Worldbuilding thoughts: Westerns and Magic

I’m tentatively poking an idea for another book, that would involve a bit of a monster apocalypse situation and a lot of magic. One part of the idea I’d like to get in is a non-magical way to deal with some of the monsters. Depending on how I shape the setting, gunpowder might be an option.

It might be interesting to make it sort of a frontier Western setting. (Though not actually an AU American West; this would be a frontier town, yes, but one built on old ruins some centuries after an Atlantean Apocalypse.) But… hmm. I’m not sure I’ve ever run across a story that mixed the Old West and magic in a way I liked.

So the problem here is, right now, I can’t figure out exactly what aspects of the Old West and fantasy-style magic don’t mix well. And if I can’t figure that out, it’d be hard for me to avoid or fix them.

I have the tentative feeling it’s because fantasy should tend more toward optimism, and a lot of Westerns have more of a nostalgia and regret theme to them. In which case I’d definitely need to pick something different (maybe stealing gunpowder rockets from 1300s China?), because while blending settings can be done, mixing disparate emotional themes is a recipe for disaster.

Thoughts, comments, random grumps?

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63 thoughts on “Worldbuilding thoughts: Westerns and Magic

  1. This one is my favorite. Rurouni Kenshin based. https://www.fanfiction.net/s/3343822/1/Sympathy-for-the-Devil

    Though I’ll also note that ‘Frontier’ and ‘Western’ aren’t glued together. Even if they were, however, I still would think that the two could mix. It’s not like Westerns are tragedies or anything like that. And Westerns are already easily set up for an ‘adventuring crew’ to be able to work, whether they’re the sheriff and his men or the gang of ‘heroic outlaws’.

    Also, honestly, I think reading this post was the first time I ever referenced Westerns and a ‘regret theme’, which frankly I don’t get. Nostalgia, sure, if more for the eye of the viewer then the eye of the character, simpler times and all that. But regret? Not really.

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    1. Hmm. Interesting, though a bit more magical creature oriented than I had in mind….

      Well, most of the magical Western settings I’ve run across in books seem to have a lot of regret and bitterness in them. Then again, that darkness seems to be in a lot of F/SF books on the shelves lately in general. Which is one reason I’m not buying much fiction in bookstores.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Okay, magical westerns. Quite possibly written since the ’70s by or for people who haven’t really done enough historical research to get how and why people back then ticked. If only New York tastes were allowed into print, I really doubt New Yorkers get much oral history about the frontier and the indians. Big difference between Manhattan and areas where the population last had anything to do with Indian wars back in the nineteenth century. That could potentially explain a bias towards nostalgia and regret that might not be present in mainstream westerns.

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  2. The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson is the closest I can think of. Western lawman in the Mistborn universe (which is worth reading from the beginning just for the Magic system, which is awesome).

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  3. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12971670-dead-reckoning. Also, http://brandonsanderson.com/books/mistborn/the-alloy-of-law/.

    If my recollection is correct, Dead Reckoning is on the heavier side. I’ll admit to not having read it in several years while I was on a Lackey binge.

    I really like Alloy of Law, because it’s very fast paced. It’s also a mystery novel! Be aware that while it’s perfectly readable on its own, it is part of a trilogy and Sanderson gets veeery heavy in his second books of a trilogy.

    I think that the “theme” of Westerns varies a lot by generation. For people my age and younger (mid-twenties) it tends to be adventure, because that was the kind of Western we saw growing up. My grandparents are more old-style Western fans, with Clint Eastwood dealing with his Dark and Troubled Past and riding off into the sunset while his love interest made teary faces but was left For Her Own Good. There is a certain commonality of dealing with the past that’s often shared between them, but I find the atmosphere to be different.

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  4. Fantasy and Western might actually go together pretty well, even if I’ve never heard of it myself. Adventurers setting out to explore unknown territory, having to work with and against nature to survive…yeah, they can definitely be combined.

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  5. I think part of the regret comes from how the settling of the West was the end of the concept of the American Frontier (at least in the lower 48). With the end of the Frontier came the end of the idea of being able to leave the past behind and start over, which had been part of the reason America got started to begin with. So the West is the end of an era of American history and the start of another one.

    Another part of the regret is that the Frontier as America knows it couldn’t have come about without kicking the original inhabitants out of their land. And with Political Correctness the way it is nowadays… well, to portray that positively comes off as being insensitive to say the least. I honestly don’t know how a period Western could be written now without having all that baggage attached to it. To the point where while it constantly annoys me, I’d be surprised something with lots of world-building details would be published without addressing it in some way.

    All that though is based on it being a Historical Fiction Fantasy though. Make a Western take place in a world without that kind of cultural/historical baggage though and it could be very different.

    The big reason I see magic not being used in Western stuff is that when I do see it, it almost always comes up as the Magic Vs. Technology dichotomy and how it usually relates to the original inhabitants vs. newcomers aspect of most Westerns. Guns, Trains, etc. are the technology that the newcomers are bringing with them and the original inhabitants have the magic (and who invents high technology when they’ve had magic all along?). So that gets pulled up into the whole PC mess as well. AKA, the new technology is getting rid of the old magic and isn’t that so sad because there’s something to the old magic the new technology can’t do…

    Yeah… I kinda avoid that genre for my own sanity…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My historical perspective is one of aggressive American nationalism. I regret nothing we did to the Germans to secure victory against the Third Reich. Which is common enough, yet my ultimate reason is that there was a state of war between Germany and the United States and the traditional way of my people is not to spare any effort in America’s quarrels. In Anime fandom, it is not polite to advertise my views about the Pacific war. You can be sure I have the same sentiment for all wars America has fought. (Well, I’m not entirely convinced of the purpose behind the occupation of the Philippines. (The War on Poverty does not count, but I would not resort in mass murder in a futile effort to win it.))

      I would point out again that the Great Plains Indians rebuilt their way of life around the horse, which was introduced by the Spanish. If one goes with a vacuum model of settlement, there is no reason which the significantly lower density culture can’t also have been heavily changed by foreign influences. Like if someone introduced dragons. For example, some bunch got their hands on dragons and started raiding everyone on the continent. Then, settlers from another continent bring in counter, which are a significantly more effective counter to dragons.

      The potential is limited only by the creativity brought to bear.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. As far as magic goes, for an Old West theme I mean, perhaps you should be looking at a bias in favour of long-term magic that’s slow and powerful – thus meaning no fast, effective combat magics (except potion-grenades maybe?), so requiring guns/knives as actual weapons.
    Like say, for example, a resonance magic to set or break minor shields takes a week to build to required levels. The longer the shield is set up the more power it will take to break it – more than anyone can draw on even in a group, because the power-differential is exponential based around the length of time the shield has been set.
    I guess what I’m saying is make Time the major requirement around which all spells must function or you only get a combat cantrip that acts like a needle prick – doing nothing useful.

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  7. If you look into some of the scholarship (blogs) about the original implied Dungeons and Dragons setting, there’s a lot of reason to suspect inspiration by the settling of the North American continent in general and Westerns. Rules for becoming noble were a) get to name level, something like 9 b) build a stronghold out in the wilderness c) clear the area of threats d) settlers move in and start paying taxes. I understand that this was before they pulled androids from the opposing forces list, when the random encounters most likely to wreck you were the rough men. As in, well before they made the worldbuilding changes that resulted in some of their steady state Official Settings. (North America was pretty close to a vacuum due to a recent mass die off. ‘Points of light’ is implied in the original D&D setting, and is pretty close to that.)

    I’ve a teensy bit of knowledge of Western (frontier not civ) history. I’m not at all convinced you can’t mine it without needing the bounds of the western genre. IIRC Celia Hayes and maybe TXRed have some things to say about parts of western frontier history that have not been used much in Westerns.

    Some aspects of Westerns may be tied to time and place. A lot of them are set post ACW, which was a sucky war. (Fewer Americans died in WWI and WWII, and those also had significant impact on entertainment.) Lots of veterans, lots of land opened up* once the free state-slave state feud wasn’t blocking things, and die hard confederates robbing banks and trains for the funds for the next rebellion. A historical romance might be set in Ireland under Cromwell without implying things about the feel of historical romance in general.

    My knowledge of the Western genre is weak. I’ve only read a little L’Amor. Are you counting L’Amor towards the feel of Westerns? He has a fair amount of pre Civil War stuff.

    Anyway, there were frontiers in North America from, IIRC, the 1600s** to the late nineteenth century. There’s lots of space to draw from that isn’t as tied to the tragedy of a civil war that happens to be the bloodiest in our entire history. Drake’s Nathan is one example, but I’d guess not what you are after.

    I thinking reading the opinions of people at the time would show a lot more optimism and hope than reading the history written by moderns who are distant enough from the Indian wars that the torture and stuff doesn’t bother them. (Indians is a very broad category, just like whites. Very wide range of customs. The Great Plains Indians was a narrower grouping, with a lot more customs in common. Some of them perhaps very recent, that whole lifestyle started when the Spanish brought the horse, and made it viable.)

    I suspect you can safely abandon the nostalgia and regret.

    *I may be wrong here, this is my own thoughts, and I haven’t any citations at all to back it up.

    **Probably way off here, I haven’t checked the timeline of how far back. Plus I’m ignoring the Spanish in Mexico.

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      1. Looking at the social impact of the Indian wars on Americans, the Spanish wars against the Aztec triple alliance were not hugely influential. The most significant early influences are probably those of the early east coast settlements that lasted.

        Okay, wars between the Spanish and Hispanized Mexicans and Indians are relevant. But the Spanish had just finished fighting off the Moors, I’m not sure the Aztec conflict would have been anywhere near as influential on their later conflicts. Of course, I am hugely ignorant of that subject.

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  8. One of the things I get a lot of from Western-genre stuff is isolation. You’ve got the lone gunslinger trope, you’ve got farms and homesteads and ranches out by themselves, where you have to make a Trip into the closest town, you’ve got a lot of people passing through. You also tend to get the non-physical social isolation of people running from their pasts or otherwise keeping secrets for one reason or another.

    A lot of fantasy I see, on the other hand, is more about groups and forging connections and how the strength of the group accomplishes more than the individual.

    Ironically, I think the Magnificent Seven would blend moderately well with fantasy tropes, but you’ve still got a lot of individualism going on with each of the eponymous seven.

    [/two cents]

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  9. There are few good “Westerns and Magic” books (IMHO). Those I have read include “Six Gun Tarot” by Belcher, “Territory” by Emma Bull, “Savha” by Charles deLint, the “Thirteenth Child” and follow ons by Patrician Wrede, and (oddly enough) “Sacred Ground” by Mercedes Lackey. There are several other shaman plus North American Indian detective books but I’ll be darned if I can find them in my library. I found those missing from my library (read – deleted for limited book shelf space) detective books – well – equivocal. I like my mysteries to remain mysteries. Not explained away by “It could be indigestion. (Really?F**k you!)” “Territory” is the best of the lot by far followed by “Savha”. I’ve been waiting for “Claim” (“Territory” follow on) for many many years. *sigh*

    I’ve always wondered at the dearth of “Westerns and Magic” myself. It seems a natural pair up. Partly because the Indians attempted to defeat the Western migration of European peoples *by* magic (see Ghost Dance). I’ve often wondered if the lack of stories was a result of 1) the Indian defeat (nose rub anyone?) and 2) the historic record.

    Personally, I *love* a good western. I grew up on Zane Grey and Max Brand after all.

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  10. I don’t have much experience with Westerns, though I can see what you mean about regret and nostalgia. One thing I have noticed, the darker bits seem to come from cowboys and towns. Settlers though, even with all the danger and trouble, seem to have a bit more light to them. Hope and curiosity, looking to the future instead of the past or present.

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  11. Also, range wars. The history of internal violence in America is quite interesting.

    One could speculate that the occurrence of range wars during the times when Westerns are often set may have something to do with taking the two biggest armies on the continent, disbanding one and shrinking the other. If you don’t duplicate that assumption, you may have an entirely different situation as far as conflicts go.

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    1. Range wars and magic…. cattlemen using curses against the sheepmen’s livestock and vice-versa?

      Hexing farmers’ fences so they can’t keep out the herds?

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I went through a period reading genre Westerns and the only writers who stuck as worth reading were L’amour (he did his homework – Zane Grey, and some Max Brand. None were particularly nostalgic that I remember. More loners and working together and doing the right thing.

    Fantasy set in the ‘old West’ that I’ve read, or with that feel, should you wish to take a look: (in more or less chronlogical order of publication/reading)

    Midori Snyder Flight of Michael McBride Person flees NY, NY pursued by fairies to the old West.

    O.S. Card Alvin Maker I only ever read the first two, but they were very Western in feel, and the magic of ‘knacks’ and the rest seemed to fit the setting better than most.

    CJ Cherryh Rider duology. Feels like Westerns, although actually set on an alien planet. Got the mounted loners who go into the wilderness and protect the townies. Along with bond critters… I’ve heard them described as the product of CJC reading one too many Valdemar-type novels and deciding to write what it would really be like to have a bond critter.

    Ben Galley Bloodrush irritating 14 year old noble sent from England to aunt who works as undertaker in Wyoming. Blood magic, and weirdness.

    Kyra Halland Wildings a bit much on the romance & sex magic side for me, but magic users in a Western setting working for freedom from the tyrannical magic users of the coast. Type/feel of magic varies with territory and if you’re born there you’re more compatible with the local magic. Guns and magic and powers.

    Joe Lansdale has written some I’ve never read.

    Laura Ann Gilmore Silver on the Road and the sequel, set west of the Mississippi in ‘the Devil’s Territory”. Subtle powers. It’s more like a ballad Devil than Devil/Satan/Lucifer.

    Bujold’s Lakewalker quartet … err… Sharing Knife feels like westerns, with the Lakewalkers being the Indians and the cowboys. Clashes between settlers and the non-settled. Set on fantasy Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

    I don’t know if Zelazny’s Eye of Cat qualifies or not. POV is a Navajo out of time due to starship travel.

    something is knocking at the door of memory but not coming through about a book using the powers of the land of America…. anyone???

    Patricia Wrede’s Frontier Magic set.

    And then there’s Hillerman’s Navajo set mysteries which treat Navajo beliefs seriously.

    Anyway, I hope some of this helps work out what works, what doesn’t.

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  13. oh,and Emma Bull’s Territory featuring Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Tombstone AZ. i didn’t like it much, but others really do. Earp and others are magic users.

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  14. Speaking of Westerns, Neil Gaiman did a pretty good speech about the conventions of genre, including a bit on the distinction between writing a Western and writing a novel set in the American West. It’s got some interesting deliberations that might give you a few ideas. I think it’s on his website, and it’s also in The View From the Cheap Seats.

    On the fantasy note, a webcomic called Thunderbird does a very interesting blend of the Wild West and high fantasy. It may not precisely be what you’re looking for, but it also might help a bit. A lot of the characters are mythical creatures, and part of the setting is that a whole bunch of European critters migrated to America as well – elves, sphinxes etc. Link here: http://thunderbirdcomic.com

    Hope this helps!

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  15. I think it starts to become a thing where what you consider a Western would likely effect what you want to do. Unforgiven(which is an amazing movie, period) wouldn’t mix well with most higher fantasy settings(Though I do like the point of view that one character isn’t human anymore), something set during the Spaghetti Western period would be quite different then something like Shawn or Showdown at the OK Corral. Or heck, technically something like The Adventures of Grizzly Adams might suit what you’re going for better! If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a mountain man who befriends a Grizzly and through that, life on the edge of nowhere, but is fairly light hearted most of the time.

    And while they’re mostly considered children books now, Little House on the Prairie series had quite a bit of that living on the edge of civilization going on, though it is written from the point of view of the child which ignores some of the other serious issues that were going on around her.

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    1. Yep, which actually feeds into it(a lot of people headed West to escape convictions, both genuine and not.) There’s the movie and the series, I grew up mostly with the series, the movie is a bit darker, but still not depressing.

      To note, most of the John the Balladeer stories are set between 1920-1940 in the Appalachians(the one exception, amusingly, is a vampire story set when he’s twelve, you’d like the use of folklore there.) Wellman did write a very few “frontier” stories(More Oklahoma and that area, rather then what most people think of the old west), most of which are collected in the Fearful Rock and other Precarious collections book(which hopefully you could get through a library.)

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  16. Try ‘the gods are bastards’ , its a fairly good Western High Fantasy online novel.
    It tells the tale of a group of novice ‘adventurers’ after the ‘age of adventures’ is over and the ‘west’ is being civilized.

    Its near a million words i think, so make sure to have a few days to read through it all.

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  17. Try Patricia C Wrede’s Frontier Magic series. It not only deals with Frontier, it has in-universe blending and not blending of different Magic systems. The first one is Thirteenth Child.

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  18. Could you move north, away from the Great Plains towards the Canadian forests? That frontier developed differently for quite a while (if I remember right). And maybe reread the *Last of the Mohicans’ serie? That always had a ‘enchanted forest’ hint of feel to me. Some of Karl Mays’ too (guilty secret).

    (you guys are on the wrong side of the puddle from my point of view. . . though I could give some notes on Russia and the steppes)

    Still, Wendigos! Bear spirits! People that can track a canoe through water! (actually possible, at least in lakes. so weird.)

    Wait, what about the Silver John stories? I haven’t read most of them, but that’s frontier magic if anything.

    Flavia
    (bv97045)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ever run into The Cowboy and the Cossack by Huffaker? 16 cowboys taking longhorns through the steppes, escorted by Cossacks. it made enough impression I remember bits even 20 years after reading it…

      My mind is insisting I need to add this to the pot, and I don’t know why, but… Land spirits that I’ve run across tend to be really really nasty. There’s one associated with the Grand Canyon, another with Mt Diablo in California, and another – sort of a nasty phoenix – with Everest. And I can’t think how modern tech could quickly deal with them. Earthmoving, dams, that sort of thing might, but it’s all time consuming and the entity would fight back.

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  19. Maybe the hint of regret is from a lot of people’s tendency when they look back to play “what if?” or otherwise wonder what might have been. Or focus too much on the parts that sucked and very little on the parts that were good or happy.

    Maybe people are leery of Frontier type settings because of the difficulty of navigating the minefield of Unfortunate Implications and the other Cans O Worms that liter the landscape.

    Or when most people think frontier setting anymore, they think “In Space!” – probably all those narrators telling them it’s the final frontier.

    Now I think you can mix pretty much any genre you want and make it optimist if you wish (the exceptions being stuff that is supposed to be dark and depressing).

    And the setting does lend itself to stuff like adventure.

    Your rag-tag bunch of misfits all ended up in X place for reasons and choices of their own and need to work together to survive X. Because the weather, animals, and leftover mess from the apocalypse (maybe that mess if why no one else has decided to live in that place – you’d have to be crazy or desperate or both to live near that) is all trying to kill you and the rest of the settlers.

    Maybe one of the dangers is dangerous simply because it cannot be harmed by magic. You have to use non-magic weapons on it. And it’s big / scary enough that most people aren’t willing to tackle it.

    One point to remember about early guns – most of them were inaccurate as heck. And until smokeless powder was invented, made a lot of smoke.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Frontier period’ covers a lot of developments that had an effect on accuracy. (Blah, blah, blah, precision versus accuracy.)

      From memory of Tunis’ Weapons read at age ten, the Kentucky Rifle was a muzzle loading black powder weapon that shot a round ball. Yet the round ball was wrapped in leather ‘patches’, which let it pick up spin from the grooves coming out the barrel and at the same time was quicker and easier to shove down the barrel in the first place.

      In the hands of an expert, a Kentucky Rifle could hit things. Though it was perhaps more an in between firearm than an early firearm or a late firearm.

      A big practical difference between that and a repeating breech loading rifle that shot a minie ball, which is what we now think of as a bullet shape. Those can hold spin better than a round ball of same diameter, so likely go a longer range spinning before they start tumbling. Plus aerodynamics.

      There’s a book whose name and author I forget that does a much better job of explaining internal and external ballistics than I can.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, Frontier period did spurn a lot of development for better accuracy and better precision – probably because you don’t want to shot at a grizzy bear or a mountain lion . . . and miss. Buffalo are tanks with hooves so don’t want to miss there either.

        Depends on what year and what the characters have access to . . . plus if this is a post-apocalyptic setting, what information has been lost and regained.

        Liked by 1 person

  20. I don’t know much about Westerns, but I’ve never really pictured that those decades as regretful or nostalgic, more of a time full of changes, excitement, and uncertainties. Apparently, it was also a lot safer in the West then is shown in popular culture, with smaller towns and an abundance of weaponry leading to fewer crimes.

    What fictional westerns I have read tend to fall under the genre heading of Weird Western, which usually have an element of horror added to their supernatural. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WeirdWest
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deadlands

    Maybe a lot of the horror comes into western because of the focus. Fantasy seems to focuses on the beautiful elements of the world. Maybe westerns, like noirs, focus more of the grit of people and the world?

    Either way, I hope these could be helpful, as setting info if nothing else. You send to pick things apart in interesting ways.

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  21. ……..”There’s no sense in going further — it’s the edge of cultivation,”
    So they said, and I believed it — broke my land and sowed my crop —
    Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
    Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop:

    Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
    On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated — so:
    “Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges —
    “Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and wating for you. Go!”…….

    Maybe Westerns seem nostalgic because frontiers rarely are permanent?

    Liked by 1 person

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