“Why Do We Need a Hero’s Quest in Literature?”

(Originally posted on LiveJournal)

It’s been a couple of months since I had last checked the visitor statistics on my website – mainly because the pointing of the principal URL is screwed up (trying to fix that right now). Even so, one of the interesting things to check out is the “search threads” that bring people to my pages. Not that I get gobs and gobs of traffic at present, but even the trickle that does happen is interesting.

People on a quest

One pretty regular search pattern is of those looking for discussions of heroines in literature. I’ve commented on this before.

But this month there was an interesting one that popped up. It was “why do we need hero’s quest in literature”. That struck me as worthy of some comment. I haven’t tried organizing my thoughts on this, so what follows is likely to be a bit rambling.

Why do we need a/the hero’s quest in literature?

Where to start?

Okay, let’s consider the matter of having a hero at all. In this case, I mean “hero” as the main character, not necessarily “male good guy”. Like the subject of a sentence (a needed factor, one way or another), the Hero of a story (also known as “literature”, among other things), serves as the focus of that story. Someone we follow through events. Frequently, story Heroes serve as an avatar for the audience, the embodiment of our interest in what is about to unfold.

Is it possible to tell a story without a Hero? Maybe. Prose mood poems often do not have a central character. Much poetry does not have a character that we follow (mainly because the subject may be the narrator his or herself). But a story without a central character is definitely in the minority and usually has a very specific purpose. So, apparently, the need for a Hero is that we need someone to focus our emotional connection on. Because stories address our subjective responses to the world, not our intellectual, objective responses.

How about needing a quest in a story? Do we need that? A “quest” means an inquiry or a search. Do we ever tell stories that aren’t about answering a question, or trying to find something?

I’ve never really read much of Proust. When I was in graduate school, I took a course on critical methods, which was supposed to give us a survey of the various schools of criticism from the past and then current in Academia. To give us something to peck at in one section, our instructor had us read (some or all – though I didn’t finish it) Proust’s Swann’s Way. One of the forms of criticism we’d been considering at that time had been semiotics. The choice of reading material thus struck me as bizarre, since we were reading a translation and would not be able to critique the author’s language as he wrote it. On top of which, I admit it, Proust bored me. It seemed to me to be one big mass of wallowing in memories without any direction or point to it. What did Proust want out of all this remembrance? What was he looking for?

As you can see, I am personally, rather strongly quest oriented when it comes to story. But I can see that for some, there might be something of value in a non-questing story.

But basically, a quest of some sort will move the story forward through events. My friend Blake Snyder contends that all stories are about redemption. The desire to recover or restore something that was lost is indeed a very strong driving force for stories. But is redemption what drives a coming-of-age story? There is certainly a similar feeling in that youth’s quest to find what it is he (or she) is to become in the world. Whatever it is, there is a feeling of lack which the character (and we, as the audience) that needs to be filled. What it is, and why it is, and how it came about — all these things can be elements of the quest. The object of the quest might be an external item, or an internal realization. But in either case, something needs to be found.

Do we need “literature”? Well, strictly speaking, “literature” is just the lettered form of a story, something written down to capture it in permanence, making it possible to pass on to others, once it is out of the original storyteller’s keeping. There are many forms of storytelling these days…. written, acted, captured on video, sung. But let’s keep the term “literature” in its broadest sense of “permanent record of a story”. That way we can include film and television.

Yes, I think we do need literature. Like mythology, literature expresses our subjective response to our experiences. We take the events of our lives, mix in our own thoughts and beliefs, put them in the oven of our emotions and bake ourselves a new story, which we then give to others. We do this so we can give them a share of our thoughts, beliefs and emotions – not by way of a lecture of facts about the events in our lives, but rather an experience of the taste of it all. The final product of our story-cooking may seem so very different from the ingredients that those who eat the cake don’t know all the details. But, that wasn’t the point in telling them the story. We didn’t want to make them endure what happened to us, we wanted them to get an understanding of what it meant to us. Telling stories, making literature, is how we do that.

So, stepping back from these individual elements of the original question, we find: yes, we need literature, but we might not necessarily need a Hero or a Quest.

But …. a story about a person doing something, looking for something, taking action, is the surest method humans have found for conveying emotion. We respond to the flow of events. We watch or listen and we sympathize or empathize with the characters in the story. The emotional distance of sympathy and empathy give us a sense of safety (protecting our own experience of the world, our own deepest emotions), and yet let us still share in very intense experiences – of love, of fear, of anger, of joy. And a quest, which has something to be answered or something to be found, promises us a foreseeable end to this particular set of emotional experiences. Because our own lives are “open-ended”, as it were, stories that have resolutions satisfy us. They give us a piece of cake to enjoy, to linger over and savor, and then be done with.

This leads me to a “new” thought, about why some people feel compelled to pick up a story that is completed, and cling to it, and try and stretch it out even further. More, more, more of that bit of story. Why? I really do wonder about it, because it’s not a particularly strong impulse for me. I’ve always found that if an author feels done with a story, I’m okay if that’s where he wants to stop. Of course, I say that having the benefit of Conan Doyle responding to pressure for more Sherlock Holmes stories for instance. On the other hand, Patrick McGoohan stopped the story of The Prisoner where he wanted to, leaving it delicious still with its inherent inexplicabilities. And I like that too, and don’t really feel the need for more. But that’s just me.

Anyway…. them’s my musings on the question of that particular search thread. What do you think?


godswraith – Mar. 26th, 2009

Really nice run of thoughts, I adjourn to ponder……

scribblerworks – Mar. 27th, 2009

Good to know I can be thought provoking. 🙂

(Deleted comment)

scribblerworks – Mar. 27th, 2009

Re: loosing the hero, loosing the land, remembering it here

But it seems to me that many of the remembrances I read on LJ are presented as stories.

I suspect that Tolkien wanted to convey that sense of loss you feel at finishing LOTR. So much of his writing seems drenched in that elegy for a glory lost. As for feeling loss when Aragorn becomes king — yes. The taking up of a responsibility that is tied to a place and a people does mean the loss of the freedom to roam that he had had before. And yet, as long as he had that freedom, he could not have the one thing he wanted the most – Arwen. Tolkien is very good at being clear that gains come at a cost.

sartorias – Mar. 26th, 2009

Good thoughts–nodding much in agreement.

Me, I only mentally go on with a story if it didn’t feel completed to me, or completed right. Otherwise, I’m good with it ending.

scribblerworks – Mar. 27th, 2009

True… I can definitely understand the sense of wanting to finish something that was “finished badly”.

jpantalleresco – Mar. 27th, 2009


Hero’s Quests are about making connections to ourselves. Who we are. What kind of person we want to be.

What the hero really wants almost has nothing to do with the object they seek, or the obstacle they must overcome, rather the connections the object/dilemma make with themselves. As readers, we ourselves become the hero, going through our perils page by page.

Identity is the great theme of heroic literature. Now, you don’t need that particular tale every time, but I’d argue that comics, fantasy and others thrive just based on that theme alone.


scribblerworks – Mar. 27th, 2009

Re: Identity

Indeed. That’s actually one of my strongest feelings about storytelling — that we, the audience, want to identify with the Hero of a story.

However, when I was working on my book, one of my beta readers actually resisted that. She’s a writer herself, but she felt that the audience was even further removed on the emotional level – just wanting to watch a roller-coaster sort of thing. I didn’t really agree with her, but it made me less universal in the claim that the audience identifies with the Hero.

But yes, I think we follow stories to test ourselves against possibilities we might not meet in our own lives. “Would I be brave, if left alone on a wintery mountain over night? Do I have the internal resources to deal with the solitude?” I think that is a big reason why we love stories.

(Anonymous) – Apr. 10th, 2009

Sarah you are brilliant!

I love the blog Sarah! And I have to say again how much I love your book! The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth is one I dip into often and always learn something new every time I do! I hope there is a sequel in the offing. Your insights never fail to jar some new idea loose about a storytelling and its purposes. This notion of “why do we need a hero” is fascinating! While in China this fall, I saw a shadow play at a tea house. The story was, for lack of a better term, holistic. The hero was jut a part of the landscape, and of nature. And he did not play the most important role. There was no real change – except a moral of the story that changed me the audience member. Is it true “story?” I don’t know. But I was spellbound. I think as we become a more global marketplace and dip into the story templates of other countries and cultures, we may be surprised by how our ideas about story and heroes continue to evolve. Thanks for your insights! — Blake Snyder

scribblerworks – Apr. 10th, 2009

Re: Sarah you are brilliant!

Thanks, Blake! (Glad you stopped by!)

I think I know what you mean about the shadow play’s story being holistic. After you said that, it occured to me that many modern ballets do not necessarily have heroes to them, and yet they do have elements of storytelling to them.

Hmmm. Interesting possibilities. More investigation is called for. 😀

About Sarah

Now residing in Las Vegas, I was born in Michigan and moved to Texas when 16. After getting my Masters degree in English, I moved to Hollywood, because of the high demand for Medievalists (NOT!). As a freelance writer and editor, I found Nevada offers better conditions for the wallet. I love writing all sorts of things, and occasionally also create some artwork.
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