The critics are, of course, quite right. Happy endings do not happen in reality. And neither do sad endings. In fact, endings of any kind are a totally artificial construct. My personal story didn’t begin with my conception; my conception was simply an event in the story of my parents, and my story is an integral part of that. Nor will it end at my death. What I’ve made (children, garden, quilts, books) will carry on after me.
Whenever we write and whatever we write, we impose an artificial structure on reality. We choose a point and call that the beginning. And we choose another point and call that the end.
In the continuing story that was the life of my fictional character Stephen Redepenning, I could have chosen a different place to start and to stop. I could, perhaps, have started with the intrepid young adventurer boarding a ship for Canada. I could have followed with the adventure of his life as he found a place in the wilderness, entered into a trade agreement with locals that he sealed by marrying one of their daughters, and built his own small fur trapping empire. I could have ended as he stood in the smoking ruins of his log cabin, looking at the graves of his wife and children and swearing vengeance on their murderers.
It might have been a good story. But it isn’t the part of his life that I chose to tell.
I like stories that end on an upward trajectory, not a downward trajectory. If I like the protagonists, I want them to have hope. I want to feel that they have a chance for a happy future. To me, the end of the story is more about the writer giving me food for what happens next. In my imagination, the story continues.
(And, if I don’t like the protagonists, I have no objection to someone else in the story having the happy ending. Hamlet’s tragedy turned out rather well for Fortinbras.)
The romance novel’s ‘happily ever after’ is not about perfect resolution of all problems; it’s about convincing the reader that the protagonists will support each other through whatever problems arise. Romeo and Juliet was always going to be a tragedy, not because the lovers died, but because of the type of character that Romeo was. If they’d lived, he would have been on to the next hot chick within a month or two.
But Bassanio and Portia, in the Merchant of Venice, face trials together and win through, and we’re confident that they’ll be able to continue to do so.
I met my PRH at a prayer meeting nearly 46 years ago. Our lives together have hit rough patches here and there, with internal and external trials. But facing them as a couple has made us stronger. Whatever happens in the years left to us, we’ll cope. Now that’s a happy ending.