Thursday, March 31, 2011

Compelling Characters, Altered Attitudes

Westerns. For years, especially when I was a kid, hearing the word made me groan out loud. The thought of having to sit through one made me tired and fidgety. Dad loved to watch his westerns. And since he controlled the remote, that’s what we were watching. Oh, we could protest all we wanted. But the channel wasn’t changing. All we knew for sure was that we had two choices: watch the western, or go outside and play. Maybe dad kept the channel on westerns for just that reason. Kids who opted to go outside, left him with a quiet house.

Regardless of how much I tried to avoid it, I ended up sitting through several westerns. From 20s to 80s, grainy black and white, to Technicolor that wasn’t quite right, I must have seen every one made. Kirk Douglas, James Stewart, Jack Palance, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, and of course John Wayne were frequent ‘guests’ in the house.

‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ (1949)

I’ve always loved movies. But I wouldn’t buy, rent, or go to the theater to see a western on purpose. Occasionally I’d happen to see one I liked. Westerns with Tom Selleck or Tommy Lee Jones were the first I thought were watchable. In 1988, I fell into teenage lust with the actors, mostly Kiefer Sutherland, in ‘Young Guns’.

‘Young Guns’ (1988)

Good, bad, and ugly (pun intended), I’ve seen several westerns. They were never more than movies. Even the ones I liked didn’t make me eager to see a western when I saw a trailer for a new film.

Until the 2007 remake of ‘3:10 to Yuma’…

‘3:10 to Yuma’ (2007)

It came, I saw…again and again and again. Maybe the fact that Russell Crowe is one of my favorite actors had some bearing on my love of the new western in my life. Okay, he had a lot to do with it. But aren’t actors one of the reasons we choose to see or not see a movie? A good actor makes a character believable. A great actor makes a character memorable.

Before getting into a film, a novel, or short story, characters need to be developed and thoughtfully written. A well-written character has strengths, weaknesses, and a uniqueness that makes them hard to stop watching. Of course the traits characters of book, film, and television are often exaggerated. One of my lead characters has a vast amount of wealth…and husbands (yes, husbands; plural). She also has a profound lack of trust and patience that causes a constant source of grief in her life. It’s tempting to readjust her personality in order to cut down on the drama. But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? And there’s nothing compelling about a ‘Mary Sue’ character. That all-too-perfect, one-dimensional heroine who has no faults and not a person who doesn't adore her completely. (Want to find out if you’re writing a Mary Sue? Try this test: )

As a writer, the last genre I thought I would ever be pursuing was a western. But, one of my characters originated from an idea for a western and she remains one of my favorite and most well-developed characters.

The character Ben Wade in ‘3:10 to Yuma’ is a dangerous outlaw with a tendency to kill for personal gain or just for being antagonized by the wrong person. His character is revealed to have been abandoned at a young age; which lends to a sense of justification for his criminal life. Though self-proclaimed to be ‘rotten as hell’, the character’s actions show evidence of his age and experience, a weariness of the life he’s led, and the small sacrifices he makes in favor of the other characters.

The film ‘3:10 to Yuma’ changed my attitude towards westerns and the way I approached the genre. I’ve since found compelling and memorable characters in both television and film:

Appaloosa’ (2008) On-screen chemistry between Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris give their characters a believable sense of familiarity and brotherhood.

‘Deadwood’ (TV Series 2004-2006) The superbly developed characters asked the question “How often can the word ‘c*cksucker’ be said in an hour?” and gave a whole new meaning to cursing a blue streak.

‘Justified’ (TV Series 2010- infinity) ‘Deadwood’ may have been un-justly cancelled, but Timothy Olyphant and his Stetson have new life in ‘cowboy cool’ Marshal Raylan Givens.

What characters have changed your mind, turned you in a new and unexpected direction?


  1. I've always loved westerns. I grew up watching reruns of Gene Autry and The Lone Ranger. Now 3:10 to Yuma is by far my fav followed by Tombstone. I'll be your huckleberry :)

    Great post Pixie! *sighs Ben :)

  2. I've seen very few Westerns in my day, having a similar attitude to yours and a father who rather prefered Elvis movies... but I totally see how eye candy and great character development change the equation.

  3. I love your site and as I browsed your blog I decided to award you the Creative Blog Award.

    Go to and pick up your award.


  4. I grew up on Westerns, loved loved loved them. But now I can barely stand to watch one! I guess I overdosed.

    New follower here. Nice to meet you!


  5. I had some serious teenage lust for Lou Diamond Phillips in Young Guns. (How embarrassing!)

  6. I loved Deadwood - and Timothy Olyphant's not bad either;)

  7. @Hart: My mom and dad both loved Elvis movies. I'm still a fan of his music and movies.

    @Deidre: Thanks Deidre! I love your blog, too.

    @Karen: Nice to meet you! And thanks for following.

    @B's Mom: Don't be embarrassed! Lou is worthy of a bit of teenage lust.

    @mshatch: Timothy Olyphant is a new discovery for me. I am so happy! I loved "Deadwood"; it'll be the next series I buy on DVD.

  8. I grew up with a mom addicted to both John Wayne and Elvis Presley, so I had the best of both worlds. She was also a Clint Eastwood fan. Still, I have to be in the mood for a Western, though I'm excited at the changes they've been bringing to it (for instance, Cowboys vs. Aliens). But why I had to reply was because I was like a crush monster when it came to Young Guns. I pretty much had a crush on everyone but Spittin' Steve (as we called him) and the pugilist (can't remember his name). Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez and Kiefer Sutherland...HOT!

    I think it was Unforgiven that got me back into Westerns, though.

    Good luck with the A to Z Challenge!