In western fiction, there is an archetype character of the gunslinger/gunfighter. Stephen King used this archetype for his Dark Tower series and took it to a sci-fi/fantasy level.
Beyond the guy in a wide-brimmed hat, jeans, button-down shirt and the quintessential gun belt bearing the load of one or two guns depending on the character, there are other subtleties that nuance the use of this character in fiction.
First, there is the lone gunman. Lone Wolf McQuade is an example of this trope. He is perfectly self-sufficient, but what he and this character trope need to learn is that he will need backup, a.k.a. friends.
There is the gunman who takes on a hopeless cause, or the cause of the underdog, as in The Magnificent Seven. This character is open to learning whatever individual lesson needed, but they serve the greater purpose of teaching the lesson to defend the defenseless. This is an alternative to Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman and the adage, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Then there is the gunslinger from the bad guy’s side. Ironically, the white hat. This guy always works for someone else, never makes key decisions, and always gets paid. Money and pride drive this character, two historically disdained traits. They are short-lived or selfish characters.
These are the basic archetypes that are combined with different traits to create characters.
But when a “good-guy” character falls in with a dangerous crowd, what do we think? How are we supposed to perceive this character?
Historically, the genre always portrayed the main character as knowing their way. Think of Ayn Rand and her main characters. They are as they always will be at the outset of the story.
Real heroes, and gunslingers, don’t always make the right choices, not in real-life.
In the 1990s, westerns made a shift from being only morality plays to being an insight into humanity. I think Clint Eastwood is due credit for actually marking this transition with Unforgiven, though John Wayne fans will justifiably say that The Searchers was truly a pioneer story in the warrior’s humanization and showed the effects on someone unable to take off their armor.
Wayne was ahead of his time.
In some ways, the old standard of an immutable character benefits storytelling. It is an unadulterated, emotionless imparting of a moral code, something that the old westerns are well-known for.
One example from the 1990s is Tall Tale with Patrick Swayze, Roger Aaron Brown and Oliver Platt starring as the tall tale characters Pecos Bill, John Henry (not John Hancock who prominently signed the Declaration of Independence), and Paul Bunyan respectively.
The main character, Daniel Hackett (Nick Stahl), learns to stand up for the land against mineral and industrial development. Ultimately, the message is to make a stand for what is right as embodied in the saying, “Respect the land. Defend the defenseless.”
Lame as it may sound, that saying motivated me toward many fights in high school.
For those who haven’t read my blog, I started my formal education in a school that placed more emphasis on memorizing Bible verses than anything else. Two girls, whom most agreed were my best friends, except me, were my biggest bullies.
After I transferred to public school for the last three years of high school, I found the student counselor telling me it was best to sit back and let the good kids come to me.
Except I couldn’t sit back and watch kids get verbally pounded.
Her name was Hildegarde. She was far from good-looking and went by her full name. An odd name with a homely face, and she acted like someone habituated to abuse.
Her abuser was J.H., a petite girl with trendy clothes and short hair pinned back with clips at her ears. (Poetically, she looked a lot like Buck’s ex-wife.)
One day in class, J.H. was making fun of Hildegarde for being fat.
Seeing that Hildegarde would not defend herself, I employed the whole “at least she can lose weight” strategy.
“At least she isn’t always going to be a mean person like some people.”
J.H. took it personally, which was how I meant it. Magically, I became her target instead, which was fine, though it was seriously annoying.
I defended a defenseless person, and that was enough for me.
As I emerged into adulthood, I learned that bullying doesn’t stop at high school. Bullying shifts and changes form.
Though some people mellow and mature with age, there are always those who never get knocked down hard enough or often enough to become humble. Every job has that one person who never has enough keeping them from stirring up trouble.
At some point, a person has to just deal with the bullies of life, like in my story about Gators.
Right now, I’m in the best job I could ask for, and still one person wants to take that away from me. The difference between my early twenties and now is that I have better strategies to deal with them.
The best thing, though, is knowing that I will not get fired at a moment’s notice for something as petty as missing a spot on an ambulance when washing it. (Thanks Walmart for cementing that complex!)
Now, people have my back, and I know it. Like Daniel Hackett, I have a handful of legends teaching and guiding me. For once, I can say, I have mentors, and that is worth its weight in confidence.