If you’re like me, you might be browsing the internet right now instead of writing because you’re stuck, cornered by the dreaded writers block. Fear not, friendos! I’m here to provide you with some fun fantasy plot ideas to get your brain juices flowing, some ways you could approach these plots, and questions to consider when you start writing.
Before we begin, I gotta add a quick Noodle Note on the fantasy plot ideas on this list:
Pretty much any conflict can count as a quest. If your protagonist has a goal and is striving to reach it, they’re undergoing a kind of quest. The intention of this article is to suggest types of plots that don’t necessarily follow the traditional “quest” plot line: a protagonist (or a group of protagonists) going on a lengthy journey and meeting all sorts of wacky characters in their hunt for…something. Treasure, the big bad, a magical artifact, an elusive figure, etc.
Take Lord of The Rings, for example: Frodo Baggins and his companions search for the One Ring to destroy and defeat the evil Sauron. The quintessential quest.
A journey, a goal, an antagonist, and major stakes. Quests are a fantastic plot with which to frame your story. But that ain’t what we’re here for today, folks. Instead, I’m here to give you all the fun plot ideas that aren’t quests, and some of the ways you can approach them.
1. The Political Uprising
Ahhh, the uprising. The moment the political tension that has been brewing throughout the expositional phase of your novel finally reaches a boiling point. When moves are made to replace the monarchy that’s been in power for centuries, or the council that’s been in power for centuries, or the theocracy that has been in power for centuries, or the oligarchy that’s been in power for centuries…you get the point.
The fun thing about this kind of fantasy plot idea is that protagonists can be on either side of the uprising. Has the government always been corrupt, selfish, and endlessly greedy? Then an uprising is just what you need! But has the government, while flawed, run the country well enough that they are the better option between they and some dark, powerful force seeking to usurp the throne? Hell, maybe you want to shake things up a bit. Maybe no one is the right side, and your protagonist is just trying to stay alive and avoid being crushed by either of these titanic, unstoppable forces.
The political uprising opens up a lot of opportunities for social commentary. If you use a plotline like this, you will want to show the pros and cons of each side. To do that, there are a number of questions you should ask yourself when building your world and determining your protagonist’s place in it.
- Why would the people support either side? This is vital. Is there a side that serves as the “greater good” for the people? And if not, what other solutions might arise?
- What kind of propaganda has been spread in favor of each side to sway the public?
- What are the consequences of one side or the other coming to power?
- Why would your protagonist support one over the other?
- Is there some unseen solution that favors all parties somehow?
- How are other nations handling this political splintering? Are they taking sides? Do any of them take advantage of the nation being in such a vulnerable position?
- Because rulers often suck (eat the rich, ra ra ra!), how have they been royally screwing over the people in a way that would sway them another way?
A good story that involves a political uprising won’t just be a vague conflict between two sides. How is each of your characters impacted by this conflict? What do they stand to lose? Killing some crappy nobles is all well and good, but your reader won’t be as satisfied when the people break out the guillotine unless they get to see why it’s so important–especially to the protagonist–that one side wins over the other.
2. The Curse
Is this possibly cheating? Maaaaaaybe. After all, often times in fiction when a curse is involved, the characters will need to go on some kind of quest or journey to find a way to break it.
But I’d also argue that doesn’t always need to be the case. All of it depends on the following:
- Where did the curse come from?
- Who has been cursed, and why?
- How does the curse impact the afflicted?
- What needs to be done to break the curse?
- Who would know how to break the curse?
Maybe your characters need to travel to an evil witch’s lair and slay her to break the curse. Or seek out a rare herb or gem to create the concoction that will cure them. I will admit, those scenarios would surely count as “quests” or “journeys.”
But what if the curse doesn’t work that way? What if the curse can’t be broken, and suddenly the plot involves finding a way to navigate a life post-curse, whatever the impact of this terrible magic might be? Or breaking the curse doesn’t involve a quest at all, but some kind of self discovery? Maybe the person cursed doesn’t even realize they’re cursed at all, and the entire plot is them dealing with obstacle after obstacle without realizing why they can’t seem to catch a break. Or they know what the curse is, but not its source (ex: Kevin Hearne’s Ink & Sigil protagonist Al MacBarris, who has been cursed for the past ten years and cannot speak aloud without risking the person he’s speaking to suddenly despising him with a fiery passion. He has no idea who cursed him, and therefore cannot take the steps to rid himself of it). What if you turn your fantasy curse story into a straight up mystery? A whodunit of magical proportions?
Curses have a lot of potential in that they’re a huge problem to the protagonist that is literally attached to them. Your curse can influence the plot in many different ways without the classic “go on a quest to break the curse” trope as the focal point.
3. The Warring Factions
Two factions at odds for as long as anyone can remember. Maybe there was a tenuous peace, but tensions have been boiling over for so long that war seems inevitable. There are so many ways that the ‘warring factions’ plot line can be approached, including the quest if you so desire. For example, the protagonists may embark on a journey in search of an ancient relic both sides are fighting over. Or to seek the wisdom of a prophet who can provide guidance as to how to unite the warring nations. Or even to say, “Fuck it,” and found an entirely separate nation where they can start anew, free of the petty squabbles of the greedy and prideful nobles they’ve lived under for far too long.
Traditionally, there are two major factions in conflict in these kinds of stories (Horde vs. Alliance, The Republic vs. The Empire, etc). But you don’t even have to limit yourself to that. Maybe your entire world is on the brink of collapse with every major society wanting to burn down the next. Maybe a giant, magical World War is taking place, and every country in the realm is forced to pick a side or risk being besieged by everyone.
Or maybe it really is just two factions who are really, really pissed at each other! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Some questions to consider when writing this kind of fantasy plot:
- Why are the factions at war?
- How many factions are involved?
- What does each faction have to lose? To gain?
- What is your protagonist’s connection to each faction? What’s their stake in this conflict?
- How has the ongoing conflict been affecting everyone involved?
Most importantly, ask yourself how a situation so complex can be resolved. How do you bring peace to two forces that have despised each other for so long? And why is your protagonist the one who can pull it off? This kind of fantasy plot can involve a quest, sure, but it can also involve anything from a war to an assassination to a trial to even good old fashioned diplomacy.
4. The Magical Tournament
A quest without a (technical) quest. This type of conflict takes place in anime often (for example, The Grand Magic Games arc in Fairy Tail), and it’s easy to see why: your protagonists go toe-to-toe with enemy after enemy of a comparable or even greater power level in a fairly linear progression. Often there is one particular contender who has it out for your protagonist, or who your protagonist needs to take down to get what they want/need. There’s plenty of room for complexity when it comes to a fantasy plot idea like this, but it’s also a great way to write a plot that gets from point A to point B relatively simply. Some questions to consider include:
- Which opponents will give your protagonist a hard time, and why?
- Which opponents are significant to your protagonist in some way, and how do they know each other?
- What does your protagonist have to prove by winning this tournament?
- What makes this tournament you’ve created for your world different from other fantasy tournaments we might have seen in media?
- What is the prize for winning the tournament?
- Who would serve as the antagonist for a plot line like this? The host? A contender? The creator of the tournament? Or someone else entirely?
- Will the protagonist have to face off against someone they’re close with? How will that impact their relationship?
While I’ve never written a “magical tournament” story, I’ve always loved this kind of fantasy plot. It can appear in sci-fi as well (who doesn’t love a good superhero tournament?), and it presents a chance for your protagonist to prove themselves in the most straightforward way possible: beat the living crap out of everyone until they’re the last one standing. Along the way, they are sure to make friends, make enemies, have their major climatic battle with the long-term rival, run into many obstacles in the form of extremely powerful contenders, discover themselves and what they are capable of, and maybe even realize that they don’t need to win some grand tournament to prove themselves to anyone.
You can’t go wrong with a magical tournament, folks!
5. The Star-crossed Lovers
Is your protagonist an immortal elf and their beloved, a short-lived, fragile mortal? Maybe a god or a spirit with responsibilities that mortals can’t even fathom, falling for the delightfully simple world the silly humans inhabit? A vampire struggling with their unending hunger, or a werewolf struggling with their unending curse and their loyalty to their pack? An alien trapped on Earth, finding help and (eventually) love in the form of an average human going about their day—literal “star-crossed lovers”?
The star-crossed lovers trope appeals to fantasy and sci-fi readers (and, honestly, readers in general) for good reason: we love to see (CONSENSUAL) love that seems impossible, and witness these wonderful lovers we’ve come to root for finally get their chance to be together. Sometimes it takes several books for it to happen, and not without many obstacles along the way. Sometimes it never happens at all. But god dammit, we’re rooting for it anyway! The major obstacles that prevent the characters from being together might not even be anything to do with magic, but instead status, family ties (Romeo and Juliet), or country of origin.
Some questions to consider:
- Why can’t your characters be together?
- Why do they want to be together? Readers won’t root for them if they don’t see what makes them so good for each other
- How does the fantasy world you’ve built play a role in their relationship? For instance, if one of the lovers is an elf and the other a demon, what is it about your world that makes their unity such an issue?
- Do they end up together? Why or why not?
I’m a sucker for paranormal romance novels, especially urban fantasies where the human has no idea about the supernatural until they stumble across it by pure chance. Ultimately, the “star-crossed lovers” plot comes down to this: when your two lovers come from entirely different worlds (sometimes literally), how do they overcome it and find each other against all the odds?
6. The Drastic Magical Disruption
My favorite part of any fantasy story is the magic. There are entire communities dedicated to building a magic system in one’s book (r/magicbuilding, r/fictionalscience) and these systems can be as hard (complex, detailed, strict) or as soft (vague, mysterious, no particular rules) as desired. They also make for a great fantasy plot idea if you’re looking to have a conflict that threatens the balance of the realm itself. What better way to challenge your protagonist than to dump them in a situation where the magical substance the world runs on is suddenly on the verge of an apocalyptic collapse? Or how about a situation where magic is vital for day to day functioning, until one day it vanishes entirely? What does this do to the world? Might it cause a societal collapse? Do cities run entirely on magic, and what happens to them if that magic is suddenly no longer available (imagine if the floating city of Dalaran from World of Warcraft lost all of its magic in an instant. Not pretty)? What becomes of those who specialize in the magical arts? How do they cope with a complete loss of purpose?
Some ideas for this type of fantasy plot can include:
- The corruption of magic, causing magic users to go mad and magic items to turn cursed
- The complete loss of magic in a world where the inhabitants rely heavily on it
- A fundamental change in how magic functions (for example, the Weave’s collapse during the Spellplague in Forgotten Realms)
Most people don’t handle change very well. If you take something essential to their every day lives, especially something they never imagined they’d ever have to live without, how do they cope? How do they recover from the loss, restoring the magic that’s been disrupted or destroyed, and is it possible that the world can move on without magic entirely?
7. The Magic Environmentalist
While building magical worlds give you the opportunity to dismantle everything we know about the environment, society, and even logic and the laws of physics, you are still fundamentally making some kind of commentary that we can relate to here on Earth. That makes The Magic Environmentalist a delightful fantasy plot idea that lets you warn your readers about what happens when you 1. play God, 2. value profit over life, and 3. destroy the environment, and 4. ignore all of the warning signs when things start to go unstable. This one can be a bit similar to the Drastic Magical Disruption depending on what you’re writing about: maybe your world runs on magic, but your society’s greedy rulers have been corrupting it for their own gain for so long that it’s becoming destabilized and downright dangerous. There are other ways to explore this idea too, some of which include:
- Greedy poachers killing off an important magical animal species. What happens to the world when a vital part of its ecosystem risks extinction?
- A clashing of magic and technology. Can the two work in harmony, or is there some kind of friction that makes a merging of both dangerous?
- Nature’s magical force turning against people. What happens when the animals and plant life you’ve lived in harmony with forever are suddenly very angry and very dangerous?
- A protagonist who works with animals or plant life in this world slowly starting to notice that something is changing. Why might this be happening?
Just because your world might have magic, strange creatures, and ancient legends, doesn’t mean that it can’t also have douchebags intent on destroying the world or messing with the balance of things. The question for you is: what does this mean for your world, and how can it be saved?
8. The “Powerless” Protagonist
The final “fantasy plot idea” could actually apply to sci-fi stories as well, if science fiction is more your style. Whether we’re talking about superpowers, augmentations, or magic, “the ‘powerless’ protagonist” plot is extremely versatile and gives your protagonist a whole lot of struggles to overcome right off the bat, just because they do not have abilities that everyone else has been lucky enough to have.
Think My Hero Academia, but Deku never gets his powers. Or Sedgewick from the episode “Ice,” from season two of Love, Death, and Robots. Or Tavi from Furies of Calderon: everyone has powers, to the point where it’s expected and often required, but your protagonist has, by some unexplainable phenomenon, lived their entire life without. Sure, you can make your story a quest for discovery, where perhaps the protagonist learns they have a unique power that manifests differently from others (think Asta from Black Clover, who grew up without any kind of magic, but learns he wields a powerful kind of antimagic). Or perhaps they really don’t have any powers but find a way to obtain them, earning them where everyone else gets them by pure chance. Or maybe your story is about your protagonist navigating the world without powers entirely, proving that they don’t need any fancy abilities to be a hero or do great things.
I mention this one as a “plot without a quest” kind of story because there are directions I’d like to see this kind of story go that don’t hyperfocus on fighting or saving the world. I posted on Twitter my desire to see urban fantasy that isn’t a police procedural or some kind of “we must stop the baddie” adventure, but instead a slice-of-life story that focuses on the characters, this world of monsters, and what it’s like to live in a fantastical world.
But even if you don’t want to create some kind of chill sci-fi/fantasy novel or short story where the stakes aren’t very high, a protagonist lacking a tool that comes naturally to everyone else gives you the opportunity to make them shine no matter what the conflict is. Some examples include:
- A mortal living among gods
- A “mundane” living among witches/wizards
- A human living among monsters
- A non-super living among supers
- A human living among giants
And some questions you can ask yourself when writing something like this:
- What makes life different for this person, especially if they are the only one without powers?
- If they aren’t the only one, what is life like for communities without powers?
- How do others treat your protagonist?
- If you are drawing parallels to the real world somehow, what parallels are you trying to draw, and how can you do so tactfully?
And that’s it! What kinds of fantasy plot ideas have you thought about writing? Is there a spin on any of these fantasy plots you’re considering?
I might write another article focused entirely on science fiction plots, but that’s a post for another day. For now, thanks for reading!
One thought on “8 Fantasy Story Plot Ideas that Don’t Involve Quests (+Examples)”
This post is so brilliant! And it made me think more deeply about the dozen story ideas I have on the back burner, too. I’ve always wanted to write a plot that’s a combination of 6 & 8 ❤️