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Quest Fiction

June 5th, 2020

An anonymous critic recently claimed that all stories are “quest stories”. The critic  did not enlarge on the claim and my immediate reaction was to doubt this and like most people I could think of one of two novels which don’t involve a search or quest.

On the other hand, I would have to agree that the quest is a central issue in a great many stories and novels.

There has been a tendency to think of the quest story as just a genre for children’s fiction. The classic, well-known example is “Treasure Island” by R L Stevenson. The whole story is based around the quest or search for treasure by a number of parties. In “The Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy is literally blown away and she can only find her way home by searching for the Emerald City at the end of the yellow brick road.

But it isn’t just children’s fiction where the quest is important. The two most popular genres of adult fiction are crime and romance. Both very frequently involve quests. In the crime story the police or a detective is seeking the perpetrator of a crime. The most common element in romance is a search by one or more characters for love or a partner. In war stories and westerns the quest is for victory over the forces of evil or to find a peaceful home.

In more serious literary novels the protagonist is often questing after a sense of purpose in life, how to make relationships work, or self-discovery. Think: Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye”.

The idea of the quest is there at the very beginning of story-telling. Odysseus, in the ancient Greek story, after the fall of Troy, seeks to go home. It takes him ten years!  His difficulties on the journey provide a useful lesson for the contemporary story teller. The solution to the quest must not be realised too easily. What makes a story interesting are the problems (preferably ingenious) which the protagonist has to overcome. The quest may be a desire to do something, to see something, to go somewhere, to fulfil an ambition, to make a discovery, to have some sort of experience, to solve a relationship problem.

The important thing for the writer is to come up with some new angle on the quest, to provide problems or obstacles in the way of its fulfilment – and to provide unexpected solutions.

In most popular fiction, be it in the written or screen form, the quest is fulfilled. But it is useful to remember that some of the greatest works of literature involve a quest which fails. In what is probably Shakespeare’s most popular play, Romeo and Juliet’s quest for love comes to a tragic conclusion. Much tragic fiction is concerned with a quest which is unfulfilled.

Final advice for the writer: ask yourself, (1) is the idea of a quest apparent in stories I have read recently and (2) does my protagonist in the story I’m planning have a quest to fulfil;  a problem to solve, a purpose to achieve. Probably they should.  I think the quest idea in a  story is important but don’t concentrate on this at the expense of other vital ingredient such as plot, dialogue and character.


Colin Bulman is the author of “Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing” and “Fiction: the Art and the Craft”.

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