Elements of the Quest EQ: What is a quest? Why do quests matter?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Quest stories specifically cater to the emotion of optimism, which is a mix of courage and joy. Quest stories are meant to inspire people with stories of once-in-a-lifetime experiences-- characters leave normal life behind to change who they are completely. These are the opposite of slice of life stories, which focus on normal life and constant routine. Quest stories offer a reader an escape from their normal life.

Note when reading this that quest stories are NOT the same as myths, though they are similar. Structurally, both myths and quests have a hero who must leave home to get a prize and make a sacrifice. However, myths by definition MUST involve the gods or supernatural, while many popular quest stories are memoirs, such as Into Thin Air, Lion, and Eat, Pray, Love, or modern fiction, such as Cat's Cradle, Stuart Little, and Finding Nemo. Myths are also foundational in either moral education or the nature of the universe, but quests don't need these trappings. While most myths are quests, not all quests are myths. For more information on myth, click here.

Since quest stories are so common, they are almost always merged with another genre to keep a reader's interest. Shrek is a quest mixed with comedy; True Grit is a quest mixed with western; The Maltese Falcon is a mystery quest; Planet of the Apes is a science fiction quest; The Hobbit is a fantasy quest; Star Wars is both a science fiction and fantasy quest.

All quest stories follow this pattern, called the Hero's Journey: a hero goes on a journey seeking a macguffin against a ticking clock. The hero gains companions, outwits competitors, and defeats the defenders of the macguffin. After a sacrifice, the hero is able to use the lessons of the journey to achieve outer growth.

The Hero

Every quest focuses on a hero, male or female. Sometimes this can be a reluctant hero, who doesn't want to leave his or her everyday life, while the enthusiastic hero acknowledges that there is something missing in their life and wants more. Classic heroes are easy to name: Odysseus in The Odyssey, Moses in Exodus, Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, Batman in... Batman. Popular reluctant heroes include John McClane in Die Hard, Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, Leon in The Professional, Shrek in... Shrek.


Every hero needs a journey. The point of the quest is that the hero needs a major change in his or her life, and this change will not occur just by living everyday life. Here are the types of journeys a characters may endeavor upon, each named after a classic story from ancient Greece:

  • ARGOSY, a quest for glory: Named for the voyages of Jason and his Argonauts, an argosy sees the hero journey to win acclaim or riches. Other examples include Treasure Island, The Hobbit, Rocky, Into Thin Air, and every episode of Duck Tales and Pokemon.
  • ODYSSEY, a quest to go home: Named for the journey of Odysseus back to his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War, an odyssey sees a hero keep trying to reach home despite several setbacks. Other odysseys include The Wizard of Oz, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
  • THESEID, a quest for answers: Named for the journey of Theseus to determine his true parentage, a theseid sees a hero questing for important knowledge. Sometimes this is knowledge of one's self (like in The Bourne Identity and Eat, Pray, Love); sometimes this is knowledge to help others in society (like The Maltese Falcon and Snowpiercer); and sometimes the quest for knowledge is just for the sake of knowing (like in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Cat's Cradle).
  • ILIAD, a quest for vengeance: Named for the journey of the Greeks to destroy Troy after the Trojans stole the Spartan queen Helen, an iliad is a journey (often a war) to defeat an enemy and get vengeance. Other iliads include The Count of Monte Cristo, Moby Dick, Jaws, and True Grit.
  • AENEID, a quest for a new home: Named for the Trojan prince Aeneas and his escape from Troy, an aeneid tells the story of a hero looking for a new place to live. Sometimes, this quest is motivated by a need to survive, such as in Watership DownUncle Tom's Cabin, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Rango; other times, the quest is motivated by a need to be understood and accepted, such as Don Quixote, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, Stuart Little, and Into the Wild.
  • HERCULIAD, a quest for redemption: Named of the labors of Hercules he performed to redeem himself after murdering his wife, a herculiad tells the story of a broken hero looking to atone for past misdeeds. Other herculiads include The Call of the Wild, The Dark Tower, Mallrats, and the end of Casablanca. Occasionally, the hero didn't actually commit the misdeeds and must journey to prove their innocence, such as in The 39 Steps, The Third Man, and The Fugitive.
  • OEDIPEID, a quest for salvation: Named for the journey of Oedipus to save Thebes from the Sphinx, an oedipeid sees a hero look to save either themselves ("The Most Dangerous Game" and Logan's Run) or their society (Lord of the Rings, Dune, Star Wars, Wonder Woman, Winter's Bone, and the Arthurian Grail quests).
  • ORPHEID, a quest to save a loved one: Named after the journey of Orpheus to the underworld to save his love Eurydice, an orpheid follows a hero on a mission to saved a loved one, often a damsel. Sometimes, like in Sleeping Beauty, Saving Private Ryan, and Shrek, the hero is saving the loved one of another. Other orpheids are The Princess Bride, Taken, Nebraska, Finding Nemo, and the Zelda and Mario video game franchises.
The Macguffin

Every journey needs an end. So how does the hero know where they're going? How will they know when their journey will end? This is the role of the macguffin. A macguffin (sometimes spelled McGuffin) is an object that the hero needs to reach his or her goal. Different types of quests have different macguffins:

  • ARGOSY: some type of treasure or title
  • ODYSSEY: home, or more specifically, a way home
  • THESEID: a wise person or an object containing wisdom
  • ILIAD: a taken or lost object, or a certain person's death
  • AENEID: a new perfect home
  • HERCULIAD: an act that will redeem the hero
  • OEDIPEID: an object or method that will provide salvation
  • ORPHEID: the loved one

Macguffins are integral to a quest. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the plans R2-D2 is carrying to destroy the Death Star is the macguffin, while in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Luke Skywalker himself is the macguffin. In Jaws, the macguffin is the shark, which must die so Amity can survive. Sometimes, a macguffin is tangential to the real goal: In The Maltese Falcon, the macguffin is the titular falcon and, more generally, solving the mystery of who took it. In Nebraska, the macguffin is Woody's "winning ticket" for the sweepstakes, and the journey is to cash in the ticket; however, Woody's son David knows the ticket is fake and only goes along with the journey to give his aging father self-respect.


A hero cannot get the macguffin alone: they will be joined by several companions who will help them get to the macguffin. Though a companion is any character that helps the hero, there are five companions that are typically found in quest stories:

  • THE SAGE: Wise and often magical scholar who teaches the hero how to be a hero (The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, Maester Aemon in A Game of Thrones, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars)
  • THE CLOWN: Forced against his or her will to join and thus jokes around (Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, Touchstone in As You Like It, Donkey in Shrek)
  • THE STRONGMAN: Completes impossible feats of strength, speed, or agility to help in battle (Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, Heracles in Greek myths, Fezzik in The Princess Bride, Chewbacca in Star Wars)
  • THE EXPERT: Peer of the hero, full of facts but not wisdom, master of wit (Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, Tyrion Lannister in A Game of Thrones, C3PO in Star Wars, Cornelius in Planet of the Apes)
  • THE DOG: Animal companion that acts as the hero’s loyal companion or steed (Toto in The Wizard of Oz, Argos in The Odyssey, Rocinante in Don Quixote, the dragons and dire wolves in A Game of Thrones)

Quests need "a ticking clock," or pressure that the quest must be done as soon as possible. One way some quests introduce a ticking clock is through competitors, where the hero and his or her companions are not the only ones seeking the macguffin. Competitors may try to win a title over the hero, like in the race in Around the World in 80 Days or the fight in Rocky. Other competitors way try to reach the macguffin first, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Furthermore, sometimes the competition is more indirect: Calypso in The Odyssey is not directly competing with Odysseus to get home, but as she bewitches Odysseus to stay with her, she competes against Odysseus's desire to return home.

Another way to introduce a ticking clock is to create a crisis at home. Something bad happens and the hero must quest to get the macguffin to fix it--and the sooner the macguffin is obtained, the sooner the bad something is fixed. When King Arthur gets sick, the knights seek the Holy Grail to cure him. When Shrek's swamp is overrun by refugees, he needs rescue Princess Fiona for Lord Farquaad so he can get his swamp back. When the Death Star blows up Alderaan, the Rebels need to liberate Princess Leia and destroy the Death Star before it destroys more planets.

The Defenders

Note that competitors are not the same as defenders: a competitor is a rival hero who wants the same macguffin for themselves, while a defender already has the macguffin and doesn't want anyone else to have it. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the macguffin is the holy grail, Elsa and the Nazis compete against Indy to get the grail, and the Grail Knight is a defender. In Shrek, Fiona is the macguffin, Farquaad is Shrek's competitor, and the dragon is the defender. Notice that Last Crusade's knight and Shrek's dragon are not actually villains or even evil--defenders can also be heroes in their own right with good reason to defend the macguffin.

Of course, defenders can also be villains. Darth Vader and his stormtroopers defend against the destruction of the Death Star. Smaug the dragon defends his stolen gold against Bilbo Baggins. Mr. Svenning keeps his daughter Brandi far from T.S. in Mallrats. Paris outright kidnapped Helen (though it's arguable if the other Trojans are villains--the Greeks are trying to burn down their city). A hero must defeat the defenders in order to get the macguffin, and typically they can only defeat the final defender after a...


The goal of a quest is to get the macguffin, but nothing can be obtained without a price. Thus, the hero has to be willing to sacrifice something dear to them in order to get the macguffin. Often, this is literal death of a companion. For the Death Star to be destroyed, Obi-Wan Kenobi must sacrifice his life. Steve Trevor sacrifices himself to destroy Dr. Poison's gas and save Wonder Woman. Occasionally, the hero themselves will die (like John Miller in Saving Private Ryan), though typically a willingness of the hero to die satisfies this requirement, like when Furiosa kills Immortan Joe to free the Citadel but is near fatally stabbed in the process.

Sacrifice isn't always physical bloodletting. For Rango to defeat the corrupt mayor, he must sacrifice his fake persona and tell the town the truth. For Dorothy Gale to return to Kansas, she must sacrifice her friendship with her companions. Similarly, for Odysseus to return home, he must sacrifice his relationship with Calypso. For T.S. to win back Brandi, he must sneak on her father's game show and admit his true feelings to her.


The sacrifice a hero makes leads to them growing as a character as it teaches them a life lesson or important truth. When Dorothy gives up Oz to return to Kansas, she learns to value her simple life. After Obi-Wan's death, both Luke and Han are inspired to accept their heroic roles. Rango's sacrifice of his tough guy persona revealed to him that he is indeed a hero. This is sometimes referred to as an epiphany moment and can come right before or right after getting the macguffin, though it always follows the sacrifice.

But what if the hero's dead? In this case, the outer growth occurs among the surviving companions, who move to carry on the hero's legacy. John Miller's death made the titular Private Ryan less of a selfish jerk. Furiosa's sacrifice and near death inspire Mad Max to allow himself to connect to others. Superman's death at the hands of Doomsday inspires a generation of heroes to rise.

This is the trick of the quest: the macguffin is an important, but it's typically just a vehicle for the epiphany. The themes of quest stories revolve around the epiphanies and how characters change more than the macguffin, which is simply a plot contrivance to get the quest started. The cliche is actually true here: it's about the journey, not the destination.

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Created By
Brandon Coon


Created with images by Vasnic64 - "On the road" • wxzhuo - "photographer hero camera action epic" • 851878 - "sunset boat sea ship" • eschipul - "maltese falcon" • JoshBerglund19 - "Wax Wizard of Oz"

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