What Is a Western Novel? Definition of the Western Genre and Tips for Writing a Great Western Book

Written by MasterClass

May 29, 2019 • 2 min read

Before John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were household names for starring in Western films, readers ventured into the Wild West a different way: through novels. Western novels are some of the most genre-specific books ever written. Learn more about the history of the genre and how the Wild West became so popular.


What Is the Western Genre?

Western is a literature, film, and television genre. Westerns are primarily set in the American Old West between the late eighteenth century and late nineteenth century and tell the stories of cowboys, settlers, and outlaws exploring the western frontier and taming the Wild West.

The History of the Western Genre

Western novels emerged as a popular genre in the late 1800s. The first widely-read Western novel was The Virginian by Owen Wister, published in 1902. Other early Western fiction writers include Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, and Louis L’Amour.

Western novels peaked in the 1960s and lost readership shortly after in the 1970s due to oversaturation of the Western genre on television and in movies. As western films lost popularity, so did western novels.

How Did Western Genre Translate to Film?

The Western was the most popular film genre in Hollywood for decades. Westerns emerged during the silent film era in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. They experienced a revival in the late 1930s, which ushered in a golden age for Westerns that lasted into the 1970s. In the 1950s, Hollywood produced more Western movies than all other genres combined. During this time, actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and directors like Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah became household names.

What Makes Westerns Different From Other Genres?

A Western novel is shaped and driven by the main characteristic of the genre: the setting in the American West during the second half of the nineteenth century. While not all Western novels are necessarily set during this time period, they all involve elements of the period and rely on the characteristics of the American frontier era, like cowboys, pioneers, and Native Americans. The characters, settings, and themes of Western novels are highly specific and belong exclusively to the Western genre.

What Are the Common Characteristics of Western Novels?

Westerns are defined by their genre-specific characters and settings. The essential elements of a western are:

  • Cowboys
  • Bad guys like criminals, outlaws, or bandits
  • The lawlessness of the region and era
  • Sheriffs
  • Native Americans
  • Western settlers or pioneers
  • References to the American Civil War
  • Descriptions of wilderness and vast landscapes
  • Ranches
  • Saloons
  • Railways
  • Shootouts and duels
  • Revenge

3 Tips for Writing a Western

As you write a Western novel, remember the following:

  1. Draw inspiration from American history. Famous figures like outlaw Jesse James and American Old West lawman Wyatt Earp inspired countless Western novels. Dig into the history of the American West and see what people, stories, and events inspire you.
  2. Choose a vivid location. Westerns give readers a vivid portrayal of the Wild West. Having a rich location in mind as you write, such as the desert, Great Plains, or Rocky Mountains, can inspire and inform the characters and the action.
  3. Read a lot of Western novels. The best way to get to know the Western genre and its subgenres—like science fiction westerns and fantasy westerns—is to immerse yourself in them. Study how they’re put together, see what’s been done, and look for opportunities to tell a new story.

Ready to write your Western? Find inspiration for novel writing in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.