A to Z 2017: Quests

My A-Z Blogging theme is to cover 26 touch-me-not categories of fiction writing. These are frequently the trouble spots which can be useful components of the story if handled properly, but when rushed through, can cause all kinds of trouble. While the genre is fantasy, the tips can apply to anything, from romance to literary fiction.

Enjoy!

While exploring the ruins of an old castle, Mordekai and his sister Monique accidentally destroy an old tower only to find themselves in a different place, or time, entirely. Then a giant goat crashes through the wall and carries Mordekai off, leaving Monique with the unpredictable Princess Mural. They begin their journey to a nearby abbey while Mordekai is taken to the villains’ fortress, but the abbey turns out to be loyal to her uncle. Early the next morning, the abbot sends both women off to join Mordekai in the fortress where Mural’s uncle awaits.

Q: Quests

Mordekai decided something had to be done, and quickly. He figured now that Mural’s uncle was there, the goats would be so busy seeing to his needs that they couldn’t possibly watch him, right?

Wrong. The moment he started making more noise in his room, trying his shoulder against the door and picking at the grain along the edge, they started banging on the outside in rhythmic thump-thump-thumps that even he could translate. I wonder if I could get them to break down the door from the outside. But he decided that couldn’t possibly be helpful. He’d be stuck with a live goat who wanted to silence him, without weapons–and besides, the goat could undoubtedly warn the others that he was out. No, I need to sneak away, somehow.

He turned his back to the door and began examining the rest of the room. There was nothing beneath the straw. He moved it, sweeping the flags with the palms of his hands, but there were no cracks. No fissures. No signs of secret trap doors or other convenient ways out.

So he began feeling his way along the walls, and pressing against the various stones. He didn’t really believe anything would come of it, but he would feel better, knowing he’d tried everything.

Then he pressed against a particularly knobby one, about eye level, and he felt the wall next to him give way. It didn’t collapse like the tower earlier, but the rocks suddenly lacked substance. It must be magic, he decided as he pulled back. It could lead to another trap–after all, the goats had left it there–or they might not know it existed. They can’t exactly reach that high. He eyed the entire wall for a moment before drawing himself up, taking a deep breath, and pressing against the stone again.

For a moment, nothing happened, and he began wondering if he’d imagined the whole thing. Or worse, had lost his chance.

But then the wall changed again and he walked on through to face whatever new dangers awaited.


Fantasy stories are full of quests–go rescue this person, capture this castle, get this relic, etc., etc. So what make up these quests? They can’t all be journeys to Mount Doom or explorations to map the high seas, nor can they always be “go rescue someone who’s been captured,” because eventually, the readers are going to see through your plots and wonder what is wrong with the world you’ve created to where everyone gets kidnapped and captured.

So here are four elements that make up a quest:

  • They need to matter. A real quest needs to be larger than “going to the grocery store to get food so you have something to eat for dinner.” There should be definite stakes involved (like death or injury or loss) and real reasons not to go on the quest in the first place, because avoiding a problem is definitely something your characters will have to face at some point (and can be more tempting than many other obstacles to their quest).
  • They should be connected to the world of the society. Most of the time, quests are about someone  else besides the one going on the quest: a family member, a nation, the whole civilized world, etc.  Unless you go on a self-centered quest to save yourself, you usually are out to rescue and help someone else, and you have the choice to not go at all (see above).
  • They don’t define your characters. Heroes are ordinary people who are given extraordinary tasks and still manage to pull them off. They can’t just be “giant-slayers” and “super-fighters.” They have to have personal dreams, tastes, and preferences. If you were given a task to do that would save someone or discover something, would it alter who you were the rest of the time? (Which brings us to the next point…)
  • They shouldn’t last forever. There should be a definite beginning, middle, and an end to a quest. If evil can be defeated, one should have a good idea of what that defeat would look like, even if your characters can’t imagine it ever happening.

Admittedly, Mordekai’s quest to get out is rather small, but in many ways, it’s a microcosm of all quests. There are stakes (like getting killed if he stays, or having his sister and the princess killed if he remains locked up where he can’t do anything). There are stages to the quest, where he tries one thing and then another. He doesn’t instantly know how to solve the quest, and your characters shouldn’t either (unless they are expert questers…at which point, how much are they risking by going on this quest?). And there is a definite end to the quest (either failure or, in this case, getting out).

One quest can lead to another, though, and often does in a series. Get the ring to Rivendell and you find out you have more to do. 🙂

Until the next letter,

Andrea

 

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo courtesy of gratisography

3 thoughts on “A to Z 2017: Quests

  1. Well, I personally think quests need to be very flexible, nowaday, because they had been done so much in fantasy (they are a staple of fantasy storytelling, actually) that there needs to be room to make a quest a new experience.

    In the 1980s, David Gemmell wrote a book which was consciously intended to defy all the points you made above. Quest for Lost Heroes is the quest of a group of unlikely hearoes on a quest that only matters to them and has no impact on the their world whatsoever. It’s all about personal growth and facing one’s own ghosts.

    I think that, as writers of fantasy, we need to be aware of this kind of tropes, because they define the genre, but we must be willing to explore them in many new ways.

    @JazzFeathers
    The Old Shelter – 1940s Film Noir

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    1. How interesting! I’d be curious whether that managed to be a quest rather than just a journey of self discovery. The former usually involves some element of sacrifice while the latter can be all about self expression and self indulgence. But you’re right; fantasy can and has gotten quest happy, to where having a big, sweeping quest has become the focus…which is why I think we need to examine what makes a quest a quest, because even little things that matter to a far smaller group can be a quest (or, as you said, something that matters to just one can be a quest, if handled properly).

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      1. I read the booke many many years ago, but I remember there was a journey to build the fellowship, then a journey to a particular place and a battle. I mean, all the elements of the traditional quest were there.
        But – if I remember – the focus wasn’t on how the quest turned our ‘on the outside’, but more how it turned out ‘on the inside’, how it changed the characters and what these characters were willing to give for a goal they had chosen to pursue.
        Quite intersting, if you ask me 🙂

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