Trope Spins #5: The Quest

So, I’m riffling through the archives of this magazine… and I realize that out of all those fantasy tropes, we haven’t done the Quest. The quintessential (okay, there’s a lot of those, okay) fantasy trope! Can you believe it?

So what’s the Quest trope? It’s, quite simply, what happens when you get the mentor, the chosen one, the sidekick, and the magic artifact together to defeat the evil overlord. Or, to put it more generally, when the hero sets out with one or more companions to defeat the conflict. And it means lots of fun (read: angst) for everyone involved.

Take the Lord of the Rings as a classic example of the quest trope. Without getting too spoilery, a band of companions marches out to destroy Sauron’s evil ring in the fires where it was forged. People get separated. People die (no, I DIDN’T say who!). People stick their mission through to the very end to destroy evil and see peace restored.

But quests are extraordinarily versatile things. They don’t have to be about good vs. evil; they can be almost anything, really. Quests can be small and personal, like an apprentice seeking to prove himself to his master, or vast and vital, like a hunt to retrieve a magical jewel from the belly of a savage mammoth wolf (despite my best attempts, that one doesn’t sound vital unless you get the reference).

Quests can fail. Maybe the characters realize at the end that what they were pursuing wasn’t worth it — or doesn’t compare to what they’ve learned in the process. Maybe they come to understand that they didn’t have to win the fight they thought they did. Quests can be hidden within quests, and one quest may displace another.

Quests don’t have to have companions. They can be a secret wish within the heart of one person, or a common goal shared by many. They can be the flame of a revolutionary army or the yearning of a soldier who wants to go home to his beloved.

So what’s wrong with the quest trope?

Did I say anything was wrong with the quest trope?

Come on, Verity, you always find something wrong with the trope!

Thing is... the quest’s main trope aspect is that it serves to channel the other tropes. That’s right, channel them. The quest is barely its own thing. Pinpoint one “typical” aspect of the quest and you’ve only pinpointed one of the tropes it channels.

However, one thing a quest in fantasy does seem to favor is

its own special questing group, full of randomly acquired members and skeleton backstories.

Anywhere from three to seven people, this group includes the protagonist by default, and may also incorporate a mentor, a love interest(s), a sidekick, and a traitor.

*now is the juncture where Verity kicks her epic fantasy subtly under the rug*

A-hem. This core group bonds to one another through hardship and mildly inappropriate jokes, though let’s face it, the chosen one is probably off being moody.

WATCH OUT: Writers, when they’re dealing with a lot of characters in one place, will often pick a unique trait for each one and define each character solely by that trait. This guy is the one who smokes. This is the one who always cracks jokes. This is the quiet one. DO NOT DO THIS. It’s okay to pick out characters by their differences, it’s even okay to remind the reader who’s who by emphasizing these traits, but you cannot leave it there. Unless you develop beyond that point, the reader won’t care. He doesn’t know Joe. He only knows Joe as the guy who jokes and thinks about joky things and dreams up clever jokes. Is Joe even a real person under that joke umbrella?

Now, the other pitfall to avoid is

an impersonal quest.

No matter how large-scale and altruistic your grand quest is, you need to make it matter to the characters on a personal level. Why are they in this fight?


(I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. I had to.)

Anyway, why do your characters want to win this? What will it mean to them? Revenge? Inner peace? Success? Why? If you don’t make it matter to the character, it won’t matter to the reader.

One sly way to bypass this step is to make it not matter to the character. This is the jaded guy who’s seen so much or lost so much that he isn’t even interested in the heart of the quest. But your readers will care because they want him to care. They want to see his cynical shell crack and the love and pain it’ll take to get there.

Show’s over, folks! Hope you enjoyed our somewhat wild and irregular look at the Quest trope!

And remember: all my writing advice is just that. Advice. There’s bound to be a situation where it doesn’t apply. Besides, I may or may not be crazy.

This article originally posted in the July 2019 issue of The Pen & the Sword, a monthly magazine hosted by The Fae Folk.