Kick off your boots (don’t scratch the floor with your spurs, please), pull up a chair, and make yourselves comfortable with iced coffee, lemonade, milk, or the drink of your choice– just, no alcohol until afterwards, ladies and gentlemen.
Today, we’re going to talk about the Weird West genre.
Although the term ‘Weird West’ is relatively new, as a genre, the concept is not new. Pulp magazines carried ‘weird western’ tales half a century ago.
WHAT is it?
a western setting meets elements from fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, or horror; tropes from either genre can be used
[Space Western is a specific sub-category that we’ll discuss another time.]
- Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (western + fantasy/horror/sci-fy)
- Louis L’Amour’s The Haunted Mesa (western + sci-fi)
- Emma Bull’s Territory (western + fantasy)
- Cowboys and Aliens (western + sci-fi, movie)
- several stories by Robert E. Howard and Joe R. Lansdale
What this means in practical application
The western genre is still popular, especially among its devoted fans. But how on earth do you breathe new life into the plots and character tropes you’ve seen literally dozens (or hundreds) of times?
Well, in Weird West, basically it’s taking a western setting and inserting elements from other spec-fic genres. You can have archetypal western characters AND/OR archetypal fantasy characters. It can be done with a setting that’s distinctly western but also unmistakably sci-fi. There isn’t really a percentage of how much of each to incorporate, but to be Weird West, it has to be unquestionably western in flavor.
Give Wild Bill Hickock an outcast elf as a traveling companion. Make Buffalo Bill Cody a frequent visitor at a fairy court in a grove of Russian Olive trees whose scent in spring intoxicates all who breathe it (if you’ve ever smelled Russian Olive in full bloom, you know what I’m talking about). A town where unicorns are status symbols of women, and a teenage gang tries to steal one. Really dive deeply into exploring Native American mythology (respectfully, of course, because this is a tricky road sometimes).*
Werewolves lend themselves very well to this genre, especially considering how much a part of the West wolves were and how often they appear in classic westerns. Vampires, too, are an easy addition.
The old cattlemen vs. sheepherders and law vs. outlaws tropes are practically tailor made for inserting fantasy and science fiction elements.
The Misfit Story is another super easy foundation to start with in Weird West, because it can go pretty much ANYWHERE. Write a gang of misfits (say… a fae card shark, a werewolf ex-doctor, a crow shapeshifter ex-army scout, three human bounty hunters, a dryad gunslinger, and a cranky, draconic ex-pirate) who travel around protecting villages, a la the Magnificent Seven. [………..gosh, now I want to write this.]**
The supernatural is also very easy to explore in westerns. Compared to the East, the South, and the Midwest; the West and Southwest are very different places, geographically and geologically. Seemingly strange natural phenomena abound. Think wind caves, mesas, buttes, canyons, hot springs, prismatic lakes, salt lakes.
Weird West also lends itself quite well to fairy tale retellings. Red Riding Hood seems an obvious fit but think about the more traditionally ‘European’ retold Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Rumplestiltskin… so many possibilities.
It’s a wiiiiide open field and the Big Sky is the limit. Just make sure you’re having fun.
Have you read any Weird West books? Did you like them? Is this a genre in which you would like to write?
Merry Writing… and happy, fantastical trails!
*all ideas here contained are free for the using by any of you.
** Except this one… though feel free to spin off of it.