The Western genre is uniquely American (more-or-less – Australian and Eurowesterns [see below], and spaghetti western films [many oddly inspired by Japanese samurai films] create a few exceptions to this rule). The genre’s main feature is its setting, the untamed western half of the United States during the 1800s (and occasionally stretching into the late 1700s or early 1900s), which makes sense as it got its start in the “penny dreadfuls” and “dime novels” of the 19th century. These cheap books were wildly popular and helped spread the mythic image of the old west with stories about the mountain men, outlaws, settlers, and lawmen who were taming the wild western frontier. Western novels as we know them today began appearing in the early 20th century, popularized by well known authors like Zane Grey and later, in the mid 20th century, by authors like Louis L’Amour. Maybe due to the timing of it, as the Western novel was becoming popular as motion pictures came into their own, but the Western genre is as well known for its movies (and movie stars) and TV shows as it is for its books (maybe better known). This is why you’ll notice in the list of Western subgenres below that more than a few of the examples given are film titles.
Sadly, the genre peaked around the early 1960s and has been undergoing a long, slow decline ever since. Most of the best movies are old, and a lot of the new ones are remakes, and many of the most iconic Western novels (and their authors) are several decades past their prime. Still, as long as there is an audience for them, Westerns and their rugged heroes will continue to prevail before stoically riding off into the sunset.
You can be fairly certain that there will be six shooters and horses, but aside from that Westerns can vary quite a bit. Below is a list of many of the subgenres associated with tales of the wild west.
Australian westerns are a rare exception to the ‘time and place’ bounds of the genre, moving from the western US to the untamed Australian outback. Sometimes, the protagonist is an American that is no longer satisfied with the rapidly-filling western United States, and instead settles in Australia’s vast outback. Sometimes the story centers around European or Australian outlaws and their western-like adventures and escapades. Ned Kelly, the fictional account of a real Australian outlaw is a good example.
Black Cowboy (Buffalo Soldier): These westerns feature a protagonist of color. Gerald Haslam’s story Rider is a fine example. These stories sometimes depict members or veterans of the US Army’s 9th and 10th Cavalry (aka Buffalo Soldiers), African-American soldiers that gained fame for their actions in the west. Z.Z. Packer’s novel The Thousands is a good example of this subgenre.
Bounty Hunter tales center upon these morally ambiguous characters. Peter Brandvold’s novel Bounty Hunter Lou Prophet is a clear example. Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian follows a band of bloodthirsty killers after the money offered for killing Native Americans.
Cattle Drive westerns are set amidst this definitive frontier activity and, along with gunslingers and wagon trains, is among the most well known and frequently depicted western subgenre. Often the young protagonist makes long strides toward adulthood during these grueling journeys. Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove and its sequels are famous examples. Clay Fisher’s novel The Tall Men is another.
Civil War westerns are defined by the conflict that gives the subgenre its name – pitched battles having been fought as far west as New Mexico. Stories can be set during or after the war as former soldiers carried Blue/Gray antagonisms throughout the frontier in the years following the official end of the fighting. Johnny D. Boggs’ novel Camp Ford is a comprehensive example. Howard Hawk’s 1970 film Rio Lobo places John Wayne in a similar situation.
Cowpunk is a subgenre that derives its name (and irreverant tone) from science fiction’s ‘cyberpunk.’ It can also, but does not have to, overlap with the steampunk subgenre of sci-fi to varying degrees. These tales depict all sorts of bizarre happenings on the remote frontier. Elisabeth Scarborough’s novel The Drastic Dragon of Draco Texas mixes ethnic mythology with comedy and horror.
Doctor and Preacher is a subgenre with two main types of protagonists. I’ll give you two guesses… Well done.
The common thread between the two character types are that such lead characters are committed to peace and healing (or know they should be) despite frequently finding themselves surrounded by violent situations and people. TV’s fictional Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is a well-known example. Robert B. Parker’s novel Preacher is a more recent one.
Eurowestern tales come, as the term implies, from Europe. Karl May’s German-language novels, starting in 1892 with his Winnetou I, brought the excitement and allure of the rugged frontier across the Atlantic. Sergio Leone’s classic 1966 ‘spaghetti western’ films, like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in the white and black hats, could also be considered part of this genre. Traditional examples of this subgenre are often more gritty; in a an emotional and violent (and even dusty) sense, than its American cousins, which could depict a more romanticized version of the Old West.
Gunfighter tales are an iconic western subgenre. In reality, two men dueling each other on the dusty main street of an old west town almost never happened , yet that image is probably what people most often picture when thinking of westerns and it is essential the plot of these stories. Often a ‘white hat’ protagonist reluctantly agrees to go up against a cruel ‘black hat’ villain on behalf of oppressed common folks. Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel Shane is a classic example. Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 film High Noon casts Gary Cooper in the lead role.
Humorous or Parody is self-explanatory. Mel Brook’s 1974 film Blazing Saddles towers over this subgenre. Gene Kelly’s 1970 film The Cheyenne Social Club is another example and Ellen Recknor’s novel Prophet Annie is full of wry humor.
Indian Wars dominate the subgenre of the same name. They are often historically accurate in the details, but can also reflect the time and worldview (and thus, bias) of the author. James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans remains a classic. Douglas C. Jones’s novel The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer vividly depicts a “what if?” cultural clash, asking ‘was General Custer a hero or a villain?’ Many older American films depict the Indians as ruthless savages to be swept aside. In Arthur Penn’s 1970 film Little Big Man the natives are wise and noble and white Americans cruel interlopers. Kevin Costner’s 1990 film Dances With Wolves portrays a more realistic mixed bag.
Land Rush stories usually focus on Oklahoma, where vast tracts of land were suddenly opened to homesteading — whether the resident Native Americans liked it or not. Al and Joanna Lacy’s novel The Land of Promise is one example. Ron Howard’s 1992 film Far and Away has a dramatic portrayal.
Lawmen (Texas Rangers): This subgenre centers around the honest lawmen (especially Texas Rangers) who struggled to bring order and justice to the wild frontier. Often the protagonist is, or is based upon, an actual person. Jack Cumming’s novel The Last Lawmen is a realistic example.
Mexican Wars (Texan Independence): Stories in this subgenre include the decisive geopolitical events of 1845-48. Marion G. Otto’s novel Hugh Harrington is a good example. Many Texan tales feature the siege of the Alamo, like Stephen Harrigan’s novel The Gates of the Alamo. Mexican authors who write in this subgenre often depict the secession of Texas, and the US invasion of Veracruz and Mexico City — but with heroes and villains reversed.
Modern Indians is a western subgenre that is set in the present day with a protagonist must bridge a venerable Native American heritage with modern American culture and technology. Tony Hillerman’s novel Coyote Waits is perhaps the best known example. Hillerman’s books are often listed with the ‘mystery’ genre, as they feature the Navajo tribal police. To his credit, they’re immensely popular in Navajo country.
Mormon tales center upon the settlement of Utah in the 1840s and 50s, under the leadership of Brigham Young. Marilyn Brown’s novel The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass is an unstinting depiction and From Everlasting to Everlasting, by Sophie Freeman, mirrors real-life experiences. Many of these novels are published by imprints associated with the LDS church.
Outlaw westerns focus on the ‘black hats,’ the colorful villains of that era cast as anti-heroes. The Dalton Brothers, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and many others became legends in their own time. Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ 1927 novel Paso por Aqui (later reprinted as Four Faces West) depicts an unusual robber hunted by the famous marshal Pat Garrett.
Prairie Settlement tales are not quite standard ‘westerns,’ but they do fall within the time-and-place bounds of the genre. They depict the taming of the vast flat plains of the midwest, during the 1800s. Ole Rolvaag’s classic novel Giants in the Earth depicts a Norwegian family enduring bitter winters and maddening loneliness, as civilization slowly follows them west. While intended for children, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series is enjoyed by all ages.
Prospecting (Gold Rush): This subgenre focuses on the quest for sudden riches, whether as a comfortable silver mine owner or a hardscrabble gold panner. In the 1860s, Bret Harte and Mark Twain immortalized these characters even as the California gold rush was in full swing. Jack London extended the ‘western’ genre northward, with realistic accounts of the 1896 gold rush into Alaska and the Yukon Territory, most famously in his novel The Call of the Wild.
Quest westerns involve a protagonist on a mission, set against a harsh untamed frontier and relentless rivals and/or enemies. Cameron Judd’s novel The Quest of Brady Kenton is an oft-cited example of this subgenre. Elmer Kelton’s Cloudy in the West is another.
Railroad stories center upon a titanic project: the bridging of the east and west coasts by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines. Rugged geography, indentured Chinese workers, and international scandals add depth to this milieu. John Ford’s 1924 film The Iron Horse remains a classic.
Range Wars (Sheepmen): These stories center upon a peculiar western rivalry, as ranchers trying to claim the best grazing land came into conflict with homesteading farmers (sometimes sheep ranchers) who were fencing off said grazing land. Owen Wister’s classic 1902 novel The Virginian, later filmed at least twice, depicts Wyoming’s fratricidal Johnson County War.
A few subgenre tales focus on shepherds, many of them Basque immigrants, and the wool merchants who owned the flocks. Zane Grey’s 1922 novel To the Last Man depicts a cattlemen vs. sheepmen feud (based upon real Arizona history) so vicious its title is a literal description.
Revenge westerns are a relatively dark subgenre. A determined protagonist, often a young survivor of some cruel massacre, goes after the perpetrators. In the Western setting, witnesses to crimes were few, and law enforcement scarce (and sometimes corrupt), leading to such harsh individual actions. Charles Portis’s 1969 novel True Grit, soon filmed by Henry Hathaway (also remade by the Coen brothers), follows a determined young woman on such a mission.
Romance is an overlapping subgenre, where the Romance and Western genres meet, which features the elements of Romance but in the ‘western’ novel setting. A.H. Holt’s Silver Creek and Morgan J. Blake’s Redemption are two such novels.
Town-tamer westerns are well described by their name. A lone gunman, or sometimes a group of friends, take on the corrupt and oppressive leaders or marauding bandits that are terrorizing an isolated town. Frank Gruber’s story “Town Tamer,” filmed by Lesley Selander, is a clear example. Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 movie Silverado is a great depiction. John Sturges’ 1960 film The Magnificent Seven extends this subgenre into rural Mexico.
Most Trapper or Mountain Man tales are set earlier than other western subgenres, when Native Americans still dominated the land and civilization was still a long way away in the “East.” Often the rugged protagonist is the only white man for hundreds of miles around, and he’ll find a native bride. Louis L’Amour’s novel To the Far Blue Mountains depicts the earliest English settlement of the Appalachians, in the 1500s. A.B. Guthrie’s novel The Big Sky crosses the continent, and James Michener’s sprawling Centennial is another example.
Wagon Train westerns are a quintessential subgenre. The Oregon Trail was the interstate highway of its era, with lumbering Conestoga wagons, and hardships that were often extreme. Zane Grey’s 1936 novel The Lost Wagon Train is a classic example. George Stewart’s episodic novel Sheep Rock follows waves of settlers through a remote Nevada desert.
Women protagonists lead this subgenre. Some tales idealize their courage and triumphs, as with the real-life Annie Oakley. Opposite this, Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel The Wind is a harsh depiction of a young woman’s life in frontier west Texas – so harsh that the leaders of Texas at the time protested.