Quests, again.

And because the lines yesterday were from “A Ballad of Life,” these lines are from A Ballad of Death:

Kneel down, fair Love, and fill thyself with tears,
Girdle thyself with sighing for a girth
Upon the sides of mirth,
Cover thy lips and eyelids, let thine ears
Be filled with rumour of people sorrowing;
Make thee soft raiment out of woven sighs
Upon the flesh to cleave,
Set pains therein and many a grievous thing,
And many sorrows after each his wise
For armlet and for gorget and for sleeve.

Yeah. Anyway.

Fantasy is filled with heroes trying to gain back lost thrones. I’ve said a lot before about why the characters of the protagonists would rarely make them good monarchs, so these are about the quests themselves.

1) Consider why the throne makes a good quest object.

This is one advantage that swords and jewels have over thrones as quest objects; cliched as they are, they usually have magical powers. But who in their right mind wants to rule a busy, bustling country and listen to petitions and make judgments and do all the boring political parts of the ruling as well as the fun parts, like hunting and drinking and throwing bones for the dogs?

It is my pet theory that royal genes are linked to a latent stupidity that only becomes active in peasant heirs on hearing that they’re the heirs to thrones. Until then, they can have been sensible and happy people looking forward to managing the farm for the rest of their lives. Now they somehow transform into duty-bound, grim people who really want to rule the country.


I honestly don’t understand it. Why is everyone so determined to push the usurper off, especially when he’s really doing a good job, and set the “right” royal line back in its place? Why is there the unquestioned assumption that of course the royal line must quest for its throne, instead of living happily away from all the stupid judging and sitting on thrones until their asses go numb?

Consider what makes a throne a good part of your quest, especially if you have a royal line with a terrible history. Why in the world should the fantasy kingdom welcome your heirs back? Think long and hard about this, and about what kind of person it would take to both emerge from a peasant village and be eager about ruling a country. I think a sheltered peasant who dreams of sleeping on silken sheets and eating from golden plate would make a good protagonist. Alas, those kinds of understandable, mercenary motives are never allowed.

2) And what’s wrong with mercenary quests, anyway?

I’ve never understood why a poor peasant wouldn’t want to find the golden mystical jeweled sword of Arthur the High King and then sell it. It would certainly improve his life. Instead, though, he wants to find it and use it to become king. This is usually directly related to a shortened life expectancy.

Not the brightest ones, those peasants.

I see nothing wrong with letting protagonists quest after dragon treasure, pirate gold, or some other kind of wealth without going all noble at the end and talking about how it “doesn’t belong to them” or using the treasures up defeating the evil. Why not admit that it’s not just mercenaries with mercenary motives? Why not let the clever thief steal the gold while the rest of the party is arguing about what charity to spend it on?

Granted, this might be a better motive for satiric fantasy quests than otherwise, but I think some admixture of reality would help all those constipated, uptight fantasy heroes.

3) What about a quest that isn’t a journey?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these; the fantasies that stay in one place are mostly mixed with some other genre to a large extent, like horror or mystery.

It’s the journey that makes all fantasy quests so rigorously like each other, I think. The author takes the protagonist from Point A to Point B. Point B is usually named and known early in the story, at least to the evil guy and the wise wizard (see the last post I made for why it’s irritating to see the wise wizard keeping his mouth shut about it to the hero). There are usually some evil attacks along the way, but nothing the hero won’t overcome. Then the hero finds the quest object and uses it to defeat the villain and reclaim the Kingdom. The End.

Keeping a quest in a small scope, say a village or a castle or even just a single country, would be much more of a challenge, and if evil attacks and the like happened, the author would have to explain them more cleverly than is usually the case. Quest fantasies could almost always take some hints from the better mysteries out there. At least it would add some variation to them.

4) Try to have reasonable clues to the quest.

One problem with those quest fantasies that do involve a mystery is how miraculously the characters seem to find the clues. The mystery of where King Geekadoodle hid the Sword of Slaying has remained unsolved for a thousand years, and then along comes the right flawless-skinned princess and solves it just like that.

I think not.

Try to come up with the ending before the story (which is something many fantasy authors do), and then break it into pieces and try to reassemble the pieces without lucky coincidences like overheard conversations (something few fantasy authors do). Alternatively, come up with a good reason, not dependent on luck or destiny, that no one has solved the mystery before.

One good, little-used reason is that perhaps no one has known that there’s a mystery. Carol Berg uses this to excellent effect in her Rai-kirah trilogy. There’s a long-hidden link between the Ezzarians, the demon-fighting group of mages in her world, and the demons themselves, but no one’s ever looked for it because it would be blasphemy to suggest such a thing, and the Ezzarians are used to thinking in black and white anyway. It takes a character who’s used to thinking in shades of gray, and very different from most of his people, to find it.

5) Try to introduce an element of randomness into the quest.

This doesn’t include the lucky coincidences, like the heroes having to stop in a village where the oldest villager just happens to know what direction King Geekadoodle headed on his last journey. That kind of thing is better left up to tough, dedicated research, which is also rare in fantasy.

I mean a true element of randomness- weather delaying the heroes that is not sent by dark forces, someone joining the quest who turns out not to be a wondrous mage or the hero’s true love, a horse throwing a shoe and keeping them somewhere for a day, a heroine observing a sunset without rhapsodizing about how it means war or lost innocence or something else. These are particularly useful in relationships. I suspect few people outside fantasy experience relationships built only on deep, beautiful, symbolic moments, or moments of adolescent bickering. Try having a few scenes where the hero and heroine share jokes that don’t become trademarks, or help each other in some task.

6) If you have a journey across wild country, truly show the hardship of it.

Few fantasy heroes have to experience hardships for long. The author steps in and saves them from getting too low on food, drinking brackish water, staying filthy for months, or searching carefully for the right handful of leaves to wipe with. They don’t even suffer wounds for long; they always manage to stumble into some village with a healer in the nick of time.

These are the little realistic details that will make your readers feel as if they are there, experiencing what your heroes are feeling. Backpacks full of never-ending food and baths whenever the heroes want them aren’t realistic for people running cross-country just a few hours ahead of the dark forces. I suspect a large part of thinking they are comes from epic sagas, in which people don’t often run out of food or relieve themselves.

It shouldn’t work both ways, though. Either the heroes experience real hardships and cost the author some work, or the details remain epic-like and the author loses some touch with reality in the eyes of the careful readers. I snort whenever I read about a group of heroes who haven’t even had to start rationing food or water, or who have time to bathe whenever they wish, described as having “suffered.” Staying out in the wilderness for months will cause far more suffering than that.

It irritates me when people go on quests without considering a lot of the basics.