Everyone deserves to experience a happy ending. It might take a few tries to get there. It might take a pretty long time. It might not even actually last for very long, or forever. But at least for one moment, for one chapter, everyone should get an equal chance to know what it’s like.
Except my characters. They won’t.
Not all of them, anyway.
There are plenty of reasons for this, of course: I’m not some heartless, evil literary dictator (and if I were, would I really tell you about it?). I’m writing a soft SF novel, which means I have to make the plot and elements realistic enough for readers to believe it.
It’s not a near-future story, though. It takes place far enough into the future that technological warfare has long since come and gone. It’s a different world. Love is complicated. It wouldn’t make sense for everyone to end up together, in a relational as well as en emotional sense. One of the story’s motifs is that bad things sometimes have to happen before good things can (a gross simplification, sorry to be so vague). You have to lose before you can gain. You have to hurt before you can thrive.
Then there’s the fact that I’m not quite sure where this book falls in terms of prequels/sequels/etc. I do know it’s the first and I do know there are other continued storylines that have to come after. So one major reason this book (the one I’m working on now) doesn’t end happily is because, well, if I ended it on a happy note, there’d be no incentive for anyone else to read more.
I hate putting my characters through rough circumstances. But how else are they going to learn to overcome obstacles? I’m crying right along with them sometimes, trust me. I wish I could keep Character X alive. I wish I could keep character Y alive. I … okay, so a lot of characters end up dead. It’s necessary. Which, again, makes me sound like a bad friend or a mean parent or something.
There is one character who ends up getting something she’s always wanted, but of course there’s a cost.
There’s another character who overcomes one of his biggest fears and becomes a much better person for it.
But the love triangle isn’t resolved; it’s broken into pieces. A mother has to say goodbye. There’s one estranged friendship you might expect to get resolved, but the opposite happens instead.
My main character, the book’s narrator, needs to learn by the end of the book that emotions aren’t black and white. You’re not just either happy or sad. Everyone experiences emotions at different degrees, and certain emotions affect everyone differently. But to fully be able to understand that, she has to learn what happens when you let your emotions do all the thinking for you. That’s not a happy lesson to learn.
I don’t know about you, but I get bored when stories treat happiness like it’s the easiest emotion to feel. Happiness is the hardest. It’s easy to let yourself crumble when things go wrong, as my MC/our narrator finds out. It’s harder to learn to be happy even when it seems there’s nothing to be happy about.
If I just handed out happy endings, there’d be no reason for anyone to read my stories. I write for other people, to give other people something meaningful to read. They deserve better. They deserve the non-happy endings, so later in the series, when there is one, it will be worth the wait.
If I ever get that far. To the ending, I mean. I’m still not finished. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be.
Image courtesy of Flickr.
Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and health. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi, Meg is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink. Follow Meg on Twitter.
8 thoughts on “My Characters Aren’t Getting a Happy Ending”
Timely piece. I’m just playing around with ideas for my second novel and it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s not part of a series. I’m wondering how that might go down with readers. I’m thinking perhaps not too well…
So, Allegiant was the first book I thought of when I read your comment … I won’t say anything specific to avoid spoilers for anyone, but Mockingjay works too. I don’t think I like happy endings as much as non-happy ones, I’m not sure if that’s just me. I think it depends on what you’re looking for in a good book. Some people need a happy ending, or they won’t be satisfied. But….you can’t please everyone. I think in your case you just have to go with your gut and write the story how you want. :)
That’s true Meg, thanks. Good luck :-)
I’m writing a memoir that doesn’t have a happy ending either. I’m struggling with the ending–how to write it so that the ending is not such a downer. Thanks for sharing this post.
You’re welcome. :) I think the best “non-happy” endings are the ones that leave the reader feeling something deep … even if that’s sadness or dissatisfaction, I’d much rather read a book that leaves me feeling devastated … not because I like feeling that way, but sometimes you finish reading a book and you’re like, “Eh. Could’ve done without that one.”
Thank you for your words of encouragement.