When Good People Do Bad Things, or How the West was NOT won

Recently finished a Western called The Valley of the Dry Bones by Arthur Henry Gooden (1945). I have never read any of Mr. Gooden’s other books, but The Valley Dry Bones began with an amazing protagonist. From the first page, I was rooting for him.

The story is populated with a series of villains, all of them out to get our hero. He has his allies as well, in a pair of cowpokes and a large family of Mexicans, an Indian, a Chinaman and various other characters. If not for one small problem, I would give this book an A+ for plotting. Unfortunately, the author attempted in every way to avoid violence, at least on the part of his main character. While our hero’s attempts to avoid bloodshed are inspirational, this is a western. If guns are blazing and our hero manages (somehow) to avoid killing his assailants, time and time again, we’re going to start wondering if we’re watching an A-Team spaghetti western.

The worst mistake the writer made was in the final scene of the novel, when our hero is cornered by the chief villain, who’s threatening to hog-tie and Columbian necktie him. First, it’s a bit hard to accept that the chief villain has come back to strike our hero, when the chief villain is wanted for murder and in danger of a summary execution by the enraged townspeople. Be that as it may, the chief villain is not brought down by our hero’s bullet or his fist, but by another man’s bullet. The chief villain kills his would-be murderer in the shoot-out, but manages to survive the encounter (presumably to face justice and hanging later). This ending is completely unsatisfying, particularly when our hero was the supposed chosen instrument of justice.

While your hero should never enjoy hurting people, he should be the one punish the evildoers in your story. If you would prefer your hero not to get his hands dirty, arrange a convenient accident to off the villain. In one Western I read recently, the villain was on top of the hero, attempting to thrust a knife into the hero’s chest. The hero escaped death by turning the knife with the blade in the direction of the villain’s chest. When the villain threw his (not inconsiderably) weight on the knife, it went into his own chest. Thus, he was his own murderer. You live by the sword, and you WILL die by it.

Finding the right balance of good and evil in your story is key to reader satisfaction.

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