What Is Western Fiction?

Jacob Queen

Western fiction is the term used to describe stories that deal with the western frontier in the United States, primarily during the 1800s. These tales have a lot of common themes, including the struggle to create law in a lawless environment, the difficulty in surviving on an unsettled frontier, and the conflict between native Americans and the new European settlers. Many of these stories are designed primarily for entertainment purposes, and quite a few of them may be very short, quick reads. Western fiction has been around since the 1800s, and has become less popular since the 1980s.

Some other western fiction stories focus on the bad-guys instead of the good guys.
Some other western fiction stories focus on the bad-guys instead of the good guys.

The Old West fiction genre was actually born during the period when the events that populate the stories were unfolding. People in the eastern part of the United States had a lot of curiosity about what life was like out west, and authors started writing small books about the western experience, most of which told stories of adventure. These tales were often exaggerated for the purposes of entertainment, and created a lot of common cultural ideas about the old west, including some that still exist.

The American West in the 1800s is the typical setting of western fiction.
The American West in the 1800s is the typical setting of western fiction.

One of the main focuses of western fiction is on the idea of lawlessness. The people in the east had much stricter laws by that time, and there was a lot of curiosity about living in a place where people generally made and enforced their own laws. There was a sense, which was often generally true, that it was very dangerous to live out west because there was often no law to protect people from criminals. Individuals often had to arm themselves as a way to enforce a basic kind of civilization, and some western fiction stories focus on regular people being forced to face down dangerous outlaws.

There are also a lot of western fiction stories about criminals versus the lawmen of that time. In many cases, these stories focus on a sheriff who is outgunned by a whole gang of outlaws, and forced to stand alone to protect his town. In other situations, the sheriff may be a kind of super-hero in a way, able to deal with any villain he faces using his wits and amazing skill with a gun.

Some other western fiction stories focus on the bad-guys instead of the good guys. These stories will usually endeavor to show why an outlaw isn’t really such a bad person by giving him many sympathetic qualities. In some cases, the outlaws may be treated like 19th century American Robin Hoods, standing against the oppression of authoritarian lawmen, and helping those who are less fortunate.

Another key element that often appears in western fiction is the conflict between western Native Americans and the settling easterners. Some of these stories have been considered racially-insensitive at times because of the way Native Americans were depicted. Others are more even-handed, and may even go out of their way to show both sides of the conflicts that happened. Generally, these depictions have become more balanced over the years, and they were generally much more insensitive in the early days.

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Discussion Comments


My sister likes Zane Grey, but my favorite Western novelist is Louis L'Amour. My aunt gave my mom and dad a paper grocery sack full of his books, and we were all hooked.

I love L'Amour's ability to describe the country his characters see. It's like riding with him.

When I get a craving for reading L'Amour, I tell my husband I'm "riding west with Louis L'Amour." I feel like I've been on a vacation when I'm through. I recommend "Ride the Dark Trail" as a good first read for a L'Amour novel.


The exaggerated fiction novels mentioned were called "dime store" novels, and most people knew they were very, very exaggerated. They sold well though, so even historical figures like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickcock were known to write a few. Garbage and half-truths sell. Nothing new under the sun.

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