An Examination of the Conventions of Quest Fantasies
The conventions or rather the clichés of quest fantasies and indeed of the various other types of fantasy are what largely stopped me reading fantasy about five years ago. I don’t read nearly as much as I used to and I am far more fussy about what I do read. One convention that’s played a part in that is the seemingly widespread rule that any quest or other fantasy has to come in at least three volumes, often more and as an at-home mum for the last few years, I’ve been embezzling my book budget out of the housekeeping. Something that’s asking me to commit to £18 or £24 before I get to the end of it has to look pretty damn impressive before I’ll spend out.
So what are the conventions that irritate me so much? They tend to be the things that grate more as I get older and learn more about life, the universe and everything. Things that I would happily pass over at 16 or 18 now just bug the hell out of me. There are the women, often feisty, young, immature but endearingly so. Well, I used to work in personnel, I used to interview young, feisty and immature women. Temp agencies would send them to work for me on a regular basis. They’re not endearing when they are causing chaos in the post room or arguing the toss about their time sheet, they’re a pain in the arse. The same goes for charmingly naive but fundamentally good-hearted young men. They’re never going to make decent sales reps as long as they’re still breathing. Had I come across one who had hitherto unknown magical powers, he’d still have been out the door before he could say ‘abra-‘. In real life, there’s no way I would go off on some potentially lethal journey with any of them. Charm and a totally unrealistic world view isn’t going to save you from hypothermia and a companion who holds you up is just about the most dangerous thing you can have in hostile terrain. Ask any soldier; it’s more valuable to wound an enemy rather than just kill him because then someone else on the opposing side has to look after the casualty. Dead is just dead, you leave the corpses behind.
Those women that aren’t young, feisty and beautiful are mature, serene, also beautiful and generally untouchable in their wisdom. They’re generally hugely intelligent, often magical but are still happy to do the cooking, the washing and chase around after the men, sorting things out for them. I should cocoa.
Old men get to go on quests as well and I mean old men. My grandfather is still alive and these days can’t even find his way to his own front door. Ok, he’s in his 90’s but even twenty-odd years ago, when he was still playing golf, 9 holes was as much as he could do and then he’d be stiff as a board the next day. He gave up golf when he was about 80 after he’d had his partner drop dead on the fairway. (Actually, my grandfather reckoned that was not a bad way to go). Old men, even active ones, are going to be fit for nothing after a few days sleeping rough, getting wet and cold and suffering all the other trials of your average quest. Luckily as well as their other magical talents, these old men all seem to have mastered the secret cantrip ’embrocation’.
People drop everything to go on these quests. But then they don’t have a life, they’re just marking time herding turnips or scrubbing someone’s pots. They don’t have families or friends as a rule, at least not ones that mean a great deal to them. If they do, these friends and relations come along, because by some lucky chance, they’re on the same quest. Off they all go, taking whatever the dread forces of immanent evil throws at them in their stride, even when the most dangerous thing they’ve come across before is a ram getting stroppy at tupping time. They find whatever magical artefact they need to defeat the dark forces but don’t decide to go on to conquer the world on their own behalf, because although they are so powerful that no one would be able to stop them, they don’t want to rule the world because they’re such nice guys. Lucky, that.
Presumably it’s because everyone is so nice and honourable, there’s so little sex. Heroes and heroines go through their tale untouched by human hand, though a fair few heroines do escape rape by a series of wicked coincidences. Then they end up as the hero’s reward in the final chapter where these two inexperienced virgins nevertheless manage to have a night of flawless passion and earthshaking sex. Well, it is fantasy after all. In real life on the other hand, most people in their late teens or early twenties off on their travels find sex high on their list of priorities. Club 18-30 holidays rely on the fact to stay in business and it’s generally the freshers at any college or university who keep the corridors ringing with the sounds of bedsprings.
As you see, the conventions of the quest lend themselves to ridicule remarkably easily, as does so much of fantasy literature. There are writers who have built highly successful careers doing just that; my personal favourite is Tom Holt.
This begs the obvious question; why did I write what can quite justifiably be called a quest novel? Well, conventions do have their uses. Consider the cover of The Thief’s Gamble; you can’t get much more conventional in fantasy than having a dragon. Here it gives the potential reader some valuable hints. The subject and the style of the artwork make it clear this is heroic fantasy – and that’s important in a first novel when no one is going to recognise the author’s name from a hole in the ground. The people are in a boat, one is wounded, you’ve clearly got a heroine, a hero and there are lots of questions to entice that reader. Who is the hero, the guy with the beard or the one hanging upside down out of the boat? Why is the dragon trashing the ship in the background? Is it going to be coming after these people next?
One of the most essential things an author needs is a plot; well, in fantasy at least though it’s increasingly an optional extra in a so-called mainstream literature these days. As various people have said, there are a limited number of basic plots. I’ve seen any number between 12 and 20 quoted but I have to say I’ve never read any of these ‘how-to’ books. I think any creative impulse would get lost as my brain seized up with the realisation that my brilliantly original idea was sub-section 3 of section a of the fantasy variant of basic plot number nine. Frankly, I’d rather not know but it’s a fact that some conventions develop because you do need a plot and there are only so many to use.
You also need to keep your plot moving along. Dark Lords are notoriously bad at working out what even the dimmest of naive heroes is heading for on his quest because if he did, he’d stop him before chapter four. When the baddies do try and stop the hero and companions, they do tend to come unstuck for one reason or another because otherwise the book comes to an abrupt end. The key to avoiding the cliché is making this all seem plausible and that’s actually none too simple. I’ve been writing tabletop and live action role-playing scenarios for fifteen years and killing your party off is one of the easiest things there is. The trick is keeping your party alive until the final encounter, where they should be on minimal hits, magic nearly exhausted and convinced that they have worked everything out for themselves, done it by the skin of their teeth and had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing it. Let’s not forget that be it role playing or reading a book, the essential aim here is entertainment. Having your hero set out on his quest and die in the second chapter from goblins or septicaemia isn’t going to make a very interesting book, unless you’re simply using that as a starting point and some other poor sap is going to take up the magic sword from the original hero’s deathbed and run with it. Actually, that’s not a bad idea for an opening chapter, but remember, you read it here first.
The job of the writer is to hide inevitable conventions arising out of the need to have a plot which takes you all the way to the end of the book, under the detail, the characterisation, the pace of the plot, to make sure the reader’s disbelief is suspended far enough and long enough that they get caught up in the story and don’t spot what you are doing with all the smoke and mirrors.
The Quest is a good plot; it offers a lot of possibilities, you get to go different places, you get to introduce and to drop characters as you go, all things that add interest and give dramatic potential to your story. If you look up Quest Objects in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, you’ll see there are any number of them and all sorts of combinations are possible. Yes, this does mean that you can find books which are a kind of magical Thomas Cook’s tour of absolutely every place on the map which in itself suggests geography only happens in combinations suitable for drawing on a sheet of A4 paper but it doesn’t have to be that way. The Quest is still a good basic plot. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. In fantasy writers, that’s what separates the floppy haired farm boys from the mage-born princes or the feisty young princesses from the kick-ass shield maidens, if you prefer. Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is ultimately a quest and has many conventions of the form but it’s far more than that, for my money, and I use the phrase advisedly.
A bad quest novel may be no more than a rehash of the more obvious conventions but a good one will take them as a starting point and go way beyond them. The thing is though, the conventions are extremely hard to avoid. They may well be the refuge of the lazy writer but even the diligent one can find them lurking beneath the surface of their work. I only read the Tough Guide a couple of months after finishing The Swordsman’s Oath and I was quite startled to find a fair few things cropping up in one form or another in my work. I write from what I would call an informed historical perspective, I try to make sure that anything I use for background and detail has an historical or cultural origin that I can defend if anyone want to come up and nit-pick and that the internal logic of the plot all hangs together properly. But I still found that I had a Vestigial Empire. But that wasn’t because I just accepted that’s what fantasy novels must have; I’d worked up the history of my world as echoing the cycle of the rise and fall of great powers in our own historical record. I personally find that far more plausible than having a fantasy setting where every social, political and technological development has been frozen like a fly in amber for uncounted centuries. Just because the rise and fall of Empires is a convention, doesn’t mean it can’t be true or realistic.
In The Swordsman’s Oath, there are a fair few bandits, another class of person that comes in for some justified stick in Tough Guide. Well, I was working from the well-recorded facts that medieval roads were dangerous places. There’s a sign on one of the city gates in York explaining how travellers used to wait there and join into larger groups because the road out through the forest was so hazardous. Another thing you’ll find in my work is Relzhaz, a city of canals. For me, that’s because historically, cities at the mouths of major navigable rivers tended to become centres of trade and also developed skills in navigation and boat building which took them out to sea and extended their trade that way. It may be a convention but it’s historically defensible. That’s how many conventions and even cliches develop.
I’d also like to enter a plea here in defence of Stew. Yes, the lazy writer may just use this convention, because that’s all they’ve ever read about in fantasy themselves. Equally, the conscientious writer can have characters eating a variety of stews because in cookery over an open fire, the one pot meal with everything in it is one of the best methods. Long slow cooking makes poorer cuts of meat more edible and it needs little looking after, leaving the housewife free to wash, spin, sew or in more modern instances, write novels. Stew in one form or another, is the basis of peasant cookery the world over. The intelligent writer will certainly look up Stew in a good thesaurus but they find precious few alternatives that aren’t going to derail the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Most readers will skim over a mention of Stew, you can get away with pottage if you’re so inclined, casserole or hot-pot perhaps but any mention of cassoulet or ragout is just going to look ridiculous. So we are stuck with the cliché.
Other conventions arise out of the writer’s need to avoid boring the reader senseless. One of the universal elements of quest fantasy is the horse. I certainly have horses in my novels, that’s how my characters get about. I have researched medieval travel and I know how far and how fast a horse can go, over what kind of terrain and with what kind of load. I do know that horses do go into season, I know the historical reasons why geldings were preferred over stallions, a major one was not the fact that stallions think with their gonads when they smell a mare in heat but that they were such commercially valuable animals for stock improvement purposes. All very interesting but as yet, I certainly haven’t found a point where going into all these details isn’t just going to delay the action of my story horribly and distract from the development of my plot with an irrelevant data dump. The same goes for healing and cures. I read up on herbs and medieval medicine for, working out what was likely to happen to a character who’d been partially drowned. I spoke to a pal who’s a nurse. You see almost none of this in The Gambler’s Fortune because three pages of two characters having an in-depth conversation about how to cure a chest infection without antibiotics isn’t actually going to be very interesting. So, my people ride on horses and get cured with herbs, call it convention if you like but at least I know that I can back it up, if I need to.
Conventions are also useful for the writer in that they offer a foil. Tired old clichés can be turned on their heads to good effect. At the risk of sounding like a gnomic utterance, you only recognise light if you have darkness. If as a writer, you take a convention and turn it to your own ends, you’ll catch the reader’s attention. In The Thief’s Gamble, Livak the heroine is an independent female, she has a circle of friends, an on-going plan for her life and being hijacked to help a wizard out seriously inconveniences her. She is sexually experienced and sexually active, all of which keeps the reader guessing and turning the pages, rather than letting their attention wander and trying to work out which particular variant of the quest plot they might be reading. In this instance, in fact, she starts on one quest and then ends up on quite a different one, another way in which I’m using conventions against themselves.
Conventions also give the writer, well, this writer at any rate, notions to explore which lead on to plot ideas. Wizards seem to have this innate urge to get together in colleges or hidden cities. I accepted this convention, partly because there are good reasons to argue in support of it, once you start thinking about the implications of having magic as part of your world. I certainly aim to show my readers how and why this situation arose and then I look to explore the wider implications. I asked myself how the other powers and rulers of this world would react to wizards hiding themselves away. How would the wizards react to them? What would mages be looking for in terms of their relationship with the outside world? It offers all sorts of dramatic potential. There is a pretty well accepted convention that magic is magic is magic, be it mental, elemental, sympathetic magic, whatever. That started me wondering what if there were different sorts of magic and what if they were mutually exclusive in some senses? What if some people had one sort while their enemies had the other? That’s produced some very interesting ideas and plot dynamics for me to work with in the Tales of Einarinn.
So, as far as I’m concerned, any book simply cobbled together out of the conventions of the quest, or any kind of fantasy, is poor writing. However, the presence of those same conventions in what is otherwise good writing, shouldn’t be necessarily criticised. There are good reasons why conventions crop up time and again, underpinning some very different books.
September 2001 for the Silver Oak website