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The Quest in the Quest

Are you satisfied?

What a question.  Given our situation, is there any answer but “no”?  Who can be satisfied when a world pandemic has us quarantined?  And at the same time intolerable injustice has us on the streets?  When economic collapse has us waiting in mile-long lines at food banks?  When our vote may not be counted?

Is there any other answer when we have never had more voice and never had less influence?  When Hate Militia are on the march and the Thought Police are abroad, meting out punishment and shame?  When the Troll in Chief spews lies amplified as truth?  When our stories are published into a void?  When our very language has been twisted into Newspeak?

When there is so much wrong in the world, can writing be right?  Are we helping others by staying at home?  Are we truly changing anything when we choose a concrete noun or an active verb?  Is being passive an act, when acting is futile?  Do our stories truly matter when we do not?

Read on.

What is The Quest?

Every story portrays conflict.  Every protagonist has a problem.  In a story, things happen.  Things are done.  A struggle grows harder.  A crisis arrives.  Choices are made.  Success is achieved.  At the same time, an inner journey is underway.  Change is brewing: change inside.  When all of that melds, comes to a head, and results in a resolution, we arrive at a happy ending.

But are we satisfied?

Stories have a moral basis, and when a principle is affirmed or a belief is challenged—that is, when a story fulfills its purpose—we ought to be content, settled, secure, empowered, uplifted, inspired.

When justice is done, we ought to be relieved.  When a monster is slain, we ought to feel safe.  When the world is saved, we ought to feel mighty.  When love conquers all, we ought to be happy.  When a wound is healed, a burden is lifted, a destination is reached, or wholeness is achieved, or peace is found, then we ought to feel finished.

But we are not.  We still are not satisfied.

Why not?  It is because the mechanics of plot are insufficient.  It is because the inner journey is not the final destination.  It is because the fulfillment of the story’s purpose is good but once again says that the cause of all that ails us is other people.  It is because the cure for our malady is up to us.  It is because we are desperate for a cure in the first place.

The reason that many stories do not fully and finally satisfy is that we have misapprehended the human quest.  We imagine that it is to solve problems.  We believe that it is to fix what is broken inside.  We trust that as storytellers we are supposed to affirm principles, or test beliefs, or speak truth to power, to portray what is righteous, to forgive what is fallible, or to reflect what is human.  All of that is good, yes, but none of that is enough.

We are still not satisfied.

The truest quest is not to fix anything.  It is not to journey, to solve a puzzle, to win a battle, to obtain a prize, or to return in glory.  It is not to slay a monster or save others.  It is not to vanquish inner demons, or to find peace.  Our journey never ends.  There are puzzles with no solution.  There is always another war.  A prize is just a trophy.  Glory never lasts.  Monsters ever rise.  There are always more who need rescue.

Inner demons may go away and we may feel at peace, but that is only for a time.  If we believe there is an ending, then we will never reach it.  The true quest is not material.  It is not psychological.  It does not result in rest.

The truest human quest is for ourselves.  Not just self-awareness—immersive POV writing is a feast of that—and not just self-understanding either.  Knowing what makes us tick does not by itself buy us any grace.  The truest quest is to know ourselves so profoundly that we make our choices in full awareness of who we are, how we got that way, and where we can go.

Our truest quest is for freedom: from fear, from the past, from the judgement of others, from the tyranny of beliefs, from the need for armor, from the desire to be invincible, from the illusion of a perfect world.  The world is not perfect.  It never will be.  Neither will we.

What we can be is ourselves: fully knowing, fully capable, fully reconciled, fully free to act, fully able to choose what to do based not on what is valorous, or righteous, but on who we are.  When trouble is no longer troublesome, and blame no longer lies with others, then we become strong, wise, caring, able and willing.

When we are mature, we solve problems, yes, but we ourselves are no longer problematic.  We love not answers, but questions.  We slay monsters but we also make friends.  We do justice, aware that it is flawed.  We are healed because we did not need medicine.  We stop blaming others.  We protest but we do not hate.  We give to others because in our poverty is abundance.  We create because we can.  We journey to new worlds because we have already reached our destination.  We love others because we first love ourselves.

Quests make good stories.  Inner quests are their hearts.  The truest quest, though, is not to go somewhere else or to win a treasure inside.  The truest quest is not journey at all, nor is it a treasure to be found.  The truest quest satisfies not because it ends, but because it is a beginning.  The end of such a quest is right where it started: with oneself.

Commencing the True Quest

A quest has to begin somewhere, but where is that when the quest isn’t going to cover any ground?  How, in a story, do you establish the need for something when that something can’t be precisely defined and how to get it is only through experience?

A story of experience is good, but isn’t that every story?  In a way, yes.  To be sure, some stories are intended to be an experiential journey.  The Stranger.  Travels with My Aunt.  Siddhartha.  The Outsiders.  Cat’s Eye.  Another Country.  In such stories, it’s hard to escape the feeling that plot is not the point.  The point is a human being learning about self.  The ending entails not a solution, but acceptance.

However, in part that can be true in any novel.  How is that intention signaled to the reader?  How is any character’s need for the freedom—that is to say, full maturity—established?  Obviously, it becomes evident due to something inside.  Something missing.  A discontent.

Timeless quest-for-self stories frequently begin with a yearning for authenticity in a world of phoniness, emptiness and ennui.  At the beginning of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), young Holden Caulfield enumerates his complaints against the world.  (My favorite is, “The more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has—I’m not kidding.”)  Holden heads for New York City, where over the next three days he has many disappointing experiences with people.  Only his sister Phoebe is able to challenge him, and whose innocence, riding the carousel in Central Park, finally gives him a measure of happiness, allowing him to carry on.

John Fowles’s The Magus (1966, rev. 1977) features a similarly disaffected young man, Nichola Urfe, who as the novel opens immediately launches into his catalogue of complaint:

I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.  I was sent to a public school, I wasted two years doing my national service, I went to Oxford; and there I began to discover I was not the person I wanted to be.

Nicholas takes a job teaching English at the Lord Byron [1] School on the Greek island of Phraxos, where he becomes so bored and depressed that he considers suicide.  Then he is befriended by a rich recluse, Maurice Conchis, who is at first friendly but whose friendship devolves into psychological games called the “godgame”, in which Nicholas participates and which he ultimately discovers are re-enactments not of the Nazi occupation and Conchis’s collaboration with evil, but coded messages about Nicholas’s own life.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) is about two teens, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters, who are dying of cancer.  Hazel has plenty to complain about.  She is dying.  Really, how are you supposed to feel about that?  The bromides of her support group are hollow.  Only Augustus seems to share her honest fatalism and mordant wit.

There is hope, however, in a Dutch author, Peter Van Houton, whose book An Imperial Affliction, about cancer survival, echoes Hazel’s own experience and feelings.  Hazel and Augustus go to Amsterdam to meet Van Houton.  Unfortunately, he is a miserable and cruel drunk, but even so through him Hazel comes to accept her cancer and, finally, to be happy with her choices of whom she lets into her life, even though their deaths will hurt her.

The Practical Quest

Making a true quest a practical reality on the page, then, involves three things: 1) an inner discontent, especially with oneself, 2) a means to make sense of bad experience—typically a person who is the agent of change, either through positive example or through a malign intent which nevertheless provides insight, self-awareness, and acceptance, 3) experience itself, which is to say the stuff that happens.

Discontent is tricky.  A sour protagonist can quickly alienate readers.  It is therefore useful to make the discontent entertaining, which is to say witty, smart, refreshingly honest and/or undeniably true.  Rich kids can lack a moral compass?  Middle-class, mid-century English life was stifling?  Dying of cancer just plain sucks?  Are we really going to argue?  When a discontented hero has truth on his or her side, we tend to be in agreement and therefore favorably inclined.

The means of making sense of oneself works best when it’s not randomly found but deliberately sought.  Holden Caulfield goes to New York City.  Hazel and Augustus fly to Amsterdam to meet an author whom they hope will impart to them wisdom.  Nicholas Erfe meets an antagonist whose target is Nicholas himself and whose intent is to confront Nicholas with everything about himself that is weak, doubtful, groundless and self-pitying.

Experience itself: To be transformative, it’s not enough to put a protagonist through just any old experience.  Experience that could happen to anybody is neutral unless it wounds, shakes, taunts, humiliates, rattles, disappoints, devastates or in any number of other way puts a protagonist through a wringer custom-designed to hit a protagonist where it hurts.

And where does it hurt the most?  Where a protagonist’s self-confidence, faith, sense of identity and spirit are the weakest.  You can’t get well until you are sick.  You can’t get up until you are kicked down.  You can’t discover what’s at the indestructible core of yourself until someone else takes away all that you have, strips away all of your armor, exposes all of your self-deceptions, and utterly destroys everything that you believe yourself to be.

Responsibility for inflicting such painful-yet-liberating experience upon a hero or heroine belongs to the author.  That’s you.

The Quest in the Quest

The quest in your story—the true quest—is therefore rooted in a need to be free.  In what way is that true of your protagonist in your WIP?  What straight-jacket is he or she wearing?  What has made him or her cynical, self-defeating or frozen?  How does your protagonist blame others?  At whom does your protagonist direct hate?  How is your protagonist self-aware and attuned to his or her condition?  What does he or she do to shake things up, try something different, run away without escaping, test himself or herself, or pretend that everything is jolly?  Who is the agent of change whom your protagonist meets?  Who sees through him or her and either accepts your protagonist warts-and-all, or decides to demolish him or her?

The quest for oneself is the highest and most human quest of all.  Self-understanding, self-acceptance and the freedom simply to be oneself is a human imperative as old as Greek philosophy and as fresh as any newfound faith.  Take your protagonist on a quest for the Self and it is a quest for us all.  It’s a quest for the ages.

When it’s done, we’ll be satisfied.

What does your protagonist need to go through in order to be free, and why?

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].