I suppose I don’t have any more character motivation advice for right now. But there’s always some Swinburne lines.

From A Ballad of Life:

I found in dreams a place of wind and flowers,
Full of sweet trees and colour of glad grass,
In midst whereof there was
A lady clothed like summer with sweet hours.
Her beauty, fervent as a fiery moon,
Made my blood burn and swoon
Like a flame rained upon.
Sorrow had filled her shaken eyelids’ blue,
And her mouth’s sad red heavy rose all through
Seemed sad with glad things gone.

A lot of fantasies have quests. I admit this. I do not necessarily admire it. Once again, just like the bildungsroman and teenage heroes, quests can be done with absolutely horrific effects and to the accompaniment of many notes of clichés.

1) Come up with good reasons not to tell your heroes the whole truth about the quest. This is something I deeply hate. The author wants to maintain suspense, so the hero is clueless about what’s going on. However, the author wants to reveal the information at a later point in the story, so there is someone who knows everything, often the wizard or other person who gets the hero to go on the quest in the first place.

What there rarely is is any in-story reason why the all-knowing person doesn’t just tell the hero now.

Some of the very stupid in-story excuses I’ve seen used to prevent this:

  • “We have no time.” (But there often is time for long history lessons, songs, and lectures that have nothing to do with why they’re on the quest).
  • “You don’t need to know.” (I would think anyone risking life and limb in flight from a great evil would need to know).
  • “You are not yet ready to know.” (And then the hero undergoes no substantial change in between then and the time the sage tells him).
  • “Your life would be in danger if you knew.” (But most of the time the hero’s life is in danger anyway).

There’s nothing more frustrating than a character who knows everything but smugly hugs his secrets, and heroes who just tamely go along with it. Come up with good, original reasons to have the sage keep quiet, or just don’t give all the knowledge to one person, and have several people have to assemble it.

2) Try to come up with an original way to get a character on the quest. Being dragged along unwillingly only works so many times. Also, the heroes come off as credulous fools for so willingly swallowing something a stranger tells them- usually without proof and in fact more of that irritating “I can’t tell you” bullshit. They also never seem to show much reluctance at leaving their homes.

One way to avoid this is to bring in evil early, in such a way that the strangers obviously didn’t call it. However, this has its own problems. The evil guys obviously can’t capture the protagonists and carry them off yet, but that just leaves them looking incompetent. This can be done originally, but it’s hard.

Would it be so bad, for once, to have a proactive hero? One who leaves home for a different reason and just gets caught up in the quest? Or heroes like Tolkien’s hobbits, who do know what’s going on (or think they do), and make the decision out of pure courage and friendship? Strangers coming in the night, telling the heroine of her royal blood and her need to search for the gobbledygook object, and dragging her away just in the nick of time are getting old.

3) If the evil attacks along the way fail, have them fail for a reason other than the evil guys’ sheer incompetence. This is something I mentioned in the villain rant. How can bad guys who fail so often ever be intimidating? Also, what Evil Overlord in his right mind would send out progressively stronger forces instead of a very strong one right away, if the hero was that important to him?

Good reasons for having the evil attacks fail:

  • Evil guys have a traitor on their side
  • It’s part of the Dark Lord’s plan to wait for a while
  • The good guys are too strong
  • The good guys are too clever (my favorite)
  • Something else comes along and interferes (elves, a hunter, daylight).

Even that last can come to seem hackneyed if you use it too often. Alternatively, you could have just a few evil attacks; maybe the Dark Lord is waiting for the finale.

And that brings me to…

4) There are never enough guardians on the quest object. Rare indeed are the fantasies where the hero trains in magic, swordplay, or some other skill, and finally manages to pass the guardians on the quest object sheerly through that skill. Much more common are the ones where the wizard/sage/what have you tells him it’s that skill that will allow him to succeed, but it’s really royal blood, destiny, sheer dumb luck, or sheer looking away on the bad guys’ part.

A smart Evil Overlord would plant his strongest guardians on the quest object, or just wait there himself. Why run all over the country when the heroes are trotting tamely toward you? For that matter, why not just destroy the quest object? It’s remarkable how many times this does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Evil, or how many times the excuse is dumb, such as “only the pure of heart can touch it.” Even that doesn’t prevent the Dark Lord from waiting there himself.

Best of all are fantasies where no one can exactly tell what’s going on. That means the Dark Lord has an excuse for not guarding the quest object- he can’t tell what it is- the sage has a reason for not telling everything- he can’t make sense of it, either- and the hero looks like a hero when he succeeds, and keeps the reader in suspense while doing it.

5) Consider how the quest object got to where it is in the first place, and how everyone knows about it. Why is the most powerful magical sword in the kingdom in a cave somewhere beyond a lake of fire, instead of hanging in the throne room? If the villain carried it there, he could obviously touch it, so why didn’t he destroy it, or put it someplace where no one would ever hear about it? (See point 4).

Oftentimes there’s an excuse like “the gods told them to do this” or “the Sapphire of Kalikand can only be hidden safely in the Giant’s Tomb!” Yet, again, that rarely comes back into play in any reasonable manner. Why did the gods want it put into a remote place that would be difficult for the next hero who needed it to access? If they wanted to prevent it from being used again, why don’t they show up when the hero takes it? And please don’t use that rot about the hero being “the right” person to wield it. There’s almost never any attempt to show the hero as a person of character and intelligence fit to wield the rock/sword/laser/Mystical Whatever, just bad poetry and royal blood and conveniently shining lights.

In such cases, the quest object seems like an excuse for the heroes to make the quest. And that’s not a good enough reason. To refer to the previous rant, practical necessity- the writer wants to write that particular story- is intruding into story necessity- the need for a good explanation that fits in with the fantasy world.

6) Why not make the Quest Object something more worthwhile? Swords and magical jewels get a little tiresome, unless they have awesome powers- which the hero can usually only use for destruction. What happens after the war? Will the jewel repair the hero’s shattered kingdom, or the sword do anything but kill villains?

Personally I think a pool that shows the future or a fountain that heals would make a better quest object than a sword. At least it could benefit more people than a blade could, even if it unleashes a firestorm.

Maybe more on this one, too, as I think of it.