Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
January 2013

On Happy Endings and Happy Families

When I was studying German Literature in graduate school, I got to read a variety of novels with less than happy endings. The unhappy ending was clearly the way to literary fame and admiration, as far as I could tell. You may even be wondering if there are any German novels with happy endings. Well, yes, in fact there are, though very few of them are assigned reading in graduate school. One of the grad students at Princeton was well known for giving his opinion on whether the novels we read were a "good read," and this included a happy ending. Not many novels were a "good read" by this standard, but I remember how many other grad students mocked this student subtly, as if he had plebian tastes. Anyone who wants a happy ending is surely a plebe.

Fast forward about ten years, and I got the notes from my editor on The Princess and the Hound. One of the things she insisted on for that novel and for its sequel, The Princess and the Bear, was a happy ending. Specifically, she wanted a wedding and a firm commitment of love from the two main leads. Also, the possibility that they could live together as a happily married couple once the last page was turned and the novel was over.

Initially, I was really unhappy with this prescription. Of course, my editor couldn't "force" me to change the ending of my book. I knew that. She knew that. Nonetheless, she offered this suggestion to me as her best advice to make my readers happy, and therefore ready to buy my next book, whether or not that book was a continuation of this series. I tossed and turned over this decision. Ultimately, I figured out a way to write an ending that was happy, with some provisos that satisfied my German literary sensibility.

The problem, as I saw it, was that there were so many different ways to have an unhappy ending that could surprise the reader. Whereas a happy ending felt to me like it was so obvious, and the reader was going to guess right off how I was going to get to it every step of the way, and therefore the book would feel like hack work and no one would ever imagine that I was a literary genius, which is, of course, the only reason a graduate student in German literature would ever deign to stop reading Goethe and Thomas Mann and try to write her own books.

If that sounds a lot like Tolstoy's famous maxim that "every happy family is happy in the same way, but every unhappy family is unhappy in a different way," well, let's just say that German literature and Russian literature have a lot in common. But Tolstoy's maxim is one of those things that as a teacher of writing I find horribly crippling to writers. The first thing writers tend to do to make a character "interesting" is to give her a dysfunctional family. Abuse makes people interesting. Let's see, what kind of abuse has been heaped on her? That will make readers feel sorry for her. And by the way, let's turn it up a notch. Really, really, terrible abuse will make readers feel even more sorry for her, and therefore be more invested in the story.

Well, yes, abuse will make readers feel sorry for your character. It may also lead your readers to close your book and never open it again because it is simply too upsetting to read. And there is also the danger that you may end up writing a story that feels like a lot of other stories about abuse, especially if it isn't part of your own life. And even if it is something that you have experienced yourself, you run the danger of making the reader feel as if your character is "just another" abused character.

Of course I'm not going to try to tell you what to do with your novel when I haven't read it, but just think carefully about your choices here. Are you assuming that a character with a dysfunctional family is automatically more interesting than a character who grows up in a happy family? Are you making sure that this family is depicted in a well-rounded way, even if there is abuse? Are there good things and bad things depicted? Because even if you have an unhappy Tolstoy family, it won't be all bad. It won't be constant abuse and invectives. Probably. There may be exceptions to this rule, but if all you depict about the family is the abuse, you are going to end up writing flatter characters, and flat characters aren't ones readers want to read about.

If you want to write about a dysfunctional family, then be careful that your unhappy family is not the same as every other unhappy family. To me, the good advice in Tolstoy's writing is that you need to make sure that your character's family is different from any other character's family anywhere. Write about moments that are so sharp and clear, so vivid and touching, that the reader will feel part of the family, and will believe that your world is more real than the real world. Make sure that this dysfunctional family has great moments as well as terrible ones. I sometimes wonder if what Tolstoy really meant was that all families have unhappy times, because that is true. And if we write about a family that only has happy times then we fall into the same trap of writing a flat family, rather than a real one that feels as if it lives and breathes.

But you do not have to write about a dysfunctional family. There is a bit of an attitude these days that all families are dysfunctional, and I don't believe that is true. There are parents who remain married and in love with each other all their lives. There are children who are lucky enough to be raised in those families, who have enough money and who don't cheat at school or have sex before they are married or who never try drugs.

You may think that sounds unrealistic or simply boring, depending on your own experiences. You may think that it sounds as dysfunctional as any family you've ever heard of. I suppose there are different kinds of dysfunction, but in my mind, a dysfunctional family is one that doesn't work as a family, that is broken in some way, missing some vital piece. To me, a family where the parents give love and support is functional, even if there are other problems. And there are always problems. A family that has no problems is unrealistic and flat. But there are a whole lot of problems that can be dealt with under an umbrella of a functioning family.

In YA (young adult) and MG (middle grade) books, there are very often dysfunctional families. One of the reasons for this is quite a simple one: it is easier to write a story in which child characters become the heroes when the adults are absent. Because if adults are around and functional, they will often be stepping in to help the children avoid making the hard decisions. Or at least, that is the way that many people imagine that functional parents ought to act. I'm not sure it's entirely true, but there is probably some blunting of horrible choices that would happen with good, solid, present parents. Maybe. In non-speculative fiction.

Another simple reason for missing or useless parents is reality. I frequently have parents complain to me that all fiction for young readers has divorced parents in it. Once a woman complained to me who was raising step-children of her divorced husband. It startled me that she seemed to think that books for young readers should hide the reality that many children face (her own children, in fact), but she seemed to think it would be more comforting to have books in which no really bad things happened to the vulnerable child characters and in which their parents protected them.

Well, that is the kind of happy family writing that Tolstoy was probably complaining about. Stories aren't supposed to be comforting, at least not throughout. I watched a movie once recently that my mother had recommended to me as "wholesome." This sort of description always leads me to roll my eyes a little, but I sat down and watched the movie for the sake of my mother. Not everyone in my family disliked it, but to me it felt as if the writer had been told a long list of things which the characters in the movie could not do (because they were bad) and experiences they could not face (because that would be too cruel). And we were left with a movie about characters making all the right choices in a vacuum of a world where nothing really bad ever happened. It had a happy ending, all right, but what kind of happy ending is it, really, when there was never any threat of unhappiness to begin with? Or the level of unhappiness seemed to be something like not getting breakfast made for you before you went to school one morning because your mother slept in. Oh, the horror!

Clearly, this is the sort of writing that many people are reacting against when they choose to write about dysfunctional families. But you can write about functional families (Tolstoy's so-called "happy families") who are still facing terrible problems, either in a speculative world or a realistic one. A loving, happy family can face disability. They can face a child with mental illness or disease. They can face loss of a job. Or a grandparent moving in. Or discovering bones in the backyard. Or different views politically. Or the discovery of magic. Or any other problem you can imagine. Functional families deal with problems every day. They may become dysfunctional for a time. Or they may not. There are lots of stories to be told either way. It's a mistake to think that either one or the other is the right way. Depending on your own experience, you may choose to write one way or the other to target readers and to satisfy your own sense of "reality."

Believing that an unhappy ending leaves you more creative room than a happy ending is just as much a mistake as a writer as it is to think that happy families are less interesting than unhappy ones. It is true that when a character wants a particular thing, and the whole novel is about that character trying to get it, it seems very obvious that letting the character get that thing feels like the easy ending. Whereas if the character doesn't get that thing, then the character's life opens up to so many other directions, so many other things he could want and head off to write another story in the reader's own mind.

But seeing an ending as that black and white is just silly. Just because your character gets what he wants, that doesn't mean that he will never want anything again. It doesn't mean that getting what he wants is going to make him happy, either. It may or it may not. Getting what you want may turn out to be the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Or it may simply mean that you have a solid foundation on which to start facing the rest of your life, which will presumably continue to have problems in it.

Because I tend to write fantasy with elements of romance, I often feel like I have to do a double happy ending. On the one hand, I need to have a successful resolution of the fantasy plot, which means that the main characters need to have mastered (to some degree) their magic and to have either defeated the villain or solved the main problem which is threatening their world. But they also need to declare their love for each other and to have a reasonable expectation that they will be able to have a life together.

In my original version of The Princess and the Bear, I left the hound in hound form at the end. In fact, I wrote an entire wedding scene with the hound in a white gown, marrying the now-human bear. I felt that this was a suitably balanced ending which made the main characters really have to deal with the serious after-effect of using magic to save the world. They would still try to be happy together, but it would be difficult considering their different forms. The Princess and the Hound had a similarly strange ending originally, though there was no wedding at all there.

Ha! I cringe a little imagining what readers would have thought, reading that ending. Not just a little weird, possibly a bit creepy, as well.

So I'm glad that the editor talked me into making the ending a little happier. Why? Because happy endings make for happy readers. Happy readers buy the next book in a series. This may sound like a mercenary reason and yes, it is. But I am a commercial writer, not just a literary one. I need book sales to continue to sell books and to continue to work as a writer. Is that crass? Maybe. It's a reality for most writers. Despite what it looks like on Castle, a show I love and also love to laugh at, writers are not mostly millionaires. Just because you sell a book or a series does not mean you are set for life. You won't have launch parties with models and people dressed up fancily like a movie premier. Maybe I should write an article on the economics of making a living in the business, focusing on the cents per book sold that most writers earn, and especially ones sold in Scholastic Book Fairs.

But there are other reasons for writing a happy ending that have nothing to do with the commercial side of writing. A happy ending is indeed a gift to your readers. It doesn't have to be a gift grudgingly given. It doesn't have to feel like a gift that you bought to exacting specifications. In fact, there are many, many kinds of happy endings for different characters and different plots. I urge you not to fall prey to the idea that you can't write well if your character -- or your reader -- has what she wants. If your characters are as unique as you can possibly make them, their happy ending should be just as unique. And nowhere is this more true than in romance, which has the unfortunate reputation (often deserved) of being the most formulaic of all the genres.

I say this because what I find romantic is often not what other people find romantic. At all. My husband was talking to me the other day about what makes him crazy that writers do. He said that he hated it especially when the villain kidnaps a wife or a child in order to force a good man to do terrible things, as if he will care more about the life of this one person he loves than a hundred thousand other people. My husband looked at me and my children and told us that he would never be manipulated in that way, no matter how much he loved us. To me, it was a very romantic moment. I find logic romantic. I have told my husband enough times now that he remembers that I don't like flowers or chocolate as gifts because I find them to be too one-size-fits-all. Sometimes what I want as a gift is a homemade card. Sometimes what I want is the gift of nothing because I don't feel up to a celebration. Sometimes what I want is something specific that I say that I want. I find it romantic when people listen to me. But I am well aware of the fact that other women would find my ideas of romance odd, to say the least.

What makes me happy as a person isn't what is going to make anyone else happy. And that is true of every character you are ever going to write. Your character had better be so unique and so real that your readers will baulk at the wrong happy ending for that character. Tacking on what would be a happy ending for another book isn't going to work. You have to find the right happy ending for your world and your character. I am not sure that there is only one happy ending possible, even for the most vivid of books and the most unique of characters, but a happy ending is not a cop out. It isn't a crass commercial pandering to the masses. Or it doesn't have to be. Work to make sure that your reader has some satisfaction, some pleasure in the ending, just as you would work to woo the love of your life. If you are smart, you will realize that it will take a lot of work to win her over, and that being happy isn't uninteresting at all.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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