I tend not to think too heavily about fantasy conventions. Part of that is because I was a Creative Writing Major in college…which essentially means I was an English Lit major who also took a bunch of writing workshops. That means I dissected the ever-loving hell out of every piece of significant fiction written in the past 4,867 years, and determined that a) everything ever written has a secret meaning that even the author wasn’t cognizant of when he or she wrote it, and b) Marxists make the best arguments.
Anyways, I try not to think about those things while I write. Except quests. I love me a good quest.
What’s a quest, you ask? Well, I could give you the long answer or the short answer…let’s start with the long answer.
Wikipedia (which, as we all know, is infallible, and filled with nothing but fact) defines the heroic quest as follows:
In mythology and literature, a quest, a journey towards a goal, serves as a plot device and (frequently) as a symbol. Quests appear in the folklore of every nation and also figure prominently in non-national cultures. In literature, the objects of quests require great exertion on the part of the hero, and the overcoming of many obstacles, typically including much travel. The aspect of travel also allows the storyteller to showcase exotic locations and cultures (an objective of the narrator, not of the character).
Well, I think Wikipedia hit the nail on the head with that one.
Quests are a staple of fantasy literature, largely because they serve such a broad purpose. Think about it: your small-town farmboy hero has to travel to the other side of the world, a place filled with exotic and powerful creatures, find a powerful sword (or axe, or pop-gun, or rutabaga, or whatever) and destroy an ancient evil (or God, or black lion, or Teletubby…again, whatever). Look at the possibilities!
- He’s leaving the element of the familiar, likely traveling with a mixture of old friends and new acquaintances, some of whom are bound to be mysterious and exotic. The various members of the party often represent something about the protagonist that he needs to come to terms with.
- He’s seeing new and strange lands and creatures. Besides showing off the author’s creativity, these scenes – which make up the bulk of any good quest – also often serve as deeper metaphors themselves, as each land or creature is often representative of a real-world land or culture or religion or belief, and the author is usually making some sort of statement or observation about the human condition through what the protagonist sees and experiences in these places.
- The hero transforms. This is probably the most important part of the quest. The protagonist must learn about himself, and learn to interact with the world (a metaphor for venturing into adulthood, maturation, etc.). Often a near death experience is involved, but after this near death the hero is closer to the man/woman he/she needs to be.
- The climactic battle with evil. In the 90s, this part of the quest took a bit of a turn, as at about 100 pages from the end of the novel the hero actually completes the initial quest and then is handed a brief but important “mini-quest” that sees him take on a quick task and face the evil. (“Eye of the World”, “The Dragonbone Chair”, “Wizard’s First Rule”, and others all followed this variation on the quest trope.)
- The journey home. Usually this is the aim at the beginning of the second book in the epic fantasy series, but doesn’t actually happen until the end of Book 3 (if a trilogy) or somewhere in Book 4 or 5 (if an ongoing series). Because there’s a whole lot of world out there to explore.
I’m a big fan of world building, so I love epic quests. I don’t think it’s necessarily a formula that needs to be followed to the letter, but I think a lot can be learned from it, and aspiring world builders could certainly do worse than give a virtual tour of their creation from the character’s point of view.
So that’s the long definition of “what is a quest?”. The short answer?
“What is a quest?”
See Lord of the Rings.