Writing a Space Western: How to Write Cowboys in Space

When writing a story in the space western genre, consider the following elements:

The space western is a niche subgenre of sci fi that pulls elements of classic American cowboy movies and blends these tropes with space age exploration and technology.  Often, space westerns blend the idea of pioneering out West with space exploration.  Outlaws, poker, laser blasters and escaping authorities—except on a cosmic scale.

However, let’s break down what sci fi elements mix with what Western elements to make the most compelling setting and story.

Western Hero Tropes.

Sure, the space exploration part seems straight forward.  But what makes up the western part of the space western?

Bring on the cowboy tropes.  Westerns shine when it comes to character development, unafraid to dive into morally complicated protagonists. Plus, rugged and adventurous cowboys come in several characterizations that translate well to science fiction.  A few popular ideas are:

  • The Misunderstood Outlaw: Everyone has a backstory, and people can be pushed to kill or be killed.  The misunderstood outlaw can be a Robinhood-like character, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor—including him or herself. Naturally, the outlaws in space will rob transport spaceships the way old-fashioned cowboys robbed trains.
  • The Bounty Hunter with a Past: This character is sick of fighting but is good at it.  Cooler than your typical good-guy sheriff, this morally ambiguous character has tons of room for growth.  However, a spark of justice is there.
  • Dead Man’s Walk: This is the old gun fighter that has nothing left to live for.  Often, this hero finds something worth fighting for and ends up dying for it.  The ending is bittersweet, as the protagonist can finally be at peace with his or her past.
  • Revenge: Motivated by an unjust loss of a loved one, the revenge plot is common for cowboy protagonists.

Similar to borrowing heroes, we can borrow villain archetypes to populate this futuristic world.  Corrupt capitalists, gang leaders and authority figures can make for strong antagonists—even in a spectacular cosmic setting.

Themes of Exploration and Isolation

A major theme both sci fi and westerns share is exploration.

Cowboys made a dangerous living in a wild land—that’s part of the allure.  Whether bounty hunting, robbing trains or actually herding cattle, they had to be hardcore.  Traditional westerns take place in an expansive American landscape.  Mountains, deserts, forests and rolling planes give the reader or viewer an expansive setting.  They slept under the sky with endless stars above their heads.

However, this expansive setting also adds to the sense of loneliness and isolation.  Regular working cowboys moved herds across massive distances on horseback—a huge expedition across this landscape.  An outlaw character may be on the run, unable to return to civilization on threat of a hanging.  On the other hand, a sheriff or bounty hunter may be on the trail of such an outlaw.  Either way, there’s a reason cowboys sing sad songs.

Naturally, space also carries a sense of expansion and loneliness.  Traversing the cosmos and building outposts on lonely planets sets up familiar western tropes and expands them.  For writers who want to explore loneliness or desperate survival stories, lean into this shared trope.

How Does Technology Push Human Expansion?

Humans have a need to explore.  We’ve been doing it always.

However, the creation of technology both drives the need for and ability to discover new resources.  For example, drills are used to find iron and iron is used to make drills.  Now, humans can tunnel underground to discover new elements along with the iron.  We’ve all played Minecraft, right?

The push to colonize America from Europe was directly due to the resources available to exploit.  Everything from gold to wood was sought after to enrich these powerful kingdoms.  Obviously, this has sinister and predatory reality to it, as if there weren’t already civilizations on the land.  This continued into western expansion of the Americas, causing conflict and destruction on its course.

Be aware of how colonization affects native communities.

This can be used as a powerful tool for social commentary if you want to explore that subtext.  In a sci fi context, this can be explored with native alien communities on life-sustaining planets—such as James Cameron’s Avatar.

On the other hand, you could avoid it altogether with uninhabited planets.  For example, humans may have colonized and terraformed Mars in your story.  Now, pods of mineral miners and scientists dot the vast desert landscape.

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Arid/Desolate Setting

Mars is a fantastic example of a solid space western setting.  Most planets out there are going to be rough and arid.  We got a bit lucky with Earth.  Just a little closer or further away from the sun can have drastic impacts on the nature of the planet.

Therefore, lean into these desert planets as settings.  Of course, deserts have an allure of their own, outside of being merely empty of vegetation.  Think Tatooine from Star Wars and how much that added to Han Solo’s cowboy flavor when we meet the character in a desert cantina.  Plus, it helps to sandblast the surrounding structures, vehicles and clothing worn and add some rustic flavor to otherwise high-tech objects.

Of course, the desert isn’t the only kind of desolate setting.  Icy or rocky planets could add that extra ruggedness to the environment.  Even the inside of an old transport ship can add give the sense that these characters are scraping together a life out of very little.

To sum it up

Loneliness, exploration and the nature of the wild are common western tropes that fit well in a sci fi story.  However, remember all the powerful inner stories of revenge, retribution and salvation that have been developed in the western genre.

What are your characters feelings on conquest, capitalism and justice?  Do they have demons to put to rest?