I’ve always believed in happy endings. Perhaps it was listening to all those fairytales as a kid – hearing the immortal lines of “happily ever after” – where the characters waltzed off into the sunset, blissful and complete, with no troubles or anguish to bother them.
For a while, that’s what I wanted, both for myself and for the characters that I wrote about. I could think of absolutely nothing better than an euphoric ending. Pretty much every story I wrote had one. I loved the elation and delight of a jubilant conclusion, because it appealed wonderfully to my idealist inner romantic. I couldn’t resist satisfying the reader – or, maybe, it was actually the writer – by giving the tale an uplifting end.
It took me a while to realise that to make my characters vivid and corporeal, to make them explode off the page, I had to make them fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional people. I had to give them individual feelings and emotions, traits and needs, pet hates and habits. I had to imagine how my creations would truly react to the situation at hand; would they stand up, loudly complain and shout abuse, or would they sit quietly in the corner and take what they witnessed all in? How would their story end?
Well, epic conclusions and happy endings are two distinct and separate features of a story, and no matter how much I appreciate a pleasant culmination, if it’s not appropriate for my characters and they haven’t thoroughly undergone a change, then the story isn’t over. Is is truly ‘the end’, then, if the writer pauses at a stage in the characters’ lives, after they have completed their journey but not reached their deathbed? Is it alright if the protagonist gets just a momentary, brief, happy ending, whether or not the harmony stays?
The answer is yes. Endings, by nature, are inevitable, so they are bittersweet and tinged with sadness. Life goes on. Change happens every single day. We don’t know what happens the characters after ‘happily ever after’ – if their smiles fade, if their lives become humdrum once again, or if the excitement and buzz they once felt becomes jaded normality. But the writer concludes the narrative at that particular point for a reason: because that is the end of the tale they want to tell.
The essence of the final lines is not to kid the reader that the protagonist will live a perfect life for the rest of his days. Rather, the resolution of dramatic fiction is when the main character overcomes his struggle (not when everything in his life is all joyous and sparkly). ‘The End’ is written to highlight that while our hero has made mistakes, he has been fundamentally changed, for the better, by the action and events that have taken place in the story, and is different to how he was at the start. That’s really how we connect and form a bond with the characters – because they, like us, are flawed and imperfect.
Everyone hides some distress, pain or problem behind their eyes; we are only human. By accepting that we will misunderstand and make a few blunders here and there in the course of our lifetime, and that imperfection is normal, we – and our characters – have a chance at true closure, a real ‘Happily Ever After’.