“The West,” says Raymond Foster below, “is full of legends.”
And so is the Western.
A legend is both a tale from the past–a time polished mixture of truth and myth–and the hero (or heel, as C. Courtney Joyner points out) featured in that tale. There is the story with all its elements and there is the character with a story. And there’s time between then and now.
Below, eight of the contributors to A Fistful of Legends edited by Nik Morton and Charles T. Whipple talk mostly about the legend as the character—what is the stuff of legends and what goes into the creation of a legendary character in Western fiction.
Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin is the author of The Tarnished Star, Arkansas Smith, and the forthcoming The Ballad of Delta Rose.
Raymond Foster/Jack Giles is the author of Coalmine, The Fourth Horseman, and Lawmen.
C. Courtney Joyner is a screenwriter and director who also writes fiction and non-fiction, including The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors and Writers.
What is the stuff of legends? And how do you create a legendary Western character?
Raymond Foster/Jack Giles: Legends… the West is full of legends. When it comes to fiction there are Edge, Jubal Cade, Herne The Hunter, Bodie, James Gunn, Hart The Regulator plus White Apache, Longarm, Lone Star, Raider, Gunsmith, etc. As the West created its own myths, so writers from all parts of the world have added their own.
Matthew P. Mayo: The notion of a square-jawed, white-hatted, flawless man snapping of perfect shots and laying low the bad guys is an ideal, and while it can be fun to write about, it’s more satisfying to write about the old West as it really was. By and large, it was peopled with men, women, and children all working hard at getting by, and dreaming of one day getting ahead. They were short, fat, tall, thin, had funny teeth and bad hair and wore all manner of clothes. And most men didn’t wear sidearms. There’s room for both the ideal and the real. Maybe the most successful “legends” are the ones in which both notions meet.
Charles Whipple/Chuck Tyrell: I think a character about whom a series can be written is not the same as a legendary character. Shane became a legend, but not a series. Edge became a series, but I’m not sure he’s a legend. I reckon the Sacketts and the Talons of L’Amour’s novels are legends to some, but Lance Kilkenny is one of the more memorable of his characters, in my estimation.
When speaking of memorable Western characters, the Virginian always comes up, as do Nathan Brittles and Amos (Ethan in the movie) Edwards. We always remember the name Hondo, but personally, I can’t remember what kind of man he was. I do remember that he noticed and did what needed to be done around the homestead. Doing the things the absent husband had neglected. This often happens in L’Amour’s Westerns. Doing what needs to be done.
Sometimes a character is memorable before he walks on the stage, that is, he brings a history with him, a reputation that other characters recognize and move toward or shrink from. Other times a character gains memorability as she moves through the story. Starting with uncertainty, learning as she moves along, and coming to a realization at the end. The Quick and the Dead is an example of this kind of story.
Gary Dobbs: Legends are larger than life characters and the Western lends itself so well to such people. Of course, it helps that the real West was a place of legend. In some senses I often think of the landscape of the Western along the same lines as the landscapes created by fantasy authors. Stephen King highlighted this with his Dark Tower series which is basically a Western mixed in with a little Lord of the Rings. The gunfighter of the fictional Old West is in some ways similar to the all powerful wizard. He has a skill with his guns which is almost magical, and think of the mysticism often given to Indians in Western novels. In this kind of environment it is easy to create legendary characters since their actions are invariably larger than life.
Charles Whipple/Chuck Tyrell: So what makes a memorable character? A human being faced with seemingly insurmountable tasks. In recent film history, the king of England was faced with making a speech. A fairly simple task for most people, an Everest of a task for him. The effort, and the refusal to give up, made the king in that film memorable. A protagonist in a Western may fact the same kind of simple task, made virtually impossible by some quirk of the hero’s makeup, past, present, or even future conditions, can turn a simple character into a memorable one.
Alfred Wallon: First of all I do some research about the time period and the character I want to write about. Then I create some additional fictional characters who accompany the historical person without changing the history. So I can always write a story based on historical fact, but very often told and described from another point of view.
Ross Morton: The character, whether male or female, has to be slightly larger than life, able to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles, never giving up, while holding onto the ideals and integrity that inform his or her every action.
Bobby Nash: I create my Western characters the same way I create any character. I get inside their heads, try to figure them out and get to know them. Then I drop the character(s) into a situation and see how they handle themselves. In any story, character is key. Whether said character becomes legendary or not, however, I’ll leave to history.
Raymond Foster/Jack Giles: I have never set out with a clear plan for my characters–they tend to build themselves. I often think that if you approach a story with preconceived ideas then it can become like fitting a jigsaw piece into the wrong place. There has to be some flexibility and it has to be believable. If someone wrote about two men facing each other six feet apart and missing with their opening volley, most folks would dismiss it as a bit unreal. But you get someone like Eugene Cunningham or James Reasoner writing that scene it becomes fact–because it did happen when Luke Short faced off with “Long Haired” Jim Courtwright. It is all in the way you tell it.
This is the power, the fun, and the creativity all working together.
And that is also the way to turn a little bit of real history and add a created legend into the bargain.
C. Courtney Joyner: I don’t think you can set out to create a legendary character on purpose. To name only a few–Ethan Edwards, Shane, Hondo, Rooster Cogburn, Hud – I don’t believe that Le May, Schaeffer, L’Amour, Portis and McMurtry had in their minds that they were creating anything other than intriguing characters that we wanted to read about. One who had a past, and was haunted by it.
Perhaps that’s the common thread – these characters carry some dark bit of the history of the West with them, and it’s a burden. They are not “good” men in the traditional sense (although L’Amour loved his tall, buck-skinned stoics), but men who were truly shaped by their lives and (in some cases) were trying to make peace with themselves by doing the right thing. In the case of Hud, he was a heel who learned nothing even while his world crashed down around him. Hud was a creature of the modern west, in conflict with the old codes. Heel or hero, we remember these characters because they are men in constant conflict, with themselves and their world, and how they handle that conflict is the stuff of great storytelling.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.