Writing Offbeat WesternsnThe Western novel has always been hedged about withnmore conventions than any other category, with thenpossible exception of women’s romances. I’ve often puzzlednabout why that is so, and even after years of thinking aboutnit, I don’t have any good answers. I know that some of it hasnto do with the fact that the classical Western is mythic innnature. It is not just a story; it’s an affirmation of our history,nexpressed in a special way.nIn the traditional Western justice is done, at least if justicenis defined in a certain way. The small rancher wins over thenruthless cattle baron, and thus confirms the right of freeholdersnto own the earth and profit from their holdings. Innthe mythic Western, victory comes at last to the characternwho is the most splendid example of fantasy manhood; thenone who is the best warrior, cowhand, brawler, and shootist.nHe’s also the most honest, audacious, loyal, temperate,ncourageous, and truthful.nThe mythic Western story doesn’t employ real characters,nbut magical ones who represent what the readers want to be;nit is the readers themselves who stalk through the pages,nvicariously gunning down evil, winning what amounts tonprivate wars, and revenging themselves for past wrongs.nThat’s why the mythic stories are so hedged about withnconventions. It would never do to raise the moral ambiguitiesnof the real frontier, and confuse or discourage thenreader.nIn other areas of publishing, times change. But Westernsndon’t change. Publishers of hardcover library Westerns havenallowed a little freedom recently, but the mass marketnhouses that spin out the novels that stuff the drugstore racksnhave essentially the same conventions as ever. The readershipnof mythic Westerns seems to be stable, and as long asnRichard S. Wheeler is the author of over twentynWesterns. He lives in Big Timber, Montana.n20/CHRONICLESnby Richard S. Wheelernnnthat is the case, publishers don’t want to experiment.nTo any veteran reader of Westerns the conventions seemnso natural that it seems hardly possible a Western can benwritten in other ways. All authors of Westerns are well awarenof them, and know they must heed them, or publishers willnreject their novels. Foremost among these conventions is thenrequirement that the story occur sometime between thenCivil War and the 1890’s, roughly when the frontiernvanished. Another requirement is that these stories be aboutnloners in armed conflict — for example, the young ranchernwho must fight off the predations of a villainous cattle king.nAnother important rule is that the central figure be male.nWith very few exceptions over the years, Westerns havenbeen built around male enterprises or male warfare, as in thengunman-type stories. Very few Western heroes are married.nSuch women as appear are sketchily portrayed and aren’tnimportant to the plot. Yet another tradition is that there benno substantial love interest, although love is not totallynforbidden.nAnother powerful convention is that the male protagonistnmust be heroic. His character is commanding. He knowsnwhat to do: he rarely wonders what course of action is wisest,nor weighs questions of good and evil, or wonders whethernhe’s a fool. As is true of most mythic characters, he doesn’tngrow or change as a result of his trials, but triumphs on thenbasis of his innate superiority over his antagonists. Emotionsnare largely tabooed: the mythic Western hero should properlynbe poker-faced and stoic, a Clint Eastwood type, andnavoid anything resembling uncontrolled rage, tears, shame,ntenderness, or laughter. You’ll never see a Western heronfeeling self-pity. He never blames scapegoats for his troubles.nIt is especially important that the mythic Western heronnot be tender, or express gentle or poetic feelings. He is anborn leader, too, who never seems to suffer the dissent orn