On Perfect Endings
May 27, 2011 § 18 Comments
I’m actually using the term ‘perfect ending’ in a negative way. By this I mean the type of ending where the long-suffering protagonist not only gets her dream but actually she gets everything she could possibly dream of. Everything. EVERYTHING.
For example. Let’s spin a romance. Hettie Bags is a lowly office worker who dreams of meeting the perfect man. Mr. Right. He’ll be charming, gorgeous, successful, well-off, loyal, loving, caring and a great husband and father. He’ll be confident and socially adept as well as sweet and generous with presents. He can fix a computer, put up a shelf, weed the garden, wash the dishes and cook the dinners with ease, and he’ll probably do all these things all the time.
Most people would have to accept that Mr. Right will come with fewer of these attributes, and importantly they’ll also have to accept that it’s okay if he does. More than okay. Mr. Right doesn’t have to be perfect.
But not Hettie Bags. She’ll proceed through a series of obstacles which will test her faith and resilience and ingenuity and then at the end she will get Mr. Right. And he’ll be perfect. Not just charming but devastatingly charming. Not just gorgeous but Apollo in mortal form. Not just well-off but fabulously rich. It may have seemed like he was an arrogant, heartless bastard in a business suit, but actually he’s a complete darling. Really. Off they go into the sunset, not riding a white horse but instead tucked up snugly in a private jet. Hettie Bags gets her dream, magnified beyond all notions of the probable.
We could try to get round the unutterable, withering crapness of this by giving Hettie Bags an apparently unconquerable prejudice towards snappily-suited business professionals with private jets, but her personal journey to overcoming her aversion to impossible wealth wouldn’t really cut it. It’s not a believable drawback to have to put with being rich.
This is the sort of book I can’t stand. I like uplifting, but this type of tale is absurd. If a book draws to a close that requires no sacrifices on the part of the protagonist, no losses of any kind, nor even any compromises, then for me it completely fails. I can’t even begin to believe in it.
I do like happy endings, the sort where most things turn out more or less well for most people. The ultimate goals are achieved, and most people get to go home and tend the cabbage beds. Perfect endings, though, are intolerable. They don’t mesh with any vision of reality, so as a reader it’s impossible to connect with them. When Lizzie Bennet finally accepted Mr. Darcy’s proposal, she certainly ended up with a fabulously rich, important, intelligent, good-hearted, good-looking husband, but he was also essentially still a proud bastard with some insufferable family connections. And in those days, becoming the chatelaine of a house like Pemberley was a demanding, full-time job for which riches and comfort may or may not have wholly made up. It’s a happy ending veering towards the perfect but it has enough drawbacks to be believable. It’s a sort of wish-fulfilment story without being blind to the inevitable fact that everything has a downside.
Drawbacks are necessary because they’re always there. Nothing in life is perfect. We all have to compromise, take the negatives with the positives and find ways to focus on the things that make us happy. If we aren’t willing to do that, we don’t deserve to expect anybody to take us as we are, imperfections and all. I think the species of fiction that offers the perfect-ending-without-drawback is even a bit dangerous; I know a few people who seem to expect life to turn out that way – happiness isn’t true happiness unless your life is completely perfect – and who are therefore permanently miserable. Stories like this feed expectations that you can reasonably expect to have everything, and until you do your life isn’t really worth much.
In place of Hettie Bags’s story, I’d rather read about someone convinced she wants a rich husband, but who ultimately turns down that opportunity in favour of the untidy but earnest and hard-working cabbage farmer. Or the shy but loyal computer technician. That would be a far more believable story because it offers sacrifices as well as gains, and it charts the growth of the main character.
Or better yet, Hettie will ride off into the sunset with the jet-setting business guy, only to find he actually is a heartless bastard after all. Or all his apparent wealth is a lie, and he’s really a charlatan. Or a criminal. Or all of those things. Tragic, but infinitely more believable.
It’s possibly these sorts of opinions that make it quite hard for me to write happy endings, let alone perfect ones. Much as I love levity, I find it surprisingly tricky to draw a story to a comfortably jolly close. I always start veering sharply in the direction of tragedy. It’s possible that writing whatever comes out of one’s muddled brain is an interesting, if disarmingly informative, way of discovering some home truths about oneself. If one daren’t really expect to encounter happy endings in real life, it’s hard to believe in them when writing. I suppose this is rather the opposite of the attitude that might lead a person to write perfect endings. I’m hoping my opinion of the likelihood of happy will change in time, but for now it seems my poor characters are in for a beating every time.
What’s your opinion of a ‘good’ ending? I suppose I’d ideally aim for a balance. The ending must resolve the major problems of the book, and unless one is writing a full-blown tragedy (which I don’t wish to do) then many/most of those resolutions should be essentially satisfactory, with some particularly good outcomes. But there must also be losses. Not everyone can have everything they’d hoped for; that doesn’t work. You’ve got to send some characters home unhappy in order to produce a story that readers can really believe in.