There’s something about being on a quest, having a significant goal and striving toward it, that’s beneficial to a human’s well-being. If we don’t face any real challenges (or any that have a chance of being within our power to meet) we make up games to fill that lack. Maybe the mental and emotional exercise involved produces endorphins the way physical exercise often does, and/or maybe it’s hard-wired into our psyches from prehistoric times when the essential quest was for food and safety and survival in general, and only those who succeeded passed along their genes. It’s potentially beneficial to humanity as a whole, too, if we assume (as I suppose I do) that the exploration and migration that led our ancestors to populate most of the world, and the many advances in agriculture and science and other forms of “progress,” are good things. (I could argue either side of that proposition, but I’d just as soon not do it now.)
Not everyone has the same level of this sort of drive, and sometimes, in those who do, it manifests itself in destructive ways. Adolescents (of any age) may do stupid and even terrible things in a drive to be noticed, to feel some sort of power in a world in which they feel otherwise powerless. Their quest is to matter somehow. Or people who have achieved great wealth may be so addicted to the “game” that they’re driven to accumulate more and more, by any means possible, no matter how much harm is done to others. Wars are often seen by one or both sides as noble quests for righteous goals, and by some individual participants as quests for glory. Exploration and colonization have led to great suffering and even annihilation of those whose lands have been colonized. Quests for revenge are by their nature destructive, and tend to go far beyond any possible justice. But the drive to explore, to discover, to achieve great goals, whether on a communal or personal level, still feels like an essential and beneficial human trait. (And not necessarily only human; animals sometimes quest for new territory, mates, safety, just as we do, but whether they do this for any reasons beyond harsh necessity, we can’t tell.)
But our topic this time is really meant to apply to individual, personal quests, largely our own, and I’ve clearly been avoiding grappling with the heart of the matter. To my own surprise, at this stage in my life I don’t think I have much in the way of personal quests to discuss. There were certainly things I wanted to accomplish, and there were things I did more or less accomplish, although they weren’t necessarily the same things. Some dreams will go unfulfilled—I won’t travel around the world and become intimately familiar with those “faraway places” I used to read about—who’s old enough to remember that song? But I value the travel I’ve managed to do, and keep up pretty well on what’s happening in the world as it is now, which is far different from the world I used to read about anyway. And I won’t write “deathless” prose, but I’ve had indications that my writing has touched and even helped a few people, and I’ve helped some beginning writers who have the potential to do far more than I ever could, so I don’t feel that my quest, if I can call it that, has been entirely in vain.
Okay, I’m done with the pseudo-philosophizing part. Let’s get down to what we do as writers. In the “rules” about writing fiction, the quest imperative goes without saying (but is said anyway, and emphatically.) The main character in a story must have a quest, something to gain, and the elements of a story must work together to forward, obstruct, and forward again that quest. Every aspect should have some meaning related to the whole. In erotica, the goal is usually a sexual one, although for me the best erotica includes other intertwined factors. Readers’ mileage may vary.
But I came across some very interesting speculation recently about the role of a writer. A friend on a discussion group called our attention to a NYT article about a study undertaken at the Yale Mind and Development Lab. Here’s a link:
The study found that the majority of people, whether religious or atheist, believe in some sort of fate, “defined as the view that life events happen for a reason and that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out.”
They go on to say that this view only works when related to understanding the psychological perspectives of others: “This drive serves us well when we think about the actions of other people, who actually possess these psychological states, because it helps us figure out why people behave as they do and to respond appropriately. But it can lead us into error when we overextend it, causing us to infer psychological states even when none exist. This fosters the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design…In other words, the more likely people are to think about other people’s purposes and intentions, the more likely they are to also infer purpose and intention in human life itself.”
Hmm. Who is more likely to think about people’s purposes and intentions than writers of fiction? Another friend on the discussion group posed the question of writers being complicit in supporting this view of all life events happening for a reason. I, flippant as ever, responded that we writers get to be “gods and the creators of our fictional worlds. So of course everything in our stories has to have a reason--and that rifle hanging on the wall in the first act of the play had better be fired before the end. (Was it Chekhov who decreed that?)”
Upon further thought, I decided that we have to make our stories, our mini-worlds, have meaning and purpose and action that makes sense, because, as in playing games, people read fiction to fulfill a need for quests. If we don’t fill that need, they won’t read our work. Whether reinforcing beliefs that everything happens for a reason is harmful, I can’t say, but the need would be there anyway, so filling it may be a good thing. Fictional quests don’t always have to end well for the characters involved; the popularity of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books proves that. But the quest itself, the seeking, the striving, exercises psychological and emotional "muscles" that desperately need that stimulation. (On second or third thought, maybe the Game of Thrones world manages the trick of exercising those muscles and at the same time dispelling the belief that everything happens for a human-centered reason.)
What do you folks think?