“I’m going on an adventure!” cried Bilbo, and we went with him.
Quest fantasy as a sub genre includes tales that have a basis in the old Greek epics, fairy tales, and the mythic hero’s journey. There is a quest, a journey to achieve or retrieve something. Books I particularly equate with this genre are the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, and the Dragonlance Saga (particular favourites of mine growing up). The Arthurian myths also often have an element of quest fantasy, particularly those relating to the search for the Holy Grail.
The internal struggle of the character whilst undergoing the literal quest means that the character undergoes a quest for knowledge and self-betterment. The Wizard of Oz involves a literal journey for Dorothy to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West and return home to Kansas. Her internal journey is recognising that she was always strong enough and brave enough and kind enough to win over evil, and that ‘there is no place like home’.
Quest fantasy isn’t as cutting edge or (in some aspects perhaps) as original as other types of fantasy, but there are many aspects of it that make it a perennial favourite of mine.
Quest fantasy often involves a spiritual quest as well as a practical one. The archetypal Hero’s Journey. The hero (or heroes) must seek victory over a great evil (the external struggle) and usually the internal struggle of the hero reflects this. A common trope is often a triangle between the Hero, the Dark Power, and the Female Helper. Although many aspects of this can start to seem cliche, when it is based on archetypes, it often satisfies something in our psyche.
The hero’s journey involves several stages:
The Call to Adventure
A Supernatural Helper
Crossing the Threshold into a Forbidden Place
Achievement of the goal
You can find a more detailed outline of the hero’s journey here.
The archetypal journey appears in many myths and stories. Whatever the role or position of the hero, King or Schoolboy or Space Pilot, the journey has these elements.
Get the Ensemble Together:
The ensemble cast allows for exploring dynamics between characters, and between different characters and the quest. I was discussing this with a friend the other day, whether having lots of characters was something to avoid. There’s a bit of writing advice out there that seems to suggest so, and certainly more of a trend in some genres for a smaller cast tightly narrated in first person. But I always loved the large ensembles when I first started reading fantasy – I think perhaps because there was a larger chance of seeing myself reflected in a character. I read and reread the Dragonlance saga from about the age of 10. I introduced my friend Sarah to them and we became Goldmoon and Laurana. I confess that I was secretly very disappointed that I had to be Goldmoon because at that time the rebellious young Laurana was more appealing. Now I am older I think I have a new appreciation for Goldmoon. This very change in perspective on characters is another bonus of the larger cast – we can see ourselves reflected in them no matter how much time passes.
Lord of the Rings is one of my favourites because not only do I love all the main characters in the fellowship, but their interactions with each other allow for a diversity of experiences to be explored and developed. Another benefit of having a larger cast is that you can split them up and send them to different places, so that the reader is able to find out about what’s happening in different parts of the story but from the perspective of one of the main ensemble.
My first completed draft, Redemption, had its origins in a story that I started in my late teens, heavily influenced by the high fantasy and quest stories that I eagerly devoured (you can find extracts from it on my Snippets Page here). It features a large group of characters (even after cutting some when I first returned to it in 2014) and they travel from place to place in an effort to defeat the big bad. Okay, it’s actually better than that made it sound!
Redemption – A soldier, Anton Baruch, deserts an unjust and genocidal war against the elvish peoples and seeks to find forgiveness and redemption with his family and friends, especially with the elvish woman who has his heart – Alaea. The war is still raging and Anton finds that, with a long hidden gift, he may now be the key to ending it.
One of the reasons I’m still working on it is that I’m trying to synthesise my adult sensibilities with the story that I held so close in my teenage years. I may end up chopping out more characters, or at least rewrite sections to change the point of view, but by this time I love them so much that gets harder to do. And, after all, I still love reading epic quest fantasy.
Quest or Epic Fantasy allows for women in different roles
Strong women warriors and mages have always been a feature of the quest fantasy I read, as well as ethereal elves and sirens. I’ve explored the ideas behind who counts as a Strong Female Character in an earlier blog, so won’t go into detail here, but I do like the fact that the element of journey involved in a quest, and the need to defeat a great evil, allows for a range of female roles that, again, allow for a range of representations.
I also want to say that in mainstream quest fantasy there are not enough representations of non white women (or men), nor enough non-binary genders or sexualities. There are all too often problematic representations of different groups hidden by a veil of ‘the exotic other’. This is often justified by a reference to the traditional format or the medieval European influence, which is nonsense of course. This is FANTASY. Meaning we can write what and who we want (always being aware of problematic tropes like the ‘white saviour’ and the ‘mystical’ person of colour). Diversity in our communities makes us stronger and more interesting, it should be the same in our fiction.
Quest Fantasy often involves a journey, and as such it allows for a wide scape of world building as our heroes encounter different cities, different peoples, different landscapes. This is one of the most wonderful things both as a writer and a reader. To immerse yourself in a fully made up world. Some, like Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay, base much of their world on mythic elements from legend or history, but with their own worlds built around those elements. Others create new ideas and worlds from scratch, developing highly original ideas that captivate us.
Epic and quest fantasy is often set in a medieval type world (which appeals to my historical fiction loving soul), but there is no reason why you couldn’t do a quest fantasy in a setting based more on our modern society. the original Star Wars trilogy, after all, was an epic quest based on the hero’s journey, just set in space.
A Familiar Path.
We know the basic structure of the quest tropes and, like with all fiction, it’s how you play with it that determines the quality and creativity of your work. There’s something attractive about a book in which you can have certain expectations met while also being surprised and intrigued with different angles and takes on a familiar format.
What is your favourite quest fantasy? Do you hate or love this subgenre? Let me know in the comments 🙂