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The Cake is a Lie: Why Winning Isn’t Always a Happy Ending

UnHappyEnding1Sometimes I suspect I’m not truly American, because I harbor a dark secret. Unlike most of my countryfolk, I don’t much care for the neat, syrupy, happy ending. It just doesn’t do it for me. Oh, sure, we all need some escapism. Life can be awful, and in reality every life is a tragedy because at some point we all die. We need some heroes-win-good-folks-prevail stories to pacify our fears and anxieties in a world where, unfortunately, the good folks don’t usually win, and aren’t always happy.

But does winning always mean the ending is happy? Or can we win the day but lose everything that made us who we are, and sacrifice our happiness?

I don’t believe that a happy ending always means that the good folks win, or end up super happy about winning. For me, an ending can be happy even and especially if the heroes don’t hook up, if the world is still cracked and a little evil when the last of the evil is purged. These stories of folks carrying on even after evil is vanquished, tarnished and messed through the act of fighting, is a much more realistic “happy” or “winning” ending to me.

Bombed-CityI look at the aftermath of great wars, like World War II where whole cities were bombed out, Britain was in ruin, Japan was upended, Germany was occupied, and an entire continent had to dig itself out of the rubble, and the horror, of what was done to them and what they did to others, and carry on. A burgeoning genocidal empire had been thwarted, but it came at a great cost.

Writing stories where we forget about that cost, or gloss it over, ring very hollow for me. There is something deeply unsatisfying about pretending that visiting violence and death upon our foes won’t change us in some way. We watch endless rounds of violence delivered to “bad guys” on the screen and on the page, but hear very little about how turning oneself into a person capable of such violence can make a true happy ending nigh impossible. We end these stories before we have to see the aftermath, before we explore what happens next.

I tend to get a bad rap for my endings, but the reality is that the protagonists tend to get what they want. They meet their goals. They win in the technical sense, but have been so changed by events, having been so ground down, that the overall feeling one has at the end is that we haven’t won something so much as we’ve endured it.

Walk-Away-DevestationOne of my British colleagues noted that for them, a “happy” ending is actually an ending where everyone is still alive at the end. And you know what? If everyone is still alive at the end, what more could you ask for?

Happiness means you carry on. Happiness means you’re still alive to heal yourself, possibly, and maybe help repair the broken world you saved. But it doesn’t mean that life is OK. Or that the work is over. In truth, the ending, whatever it is, means that the work of picking up the pieces after the violence and horror of the events of the story has just begun.

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8 Comments

  1. […] 10/13: The Cake is a Lie: Why Happy Endings Don’t Always Mean Winning;Fantasy Faction […]

  2. Yora says:

    I am quite fond of happy endings in which the heroes still lose. Sometimes being defeated is actually an opportunity to get out of a big mess.

  3. I have conflicted feelings about this post, perhaps because at the end of it I’m not sure how we each of us define ‘happy’ endings. Some examples might have been good.

    For example, I don’t like Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series – well actually I loved it, until it ended. Most people were still alive, and they won, and a nice guy was king – but it made no damn difference. Things were going to go on exactly as they always were. It made me feel like the books made no progress. What was the point?

    On the other hand, characters dying makes me sad, but won’t necessarily make me unhappy with the ending.

    Also, if the characters are unchanged by their experiences, I feel that the story is probably missing something important…

  4. Jon R. says:

    Nicely put. Amumu main? Had no idea you played.

  5. Oh, THANK you for that. I sometimes think that my propensity for asking,”yes but WHOSE happy ending and at whose expense?” makes me deeply weird in htis world that demands a neat happy conclusion wrapped up with a pretty bow on top…

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more. I love your statement: “But does winning always mean the ending is happy? Or can we win the day but lose everything that made us who we are, and sacrifice our happiness?” I think if a lot of people endured what the characters in a story go through, they would be so changed from who they were at the beginning of their venture, that they would not really even resemble the same person.

    I love character arcs that are built really well. If you look at The Walking Dead; when they started out, they were different than they are now. They were people with lives and families and they were pretty normal (as far as normal is concerned). Now if you look at them, they are so much different than that. They’ve lived through death, starvation, near-death-experiences, losing loved once, fighting a nightmarish monster to the point that a lot of them seem to be losing their humanity. Sure, they are alive, and for that we are happy, but they aren’t even the same person they were when they started out. At points in the story it seems the REAL struggle for them is to hang on to the last shreds of their humanity. I know the characters rely on each other for more than protection and safety; they rely on one another to tether them to reality and to their humanity.

    I like believable stories, and just because you write fantasy or science fiction doesn’t give you a green card to suspend our belief on everything. No matter if a person is on a star ship billions of light years away, or on an alien planet fighting a dragon army, they are going to have the same reactions and they are going to have the same problems to face.

    Great post!

  7. Sim says:

    I have often wondered if America ever really got over the Hays act.
    Happy, tidy endings in Hollywood abound and I believe they shape current stories and become self perpetuating. Europe is more accepting of tales of loss and woe where the good guy doesn’t always have to win or even survive.

  8. Erica says:

    I like endings that are satisfying on a personal level for the characters involved, but that doesn’t mean that things are wonderful, necessarily, at a societal level. Nor does it mean they’ve gotten everything they wanted. They represent a breathing space, or a satisfactory ending from the pov of a particular character or characters, but of course, history is never over. The reward for victory is that one’s society goes on, or a new one is built, and it will develop new problems.

    I think readers tend to like stories that are personally satisfying, at the snapshot level at least, because when we read we want a bit of narrative justice, even if it doesn’t always exist in the real world. Yes, we all know real life tends to be unfair and to suck, but I know I personally like to escape from that when I read.

    But it can be cool to read series where new problems arise from old, and the characters themselves (or subsequent ones) have to deal with the unresolved issues from the previous story. I just hate it when protagonists die as a rule. But I didn’t think I was necessarily typical, even for an American. I thought grimdark and pessimism were the expected norm in epic fantasy on both sides of the ocean now, thanks to the success of ASoIaF.

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