face off against an adversary in a gunfight. The protagonist and adversary are often pistol specialists, and each has a unique weapon with a legendary reputation. The conclusion of many narratives is a lust gun fight governed by particular sportsman regulations, often held in an agreed-upon location in front of a crowd.

Land Rush

The settlers must claim land available for homesteading in this subgenre, often in Oklahoma or neighboring states. The frequent themes are survival under challenging environments, wild creatures, benign and hostile locals, competing/feuding families or gangs and making the land habitable for producing food and maintaining life.

Lawmen

The protagonist in this subgenre is a lawman tasked with restoring order to a frontier community. The protagonist is often fleeing a violent or sad background and has frequently suffered the loss of family or beloved ones due to frontier violence. The frequent themes are saloon brawls, outlaws, outsiders, and romance with a local citizen.

Mountain Men

A subgenre in which the strong, lone protagonist traverses the Western mountain ranges. Themes that recur often include survival against nature’s harsh elements, civilization vs. the outdoors, loneliness, and warring families.

Outlaws

A type of western fiction narrative in which the antagonists are colorful, often associated with railway robberies, bank robberies, or some criminal behavior that occurs in the Western United States. Protagonists have certain moral ambiguity, which makes them villains with a heart or loveable bad guys. Sometimes, a love interest works in an equally unsavory profession (e.g., barmaid, prostitute, etc.).

Prairie Settlement

In this western fiction subgenre, the protagonist is typically confronted with severe weather and conditions while establishing on the vast plains of the Midwest. Themes that often recur include:

  • Benign or hostile locals.
  • Enduring severe winters.
  • Obtaining food under challenging circumstances.
  • Developing relationships with other settlers (particularly widows or widowers who are on their own).

Revenge

The protagonist in this subgenre suffers and survives a massacre or other heinous incident and must track down and apprehend those guilty to obtain justice. In many instances, the protagonist is seeking justice for slain family members or loved ones. There is a feeling of righteous rage, and vengeance, personal peace, justice, and loyalty are frequent subjects.

Wagon Train

A type of western fiction subgenre in which pioneers from the East go to the West in search of a better life. These are epic stories that often contain drama, such as blossoming romances and traveling feuds.

Young Adult

In this subgenre, the protagonist is an adolescent or young adult who matures during the narrative. These narratives are aimed at an adolescent or young adult readership and include friendship, youthful love, rebellion against adults, or escape from adult influence.

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