A good Western anthology serves a number of purposes. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling read with a variety of great stories by familiar and maybe even a few unfamiliar authors. Regardless of genre, it also serves as a series of case studies organized around a theme. With Law of the Gun, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis, that theme is characterization.
And what a grand theme it is!
The Law of the Gun features 17 stories about, as Davis says in his introduction, that “most famous mythic archetype of the West: the gunfighter.” In addition to the five authors interviewed below, Davis has gathered an outstanding line up, including such authors as Deborah Morgan, Loren D. Estleman, Jory Sherman, John Jakes, Elmer Kelton, and Don Coldsmith. All but a few of the stories are original to the anthology. These are fresh stories, exciting stories.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I get pretty darned excited about the literature of the West – excited both as a reader and as a craftsman. So I contacted five of the contributors to Law of the Gun and asked them a few questions about characterization in general and gunfighters in particular.
Johnny D. Boggs is the author of The Killing Shot and Whiskey Kills among other novels. He wrote “The Trouble with Dudes” for Law of the Gun.
Rita Cleary is the author of Charbonneau’s Gold and Calling the Wind, among other books. She wrote “The Wanted Man” for Law of the Gun.
Russell Davis is the co-editor with Martin H. Greenberg of such anthologies as If I Were an Evil Overlord, Lost Trails, Ghost Towns, and Law of the Gun. He is also the author of Cloak & Dagger (with John Helfers) and Touchless, among other books. He wrote “The First Ride of Monday Happenstance” for Law of the Gun.
John Duncklee is the author of Bull by the Tail and Zemo, among other books. He wrote “Bounty Hunter” for Law of the Gun.
John D. Nesbitt is the author of Poacher’s Moon and Not a Rustler, among other books. He wrote “Hap” for Law of the Gun.
How do you balance the mythic and the real when creating Western characters?
Johnny D. Boggs: You have to approach them as real, but real can be mythic, too. Buffalo Bill Cody, Crazy Horse, Daniel Boone and Jesse James were all real people who happened to become, whether or not by their choice, myth, larger than life. So I try to show the myth, but focus on the reality of the people. You also have to strive to show that these people didn’t know they were making history, but were living day-to-day.
Rita Cleary: I avoid the “mythic” Earps and Hickoks. There are many real unknowns whose lives are documented in the archives of numerous communites and libraries all over the American West. I model my characters on these and I think they make more interesting, complex characters.
Russell Davis: I’m not sure it’s all that necessary if you’re writing – or attempting to write – realistic Western stories to worry about the balance. They become mythic due to our collective imaginings about the American West, and how we view these character types through the lens of our own experiences with it.
John Duncklee: I attempt building my characters as realistic as possible, often patterning them after real people that I have known throughout my 81 years. I also try to give these characters traits that are believable so that my readers can easily relate to them because my characters tell my stories through their dialogue. I might add that I attempt to write about the real West and shy away from what some refer to as “Shoot ’em ups”.
John D. Nesbitt: As a general rule, I try to have the real outweigh the mythic. I usually write about realistic, everyday characters whom I create, though I sometimes draw upon existing historical characters.
What do all gunfighters have in common and how is your gunfighter in Law of the Gun different from all the rest?
Johnny D. Boggs: They all have guns, and that’s about all they had in common. Some were fearless, others scared out of their wits. Some were good, many bad, most of them somewhere in between. Lin Garrett in “The Trouble with Dudes” is an old man, and out of place in the early 1900s, but he’s rigidly proud, and after so many years of life, is still trying to find his place in the world.
Rita Cleary: My “gunfighter” [in “The Wanted Man”] is more of an anti-hero. When I research gunfights and their participants, I find that most are really ordinary men blessed with good hand-eye coordination, common sense, a modicum of discretion and luck. Those with too much bravado die quickly. My gunfighter has simply let his emotions get the best of him in a unique set of dire circumstances.
Russell Davis: At one level or another, all gunfighters at least share a willingness to use their weapon to kill, though the reasons are often different enough. I think most of them stand apart, at least psychologically, from the broader community they happen to find themselves in. My gunfighter, Monday Happenstance [in “The First Ride of Monday Happenstance”], is perhaps different in that he’s the son of freed slaves, so he’s black (this is long before the politically correct terminology of African American came about).
John Duncklee: Gunfighters are always searching for adversaries for myriad reasons. They live to challenge death at the hand of other gunmen. My gunfighter, the bounty hunter in my story, is different in that he prefers to capture his prey without any gunplay, and bring them in unharmed and then claim his bounty payment. He also believes in fair play.
John D. Nesbitt: I do not know what all gunfighters have in common. I suppose they have a keen interest in getting the better of someone else and they are not squeamish about killing from one occasion to the next. My character in “Hap” has the motivation of wanting to settle a score with a gunfighter who killed the main character’s brother. He is probably a one-time killer.
What advice do you have for a writer struggling with characterization? And what can he or she learn about characterization from reading westerns?
Johnny D. Boggs: I’ve always approached characterization the way an actor would. Find your motivation, the force that drives your character, and the rest often falls into place. Observe people. Read histories and biographies, find out what’s going on during the time your character is walking the streets.
The best of the Westerns have always been something beyond traditional, and always character-driven, not plot-driven. The Ox-Bow Incident, True Grit, The Big Sky, Warlock, The Unforgiven, Nickajack, Monte Walsh, The Time It Never Rained, Bend of the Snake, Sea of Grass, The Raven’s Bride, Ride the Wind. You come away from novels like those feeling you’ve known those characters all your life, that they were real people, warts and all. Even what we consider traditional novels like Hondo and Shane were rich with characterization. They make you believe.
Rita Cleary: To create an interesting, compelling character, observe the people around you. What triggers their action or inaction? Motivation is key. And read classics, good books with strong characters, psychological profiles, newspaper accounts and anything that can broaden your own experience of the human psyche. Finally, get under the skin of your character and try to comprehend the mores, politics, events and beliefs of his specific time and place, all from his point of view. Your character will help define your story.
Russell Davis: Let’s start with the second question. Characters in western literature tend to be “larger than life” – perhaps it’s a touch of John Wayne syndrome or perhaps it’s a reflection of the landscape. People who haven’t been in the West tend to underestimate its sheer size and scope. I lived in northern Nevada about a half hour away from Reno. People visiting the state would regularly ask me to meet them in Las Vegas, not realizing that it was an 8 or 9 hour drive away! Reading well done westerns can give a writer a sense of scope – the landscape is big and maybe that forces the characters to be big, to stand out against all that vast range. If you’re struggling with characterization, my advice is to let your characters be big. Give them a voice and a posture and a purpose that lets them standout against the setting or the situation and bring them fully to life!
John D. Nesbitt: I think most writers agree that with fictional characters, it is best to make composites rather than to base a character on one real person in life. That’s different with historical characters, of course.
From reading westerns, an aspiring writer can learn how to create characters who do more than fulfill stereotypes. The writer can do that by observing examples that do and do not go beyond stereotypes.
John Duncklee: The best advice I can offer writers struggling with characterization is to write down a biography for each character, either at the start or as the characters enter the narrative. Jot down all the personality traits you want those characters to have in addition to their vital statistics such as where they were born and where they have lived prior to the story. Be descriptive of their physical characteristics as well as with their personalities and psychological normalcy’s as well as abnormalities. Even your main character will have shortcomings in personality.
Writers can learn a lot of things about characterization from reading any genre, not just westerns. If a writer is reading a book just to learn about characterization I would advise to read the first part where the author introduces his characters into the story and discover how that author performs that stage and to what depth does he or she go in the description. However, in the long run, or at the end of the proverbial day, every author makes his or her own characters for every story because that is what makes things different.
Characters in stories are the true test of creativity.
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.