Monday, July 27, 2009

Happied, and Why It's Evil

There's one thing that fairy tales have that ticks me off:

And they lived happily ever after. The End.

Seriously, who lives happily ever after? Even if you and your prince are both saints, and your children are saints, and your neighbors and friends and family and politicians and everyone you come in contact with are saints, you won't live happily ever after. If nothing else, the toilet will back up and flood all over the wall to wall carpet. Or something.

I don't object to happily most of the time ever after. That's something achievable for ordinary mortals. (And stories about unordinary mortals- people who never make mistakes or lost their temper or ever act stupid- are really, really boring. Super powers, okay. Super saints, not.)

But when a happy ending is forced on a bunch of hapless, unsuspecting characters, I get mad. The whole point of fiction is to simulate real life so that we can learn a little more about all the things that don't make sense. Unreal happy endings cancel that out.

Case in point: Jacob Black, from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. In the first three books, he is Bella Swan's best friend, guardian while Edward is absent, and then loyal I'll-be-here-when-he-isn't boyfriend. In other words, he loves Bella, and can't make himself stop even as he sees her making choices that will make them mortal enemies. At one point he walks around in a park and tries to force himself to fall in love with any- he doesn't care which- of the girls he sees there. Much angst is spent on the misery he foresees for himself. And the reader is miserable with him, because Jacob is a really sweet guy, deserves better, and isn't going to get it- in part because he's so good and great and all-round awesome. (I like Jacob better than Edward. Go figure.) So the reader is all upset, possibly crying, and praying that the author manages to bring a happy ending out of this mess, even though they personally can't see how it's possible without violating everything that makes Jacob, well, Jacob. And that's sad, but real life works that way and so good fiction does too.

Except that some of those prayers must have hit the mark, because Stephenie Meyer does, right before the end, pull out a happy ending. And like I said, she violated what made Jacob Jacob: his complete, unwavering loyalty and commitment to stick it out to the end. He falls out of love with Bella like it never happened, impresses with a newborn, and snap bang, all that grief he's been angsting over doesn't have to happen. I can see why Stephenie Meyer did it. Sometimes you meet a character in your writing so wonderful it's hard to let them suffer. I used to do the same thing for all my main characters. (Now I stray on the other side of the line. I kill all my main characters off and have a state funeral for them in the epilogue. So far they've died of blood loss, freezing to death, explosion, and several inventive variations of self-sacrifice. I'm working on that.) But I still feel like Jacob Black- the real Jacob Black- died when Bella did, and the Jacob you see after that is just a place holder to keep you from noticing. I really felt, reading the book, that Jacob Black should have stood up and said something like "Help! Help! I'm being happied!"

(Don't get me wrong. I like happy endings. But only genuine happy endings. If Stephenie Meyer had followed the course she set for Jacob- the course of getting his big heart trampled and smashed and really and truly broken- I wouldn't have liked it much, but it would have felt real. And then if she had wanted to come back in the epilogue and show Jacob in five or ten or twenty years- that not-aging thing is pretty convenient- finally pulling himself out of his grief and picking up the pieces of his life and moving on and meeting a nice girl- just meeting her, not falling in love, because this is the epilogue, not another book- that would have been real too and I would have been happy for him and the future she was setting up for him.)

So the thing is, happy endings in of themselves are not evil. Happy endings that seem like they were grafted on from a different set of characters are. A happy ending is good. A sad ending that's genuine is better than a happy ending that isn't. And a genuine happy ending is best of all.
I can illustrate this best with another example from Stephenie Meyer.

Take The Host. (Someday I'm going to own my own copy, and what a happy day that will be, but until then, this is from memory.) Through the whole book, you become more and more emotionally invested not only in the narrator, but in all the main characters. And it seems impossible for there to be a happy ending for anyone without making everyone else unhappy. (And believe me, I was trying to think of one while I read.) Wanderer's strict sense of ethics makes that even harder, because even if everyone else is satisfied, she's not going to be happy unless she thinks that she's done the right thing and no one is being made unhappy by her happiness. (I like Wanderer a lot better than Bella, too. Refusing to conform, that's me.) So through the whole book you're getting ready to have a good cry after you read the last page, and then send some hate mail to the author for somehow not making it all better.

And then Stephenie Meyer pulls one of the best happy endings I've ever read out of the hat. Everyone is with whoever they want to be with. (I better not try to name them or I'll embarrass myself by doing something like mixing up Ian and Jared.) And no one is hurt in the process. And everyone is still the same person they were, and not a cardboard stand in. And there's even a little bit of sadness with the happiness- because, like I said, it's impossible to be completely happy and still human- to make the happiness even sweeter. (I'm talking about Sunny here.)

So in wrapping up, if you haven't read The Host, go do it right now! I mean it! And if you ever want to write a story, and I can't imagine living without writing although most of my friends seem to manage it, remember that being happied won't make your characters- or your readers- happy. And even if you mess up on one project, you can outdo yourself on another.

(I would like to say that I want to write like Stephenie Meyer, but that would be a lie. I want to write like myself, and I want to write better every time I sit down at the keyboard or pick up a pen. But I will say that I experienced some writing envy when I read The Host.)

1 comment:

  1. I agree on almost every point there. You know who didn't get a happy ending? Leah! She was just left hanging! Poor thing . . . she deserved better.

    But yeah, the whole Jacob/baby thing just felt like a deux ex machina (or whatver that's called) and I didn't like it.

    The Host . . . it's been a while. I'll have to go re-read it!