In defense of unhappy endings

i09 just ran an article  about “Why all stories should end happily” and in the argument the author essentially says that fiction stories, because they are fiction, and therefore not real, should end happily rather than realistically.

Inglis-Arkell argues that most stories, especially science fiction/fantasy need to have happy endings because nobody wants to read about the bad shit that happens to everyone in everyday life and that bad shit is predictable. She argues that good stories are about the little guy going up against impossible odds and that the only reason we like underdog stories is because the underdog wins.

The revolutionary war was a group of people going up against an empire. They won. Sort of. The epilogue to that story is a country that employed the use of slavery, split for a time during a civil war, and now slips into an economic and educational decline more on par with that of a third world nation.  What started as a revolution against a monarchy has now become enslaved to a plutocracy ruled by a wealthy corporate elite and governed by a theocratic backwater that refuses to place human dignity above religious hubris.

People are complex animals. There is a give and take, a dark side to everything we do. “Winning” doesn’t always mean winning and losing isn’t always what makes a good story. But losing is what makes things believable.

Firefly, arguably one of the best Science Fiction shows on recent TV, centered around a group of characters who at one time fought in a civil war… and lost. The characters of Firefly would have been much less sympathetic had the Browncoats won the war.  We love the underdogs. But we love the underdogs more, the more they try and fail because failure gives characters depth.  We learn the most from our mistakes.

I’m not saying that every story has to have characters that constantly try and fail at life, but it makes them much more entertaining to watch the more they struggle. The moment the leading man gets the girl, the moment that rebellion gets what they want, the moment that advertising agency splits with the corporation and does their own thing, that’s the moment the story jumps the shark. It is the baby episode, the “very special” episode.

People are boring as shit when they are happy. It also makes them less easy to relate to because deep down, we all know that the princess is always in the next castle and the cake is ultimately a lie.

Now, I can understand the argument against realism. That rag tag group of five rebels should get something. There always has to be a payoff, a carrot to keep the audience engaged. But, unless they are complete idiots, they know better than to actually try and lead a war against impossible odds. That is just plain bad military planning and they should pay a price for their foolishness.

They might win the war decisively enough to change the world a little, but half of them will die in the end, perhaps even questioning why they did it. The guy might get the girl, but only after he learns that there is a lot more sacrifice than he bargained for in order to do it. And what happens after he gets her? After actually living with the hair curlers and snoring for 10 years, is she really the same princess he rescued?

Interesting stories are not always realistic. They are filled with bad decisions, overzealous expectations and various degrees of hyperbole to keep things entertaining. But to make every story end happily, to make ever guy get his girl is just plain naive and I think it insults the audience.

Life is complicated. The princess grows into a haggard queen, eating bonbons while the hero grows old and develops a limp from that injury he got when he was younger. The dragon always has eggs because life finds a way (that dragon had a family too, you know.) Friendships turn stale and grow apart.

In the end, the characters have to ask themselves if it was all worth it. The answer will probably fall somewhere between “not as bad as I feared” and “not as great as I hoped for.” If the characters are smart, they’ll learn to take what they can get.

People change. They grow up. Stories should grow up as well.