(Thanks to a fan asking, we’ve unearthed this post from 2015–it got buried during the last site update. It’s a great read, especially in context with his essay On Ending Well, which he wrote when THE BURNING WHITE was released in 2019. Enjoy!)
Should there be happy endings? Why or why not?
Absolutely there should be happy endings. But the ending has to fit the book. A literary critic once said that comedy and tragedy are different only in the answers they are willing to accept. So theoretically you could write Romeo and Juliet as a comedy. However, you couldn’t just stick a comedic ending on it. The tone of the ending has to fit the tone of the story. If you put a happy ending on A Song of Ice and Fire —that is, if in the last book, all the kingdoms decide to cease fighting each other, nobody else died, and the right people married the right people and lived happily ever after — it would simply strike readers as bizarre. It not only doesn’t fit, but it would feel so wrong that it would destroy the illusion of a secondary reality that all fiction strives to build. (Okay, some experimental fiction/theatre/etc loves to point out that it’s fiction and break the fourth wall, but that’s not what most fiction does.)
Now you could put that happy-go-lucky ending on something like The Princess Bride and it would be fine, because TPB is full of silly outrageous characters stopping and doing silly outrageous things. (“He’s only mostly dead!”) Indeed a full-on tragic ending for The Princess Bride would be awful. So I think that a writer should strive to find not a happy ending but a fitting ending. A reader should feel in some sense like this character earned this. Or if the character was evil or did some really awful stuff, this character deserved this. Or even if the character gets worse from life than they deserve, it’s something you could kind of see coming or maybe that they themselves should have seen coming. In Hamlet [spoiler alert!], Hamlet dies at the end, but as soon as he kills Polonius, who’s a jerk but basically innocent, you have a strong suspicion where this is going. Shakespeare’s already also built the world of this play to show that sometimes bad guys win. After all, the story starts after Claudius murders his brother, who we assume was a good king. If there’s a fake-out moment in The Princess Bride, it’s when Wesley appears to be dead—and we cut to the kid asking his grandpa, “But he’s not really dead, right?” If there’s a fake-out moment in Hamlet, it’s when Claudius appears to be repenting of his evil—right at the moment Hamlet is about to kill him!
There are, I suppose, probably some good counter examples and exceptions. But if you think that you’re such a great writer, you can write that exception, do remember to handle your exception carefully. In King Lear, there’s a catastrophe, when Cordelia is executed. It feels so much worse than she ought to have gotten. (Though it doesn’t feel like a cheat; we certainly saw it coming from the very first scenes of the play.) But this catastrophe was so devastating, so cruel, that a guy named Bowdler rewrote Shakespeare—yep, that’s ballsy—in rhyming couplets no less, and no one died, and everyone lived happily ever after. And this play was played as Shakespeare for (if I recall correctly) nearly two hundred years. So be careful not to violate your audiences’ expectations too much! They may simply reject your ending as crap. Audiences do it now, and not just with endings, “Episode I-III? Those movies never happened.” By the same token, one can almost imagine Bowdler saying in upspeak, “This doesn’t match my head canon? In my head canon, Cordelia marries? and…”
But if some works require a catastrophe, others have long turned the other way toward a eucatastrophe: when Frodo gets to Mount Doom, he fails. He gives in to the temptation of the ring. Now we’ve seen this coming for a really long time; Frodo has been struggling against this temptation and weakening all along. But then the incredibly unlikely happens: Gollum unintentionally saves Frodo and also unintentionally destroys the Ring, thereby sort of becoming the hero.
Now eucatastrophe has a lot in common with a deus ex machina which a lot of readers use now to mean “a cheating ending”. But the original understanding was an ending in which humanity had screwed things up so badly that only the gods could sort it out to bring any sort of justice to the situation at all. If Tolkien were of a darker frame of mind, or a darker philosophy perhaps, he might have felt that Frodo had earned his evil end; Frodo was going to get it: Frodo puts on the Ring, becomes evil, but really isn’t even that powerful of an evil guy, so Sauron comes and gets the Ring back. The good guys lose, all of Middle Earth becomes like Mordor. The end.
However, in Tolkien’s conception of Justice, that ending, while perhaps deserved by the choices and weaknesses of the characters involved, felt terrible. A universe that loves those who are trying to do good the way we love Frodo and Sam should give us something better. Thus Tolkien chooses to write that eucatastrophe, and maybe a secondary one with the eagles — although people love to argue about the eagles. (The eagles are actually, by far, the smaller deus ex machina. I don’t know why everybody looks at the eagles, but gives a complete pass to Gollum’s far less probable actions.)
In my own work, though, the choice is frequently more intuitive first. I’ve gotten to places where—rationally—a character was supposed to do X (live/die/marry Person Y) and found myself literally unable to write that because it felt wrong. Not because it felt mean. I’m fine being ‘that mean author’ if I’m making a choice that the logic of the story demands. But I don’t default to meanness. In Night Angel, I spent two years planning to save a character. It didn’t work. Once I decided she had to die, everything fell into place: I had that sense of, okay, yes, this works. On the other hand, I’d also planned to be mean to another character for several years: this character must marry this character to set up the conflicts in the next book… and got there and couldn’t do it. I wrestled with it, and gave up, was merciful and went with my intuition… and everything fell together far better than it would have if I’d gone according to my plan.
Sometimes you need to trust your gut.
Thus, to answer your question: How do you decide to give a happy ending to a character?
You don’t. You write a fitting ending.
How do you decide to give a happy ending to a book? You don’t… precisely. You look into your own heart and you decide what kind of endings you believe in.
Career-long spoiler alert: I am not capable as a human being of writing a nihilistic ending to a book. Ever. People wanted a prequel novel of Durzo Blint before Night Angel. That story ends with Durzo Blint believing something that I believe to be a lie: nihilism, pointlessness, destruction, self-hatred. I could, as a storyteller, write that novel. I could write it well, because I’ve been there. But I can’t write it as a human being. It’s destructive, and I’ve matured past adolescent blow-up-all-the-phony-shit desires. I get them, and I don’t discount them or those who feel them, but I couldn’t—as a human, or an artist—leave the story there. I couldn’t spend two years painting a picture that left its viewers in a darker place than they began. Artists have a duty to truth, too. Artists have a duty to beauty.
Write what is true and beautiful. Find a story you believe in, an ugly truth or a profound beauty that changes you. If your story never moves you to tears, it’s fluff. Fluff has it’s place, if it’s not harmful—and some is, let’s not kid ourselves. But fluff is inferior. It’s entertainment, but it’s mindless almost by definition. It doesn’t live. You have it in you–or you don’t!–to write a story that lives. Be strong. Be fearless. Write that story. Write a story that ennobles you for having told it, and maybe it’ll ennoble those who read it, too.
This is a calling that becomes deep when it’s tied to what is deep and true and noble. Or it can be fluff, if you’re simply here for commerce or cowardice. Your choice.