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What Is Adventure Fiction?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Adventure fiction is a literary sub-genre featuring exciting tales of daring do and risk-filled journeys. By being fiction, it means the stories, whether long novels or short stories published in anthologies and magazines, are purely imagined. They form a prominent part of children’s fiction.

Stories in adventure fiction tend to have strong themes pitting one person or a group of people against the environment and other humans. The key protagonist is constantly in danger and is fighting for survival. They often feature chase sequences and strong action. Such stories tend not to be ultra-violent or gory, but are seen as good, clean, fun stories.

Characters in adventure stories tend to be simple with little evolution. The good guys hold to strong moral codes and demonstrate good leadership qualities. The bad guys are devious or misguided and tend to get the just desserts at the end of the story. Such characters tend to be secondary to the main plot.

Several genres of fiction like science fiction, spy novels and fantasy tend to overlap with adventure fiction. Spy fiction that minimizes intrigue and maximizes action can be termed adventure fiction. Most adventure stories have realistic or semi-realistic settings, setting them apart from sci-fi with its imagined futures and fantasy with its magical realism or secondary world settings.

Adventure fiction dates back thousands of years to the first written materials. One of the first such stories was Homer’s "Odyssey." In it, the central hero, Odysseus, spends 10 years trying to get home to find his wife, Penelope. On the way to Ithaca, he encounters all manner of peoples, perils and monsters. Another example is Heliodorus’ "Aethiopica," in which the central hero is pursued and almost killed by her father without him realizing who she is.

Such stories developed throughout the middle ages because of two types of fiction. First came the age of Norse sagas, inspired by "Beowulf" to recount the real, semi-real and mythological daring do of various Vikings such as in "Egils Saga." The age of sagas — 930 to 1030 AD — was followed by the age of medieval romances including the tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur. The latter reached its peak in the 15th century with Sir Thomas Malory’s "Le Morte D’Arthur."

The true blossoming of adventure fiction came in the 1700s and 1800s with writers such as Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo. One of the most famous stories is "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson, which features pirates and hidden gold. The most famous writer of adventure fiction is Frenchman Jules Verne. His novels, such as "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," "A Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "Around the World in Eighty Days" have inspired countless movies.

Early on, there were few female writers of the genre and it was assumed girls were not interested. As time has gone on, this idea has been thoroughly disproved. Girls enjoy such fiction, and many, like Baroness Orczy and Leigh Brackett, have turned to writing it. Much female adventure fiction has gone back to its medieval roots and can be found in pulp romance novels.

Adventure fiction appeals because of its simplicity and fast pace. The action rarely lets up and the protagonists are kept in perpetual danger. Readers simply want to know what happens next.

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Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Feb 09, 2014

@Ana1234 - I suspect that a lot of the books that you might consider to be adventure don't get marketed as adventure novels any longer. It's very difficult to get boys and even men to buy books, and novels tend to be marketed in whatever way the publisher thinks might have the best sales.

I'd imagine all the best sci-fi adventure books right now are being packaged as dystopian novels. Although they still probably have the same structure as classic adventures.

As my seven year old nephew put it to me, recently, he likes books and movies where there is a lot of action, a lot of fighting and then the good guys have a little bit of a talk at the end. I think that about sums it up.

By Ana1234 — On Feb 08, 2014

@clintflint - I preferred science fiction adventure, myself, like the classics written by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Although I remember enjoying the Willard Price books when I was a bit younger as well and they were about two boys capturing animals for their father's zoo.

I don't know that I would like adventure novels as much these days. I'm not sure if it's because I've grown up a little bit or because they don't make them like they used to, but most of the ones I've heard of recently seem fairly shallow and repetitive.

By clintflint — On Feb 07, 2014

I used to adore adventure novels when I was a kid. My particular favorites were survival stories where the author was shipwrecked by pirates or lost in a forest and had to live off the land and battle wild animals and things like that.

I think it might have been because I was a kid growing up in a very urban environment, so I wanted to read about something very different from my own experience. I also have to admit that I very much considered myself capable of going on one of these adventures myself.

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