I am ashamed to say that in the first fantasy book I ever wrote, I actually used the word 'quest' to describe what the main group of characters were doing. I may even have referred to said characters as 'questors'. In my defence, I was probably about twelve and had no idea what was a cliché and what wasn't. And at least I was being honest – because the Quest, in varying degrees of disguise, is alive and well in fantasy today.
The classic example is, of course, Frodo's mission to destroy the One Ring. And then there are the various quests to find a magical item that will enable the defeat of the Dark Lord – the search for the Horcruxes/Hallows in Harry Potter 7 being the most famous recent example. This kind of thing has perhaps become what many people think of when they think of fantasy. So has it been done to death, or is there still room for a quest or two?
The thing about this cliché is that authors use it for a reason: it gives them a clear (dare I say easy?) structure to work with. The plot essentially becomes that of a computer game – reach these milestones and collect these tokens to win. In theory, this leaves the author free to concentrate on other things: complex subplots, perhaps, or incisive characterisation. For that reason, the best quests are barely recognisable as such – the quest simply forms the invisible core around which the real story is wound, like the stick at the heart of a big cloud of candyfloss. On the other hand, for the lazy or novice author the quest may be the be all and end all, and therein lies the danger. Because reading a simple quest story is very much like watching someone play the aforementioned computer game: it may be briefly entertaining and even visually flashy, but it's repetitive, shallow and involves no emotional engagement whatsoever.
Despite this obvious pitfall, I don't dislike the Quest cliché nearly as much as perhaps I should. And I think the reason for this is that at heart, almost every plot is a quest. Because a quest is really nothing more than the desire to achieve something – and without that, you wouldn't have much of a story. In that sense, the search for a magical object and the search for an end to conflict and the search for love are all the same thing. It's the details that determine whether or not the quest feels old and tired, or transforms itself into something new.